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Making The Best Of A Bad Decision

When You Choose The Second Best

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 12, 2006

Selected highlights from this sermon

Do you have the grasshopper complex—caught up in doubt, a distorted self-image, and double-mindedness? You’re not the first, nor will you be the last. Even after the miracles during the time of Moses, the people of Israel were afraid of the daunting tasks before them, and they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land. 

But God continued to show them kindness as they faced consequences for their error. And He will help us too, even after we’ve made a poor choice. He will still forgive, guide, provide, and instruct us.

When You Choose The Second Best

This is the second message in a series titled, “Making the Best of a Bad Decision.” There are many reasons why people make bad decisions. First of all, they sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate. That counts for a lot of bad decisions, doesn’t it? They don’t take the long-range view in mind. They simply say, “What seems convenient now? What is the shortcut? What are my desires telling me?” They don’t think of the long-term.

I think for example of a man who had an unhappy marriage and he decided to leave his wife and marry someone with whom he could be happy. After all, you only go through life once, and so he married his dream for happiness. A couple of months later, he unexpectedly and surprisingly died of a heart attack. I’ve often thought that if he had known that death awaited him, he might have just stuck it out a few more months. How often we sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.

We are also controlled by our past. You think of the number of people who were brought up with “failure” written across their foreheads, or so they think. They don’t realize that failure is addictive. It’s very important to know that. So they are haunted by the fact that they are a failure. I know a woman who said that whenever she filled out an application form for work there was something within her that said, “It won’t work out and you are going to fail.” People choose and make decisions to ensure that they will fail.

Another reason is fear. You are unable to embrace God and His will for your life because you are scared as to what God might do and what God might want to do through you. That is where Israel is in the thirteenth chapter in the book of Numbers, and that is the passage I want you to turn to today.

The twelve spies have gone into the land and two came back with a report. Joshua and Caleb said, “Let’s take the land,” and the other ten said, “No. We are too inferior to the enemies of the land.” And the congregation voted with the majority. Caleb, in verse 30, quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let’s go up at once.” Verse 31, “Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go against the people because they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the people a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land in which we went to spy it out is a land which devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are of great height. There we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim).’”

Now notice Numbers 13, verse 33, “And we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” It’s called the grasshopper complex. The grasshopper complex is turning away from a God-given challenge because of fear.

Let me give you some characteristics of the complex, just in case you might have it. One is a doubting heart. We see the walls and we don’t see God. They thought of many different reasons why they could not enter into the land. They found more reasons to say “No” than to say “Yes.” That’s the way some people are. They are very timid and unwilling to trust God in anything.

I once worked with a man who was so conservative that he believed that nothing should ever be done for the first time. He was very much controlled by, “We’ve never done it this way before.” “An unbelieving heart of unbelief,” God says in the book of Hebrews, and God was not amused as we shall see.

Secondly, they had a distorted self-image. This is a very good psychological insight. That’s why I emphasized it when I read it. The last part of the chapter says, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we looked in their sight, too. We saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and because we were like grasshoppers, that’s the way the people of the land are going to view us.” This has to do with a distorted self-image.

There is so much that is written about self-image. There is some that is good and some that is bad. There was a Christian leader who wrote some things about self-image, and he had many good things to say. He said one thing I didn’t agree with. He was talking about a beautiful, young, Swiss girl who had such a bad image she wouldn’t look into the mirror. But she was beautiful, and he helped her open her eyes and see how beautiful she was.

I smile because we need a theory of self-image that not only works for beautiful young women but for ugly, old men. We need a theory of self that even works for Phyllis Diller. Some of you may not know her because she is older. I remember she said that she was in a beauty salon one time for nine hours, can you believe that? She said, “That was just for an estimate.”

There is such a thing as biblical self-image, where you see yourself with God at your side. You see yourself in Christ and you say, “I don’t always have to fail. Through Christ I can do all things.” That is a biblical self-image. That is very, very important.

It’s interesting that the inhabitants of the land did not see them as grasshoppers. The inhabitants of the land were scared spitless. Thirty-eight years later when they enter the land the harlot Rahab says, “Where in the world have you Jews been all these years? Our hearts have melted for fear because of you.” But it is so easy to see the walls and to not see God. They saw themselves as defeated, therefore they were.

Could I throw this out? This could be a separate sermon sometime, but Satan is as strong as you believe him to be. If you think he is invincible, he is. Yet if you see him in light of God and God’s sovereignty, then you can take heart. Joshua said to the people, “Their protection is removed from them and we can do it.” But the others looked at the walls and the giants and said, “We can’t.” It’s the grasshopper complex.

