What if the Ten Spies Had TOO Much Faith?

When I was young, we sang a little chorus in Sunday School. The lyrics went like this:

Twelve men went to spy out Canaan,
(Ten were bad and two were good)
What do you think they saw in Canaan?
(Ten were bad and two were good)
Some saw giants, big and tall!
Some saw grapes in clusters fall,
Some saw God was in it all.
(Ten were bad and two were good)

It was a fun song, and I think it helped teach us something from the Bible— particularly Numbers chapter 13. Still, when the song says that 10 were bad spies and two were good spies, I think it begs the question, “In what way were the 10 bad?”

First of all they were all pretty competent spies. They went into the land, did surveillance, and came back out and gave a fairly accurate picture of the land and its inhabitants. In that sense they were good.

Second, they were probably considered generally good people anyway. They were part of the leadership of their respective tribes. Of course being recognized as a leader doesn’t mean that one is good (far from it). However, Moses probably chose these leaders. Moses had a tendency to be a bit of a micro-manager, after all.

Third, the things they did wrong were not necessarily evidence of true “badness.” At first blush, the main bad thing they did was confuse the purpose of their mission. For Joshua and Caleb, they  understood their mission as determining HOW to enter the land. The same understanding was held by the spies years later in entering the land of Canaan via the Jordan River. For the ten spies, it seems as if their understanding of their mission was to determine IF the people should enter the land, rather than how. (Although I will question that view later.) The other thing is that they did their own interpretation of their findings. The passage described the spies as “giving a bad report” (a slander) to the people.  They interpreted their findings and then gave the findings a certain… spin… based on their interpretation. Arguably, that makes the ten spies bad in their profession… however, Joshua and Caleb also gave an interpretation, or spin, to their findings. Additionally, since God sought leaders from among the tribes, it seems likely that a certain amount of discernment or interpretation was expected of them. Perhaps from a professional standpoint, they did generally did their job…

But there is a different interpretation.

What if the ten spies had TOO MUCH faith.  Or perhaps it would be better to say, too much of the wrong kind of faith. Consider their recent history.

  • The Israelites were helpless to leave Egypt, and God miraculously brought them out.
  • The Israelites were helpless trapped between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds, and God miraculously brought them to safety.
  • In the following months, the people of Israel complained about bitter water, lack of food, and lack of meat. In each occasion, God miraculously solved their problem.

In each case, Israel’s helplessness brought about God’s miraculous response. It is possible that these leaders picked up the pattern all too well. They come back and said, “The task is too big, the enemy is too strong. We are too weak. We can’t do it. We should go back to Egypt.” They expected Moses to come back an say. “God wiped out your enemy, go ahead and enter at your own leisure.” But God did not do things that way. As the figure below shows, God responded positively to grumbling and complaining about 50% of the time during the wilderness sojourn. Here He said, “Too bad. Wander around in the desert for decades.” At that point, it is obvious that the declaration of going back to Egypt was only a ruse. Once that ruse failed, they were all motivated to push forward into Canaan… and failure.

If this scenario is true, the spies were not bad people necessarily. They also were not bad because they lacked faith. Rather, they perhaps were bad because they had the wrong kind of faith.

About half the time God did what the people wanted, and half He didn’t.

The bad faith they had was a faith in themselves in knowing what God will do. They believed they had “figured God out.” If they whine and complain and act helpless, God would do what they wanted.

I rather like this interpretation, and it is certainly still a problem we have today. We still want to manipulate God—

  • Throwing around pleasant sounding but poorly grounded bumper sticker phrases like, “Let Go, and Let God” or “Expect a Miracle.”
  • Taking a Name it and Claim it attitude regarding life as if God is our servant rather than vice versa.
  • Grabbing promises that were given to other people and saying that they apply to us. (A strange form of thievery indeed).

There are a lot of books out there on the market that talk about how certain prayers, or certain prayers said the right way, or some other form of spiritual discipline has “power,” — meaning that God will answer the prayer positively when otherwise He might be of a mind to respond negatively A good faith is based on the object of our faith rather than presumptions about our own discernment. As such, the words of Caleb and Joshua seem a better faith. They stated that if they obey God, God has promised victory. This is certainly better than trying to presuming how God would give them victory, or trying to manipulate how.

At the same time, two of those who had explored the land, Joshua (son of Nun) and Caleb (son of Jephunneh), tore their clothes in despair. They said to the whole community of Israel, “The land we explored is very good.  If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. This is a land flowing with milk and honey! Don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. We will devour them like bread. They have no protection, and the Lord is with us. So don’t be afraid of them.”  Numbers 14:6-9

This same good faith is demonstrated in Daniel 3:16-18. The three knew God and His faithfulness, but did not presume how He would respond in a specific setting.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to explain these things to you.  If you throw us into the hot furnace, the God we serve can save us. And if he wants to, he can save us from your power. But even if God does not save us, we want you to know, King, that we refuse to serve your gods. We will not worship the gold idol you have set up.”

So maybe the children’s song is correct. Two spies had faith in God that led to obedience, and ten spies had faith in their ability to manipulate God. Indeed ten were bad and two were good.

