I’ve always had kind of a subversive streak, which is why sometimes things crack me up in the Bible that aren’t meant to be funny.
Take Joshua 24:15—an iconic verse, stitched onto framed doilies and Instagrammed with hashtags across America: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites….But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (NIV).
That first clause always struck me as hilariously passive-aggressive. Joshua has just recited a litany of the ways God had won battles for Israel, noting in verse 13 that they were enjoying a sweet life they hadn’t earned. He implores them to reject the false gods and serve the Lord. But if this sweet life isn’t good enough for you, he seems to say, then survey your worthless gods and see if they’ll treat you better. But as for me and mine, we will serve the Lord.
In contemporary dramatic terms, this scene would end with Joshua dropping the mic and walking offstage.
But as I ponder some of the ministry-related turmoil swirling around these days, it’s dawning on me that perhaps Joshua wasn’t just being sarcastic. After all, none of his words in the preceding passages were light or whimsical. Rather, they displayed the urgency of a man whose time on earth was almost up. Leading the Israelites, he’d seen plenty of people who, at one time or another, acted like serving the Lord was…well, undesirable.
Which, let’s be honest, is totally understandable, especially if you’ve done paid ministry work for more than a few years. Even church jobs are still jobs. Sometimes the pay sucks, sometimes people are mean, sometimes management is incompetent.
I think Joshua knew that anyone serving Yahweh because of his miraculous victories would eventually be distracted by the next shiny idol to come along. He understood how the allure of the Next Big Thing can wreak havoc on our commitment. He recognized that perpetually keeping one’s options open and refusing to choose is, itself, a choice.
I resonate with this lesson. Don’t just serve the Lord because you were inspired by a conference or a TED talk. Count the cost, do your homework, and then serve him with eyes wide open. Serve God, knowing that much of the duration will be neither easy nor profitable. Serve God because you love and trust him with your life.
For those who tend to exist at the bottom of the organizational chart, this is an important lesson. But it’s also important for more prominent leaders. See, Joshua correctly understood that Israel’s real enemies weren’t foreign kings or nations—they were complacency and idolatry. He understood that the vision of those who call the shots can sometimes be distorted by power.
As leaders, we have to decide which principles are most important to us. Is it minimizing our debts and maximizing our assets? Or is it being generous with what we have and trusting God to meet our needs? Is it maintaining a united front, impervious to controversy? Or is it honestly grappling with dissenting perspectives in our midst? Is it taking a stand because we know God is on our side? Or is it, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, hoping that we are on God’s?
God has been faithful to us, a Covenant people. In our faithfulness, let us remember the altars of the past without being beholden to the status quo. Let us not fail to engage the hard work of evaluation and dialogue just because it’s easier to stay busy with More Important Work. Refusing to intentionally choose that work is itself a choice. And according to Joshua, it’s a bad one.