Belief vs Doubt vs Disbelief III

42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Lif...
42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life according to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Русский: 42, Ответ на главный вопрос жизни в произведении Автостопом по галактике. Deutsch: 42, die Antwort auf die große Frage nach dem Leben, dem Universum und dem ganzen Rest, bezogen auf Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis von Douglas Adams. Italiano: 42, La risposta Fondamentale alla Domanda sulla Vita secondo la Guida galattica per gli autostoppisti. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Summarizing. Doubt is a necessary and healthy part of faith. Doubt is necessary because faith is necessary. Faith is necessary because we are finite and no knowledge or logic is, in itself, compelling. At some point in time we have to bridge the gap from “reasonable” to either belief or disbelief (at least in some things). Faith that is not empowered by doubt will not likely stand the test of intellectual or cultural challenge (if it would even be correct to call it faith). Loss of faith in God often comes when doubt is squelched instead of addressed openly.

A challenge here is obvious. If faith is necessary, even a common part of human existence, how can it be the determining eternal existence? One challenge is that we are dealing with faith on two levels… a logical level and a Biblical level. Biblical faith includes the logical level but goes further.

Faith, as a logical concept, is the necessary bridge between a reasonable idea and a personally compelling idea. Of course, faith has to have an object. One does not simply “have faith.” One must have faith in something. For example, one might consider using their credit card on an Internet purchasing site. There is clearly a risk of sharing information that can be abused with strangers. Yet there are reasons to trust the system as well. In the end, one must decide one side is compelling. This is faith. The object of that faith is belief in trusting or not trusting a website for financial transactions. There is clearly an active component to faith. Faith gives direction.

So far then,

  •      Faith is universal. It bridges reasonable and compelling
  •      Faith, in its essence, is volitional rather than cognitive
  •      Faith must have an object.
  •      Faith demonstrates itself in action.

This is logical faith. Biblical faith is built on it, but…

  •      The object of faith is trust in God

So Biblical faith is the reasonable (but not undeniable) conclusion that one can live a life trusting God, as God is revealed in History and the Bible.

One should never apologize for faith. Everyone has faith on one form or another. In “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams, we discover that the Ruler of the Universe, is a man in a shack who has no faith. He comes to essentially no conclusions about his own thoughts or sensory inputs. A very difficult way to live.

Faith in God has been found reasonable by lots of people throughout history. Faith that is unprepared by doubt to handle the rigors of opposing beliefs and arguments is a weak faith. Such a faith, perhaps, one might feel a bit apologetic about.

Religious leaders should never seek to instill that type of faith in its members.

Hard Soil

Jesus (in Matthew 13) described “hard soil”– hearts that are unreceptive to God’s message.  But one can’t assume that those hearts that are “hard soil” are all the same. Commonly those in this category can be looked as those who are invested in a different faith to the point that they reject a new faith.

Brian McLaren (“Finding Faith”, 1999, page 31) defined faith as “… a state of relative certainty about matters of ultimate concern sufficient to promote action.” This definition makes clear that atheism and other “non-religious” beliefs can still involve faith.  But faith can be divided into at least four categories.

-True versus False faith. One can have faith in something that is untrue. Strong faith does not necessarily make that faith true any more than a rejection of a belief makes it false.

-Good versus Bad faith. This designation is also from Brian McLaren… and has to do with how faith manifests itself. After all, if faith is a belief strong enough to promote action, faith is demonstrated by how it manifests itself through actions.  McLaren describes some characteristics of “good” faith and of “bad” faith. (The terms “good” and “bad” are to be interpreted on a human, practical level… not on a theological level.)

Bad Faith (some characteristics):   arrogant, unteachable, dishonest, apathetic, regressive.  In other words, faith that creates a bad, unloving, destructive individual is bad faith… even if the faith is true.

Good Faith (some characteristics):  humble, teachable, inquisitive, grateful, honest, active, tough, and relational.  Faith that generates a kind, loving, constructive individual is “good” faith… even if the faith is false.

The result is the development of 4 possible combinations.

The four choices are:

A.  True and Good Faith. This is the goal for a Christian. One hopes and should expect that the Christian faith should manifest itself in goodness (salt and light to the world).

B.  True and Bad Faith. Sometimes one has a strong Christian faith, but carnality has resulted in a Christian with a hateful, bitter, even violent behavior. This is very difficult to deal with. Jesus had more trouble from religious leaders who had true but bad faith than any other group.

C.  False and Bad Faith.  This is easy for Christians to understand. If one accepts a false faith, it is very easy for Christians to expect these individuals behaving in a recognizably bad way.

D.  True and Good Faith.  This is difficult for Christians. Because we recognize that we are unable to please God in our own ability, we tend to have trouble with those of a false faith who behave good. Yet, the term “good” here is defined in human, not divine terms.

Group A (good and true faith) is certainly the goal.  However, the other groups can be described as hard soils. How do we disciple those who have a true faith but demonstrates it in bad action?  How do we share true faith with those of false and bad faith. Do we attack the bad faith? Do we act surprised that a false faith leads to bad behavior?  And what about those people who (at least on a human level) are good as the outworking of a false faith? How do we share faith?

Much of our methods for evangelism target “good soil” or receptive people of weak faith. But Jesus targeted, at times, hard soil… particularly those of true but bad faith. Only God can change a heart, but God has made us part of his plan for change. What do we need to learn to work with hard soil?