Next, doublemindedness in the next chapter. They want to return to Egypt. “Let’s get a leader together and let’s go back.” They can’t make up their minds. And then they desired security. They said, “We would rather live in the desert than to take the risk of losing in on entering the land.” Parenthetically, I don’t think there is anyone whom God mightily uses but that he is a person whom God gives the grace and the strength to take some risk, humanly speaking. God wants us to undertake a job that is so big that if He doesn’t undertake it, it will be taken under. God says, “I want you to do something unique because I am your power.” That is the grasshopper complex. They made a terrible, terrible decision in that they said “no” to the plan of God.

Well, what happens after this? You know that the title of this message is, “When You Choose the Second Best.” Maybe this wasn’t even the second best. Maybe it was the third best or the fourth best, I don’t know. It was the only decision they could make—either be obedient or disobedient. And so we discover that they were disobedient. That was Israel’s decision.

What is God’s decision? God’s decision is to discipline them. You’ll notice first of all in the text it says in verse 11 that God threatens to wipe them off the map. He says in chapter 14, verse 12, “I will strike them with a pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you Moses a greater nation then they.” God was testing Moses. I don’t believe that God intended to test him. In fact, I even question whether or not He could because He had made some promises to these people.

So Moses prays a marvelous prayer. He says, “God, if you do that you are not going to look good to the heathen. The heathen are going to say, ‘He brought them out but He can’t bring them in.’ It makes you look bad.” Did you know that the fortunes of God are in some sense tied with us? People make up their mind about God by the way in which we live and conduct ourselves. So Moses says, “Don’t do that, God.”

God responds and says, “Okay I won’t wipe them out. But I will discipline them.” He says in verse 21, “But truly, as I live and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, none of these shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.” God says, “All of you people who didn’t enter into the land, you’re going to die.” God was disciplining them.

This is also a long subject, but all sin has some immediate discipline and judgment—all the time. Sometimes we observe it and sometimes we don’t because it might be minor. Possibly we confess our sins and we make things right, but all sin has some immediate judgment. And then if you don’t take care of it, you have some future judgments, and the judgments keep accumulating. God couldn’t simply say, “Well, all right let’s forget it.” No, no, no. It was a big decision and huge disobedience. So God says, “I am going to discipline you.”

And then He also allows them to be defeated. Please take your Bibles and look now at verse 39. We won’t have time to read it now but read it on your own. The text tells us that afterwards when Moses tells them that God’s presence is going to be taken from them and they are going to die in the desert, they say, “Well, you know on second thought maybe we should go take the land.” Moses says, “No, don’t. God is no longer with you.”

They respond and say, “What do you mean God isn’t with us?” And so they began to fight the Canaanites and they were beaten as if they were grasshoppers. It is an amazing story. In fact, later on in Deuteronomy, Moses says, “You know what happened there when you disobeyed God and then acted presumptuously? It was as if there were bees chasing you. The Canaanites routed you and you lost the battle terribly. You thought to yourself that you could win whenever you wanted to without acknowledging God. God is disciplining you. He has said you can’t go into the land and He’s not going to help you win the war.”

Well, as we’ve mentioned in the first message of this series, and I do encourage you to get all the messages as they develop, but there are some decisions that are irreversible. You can’t go back, can you? Albert Camos was a great French existentialist who wrote a book entitled The Fall. He tells the story of a man who was standing on a bridge along the river in Paris and he saw a woman crawl over the bridge. He heard her body splash into the water, but he did nothing. He walked away and never told anyone about it. But he was haunted by it. Wherever he traveled, all he could think about was this river, all that he could think of was his cowardice.

He eventually went back to the place where it happened and stood tormented on the bridge. He said, “Oh woman, please come back here again and please jump over the bridge that I may be able to rescue both of us.” He needed to be rescued too because of his conscience that troubled him. But the woman never returned.

There are some decisions that we make that cannot be undone. We have crossed a line and taken a fork in the road, we’ve invested heavily in this decision and there’s no way out. We need to live exactly where we are at. Israel’s decision? Disobedience. God’s decision? Discipline.

But is that the end of the story? What a tragedy if the story ended here and we all said, “Well it’s time to go home. Let’s stand for the benediction.” What I want you to see is how God mingled His judgments and His discipline with grace. In fact, as I was going over this last night, I noticed seven different blessings that God gave to the nation. Let me give them to you very quickly.

In verse 20 it says, “God forgave their iniquity.” Do you have your Bible open today? Do you notice it there in verse 20 of chapter 14? Moses prayed that the people would be forgiven, and God says, “I have pardoned them according to your word.”

Now I need to give a parenthesis here. I interpret this differently than other well-known Bible teachers. I greatly appreciate what they have to say, and I honor them, but I look at it differently. There are those who say, “Those who died in the desert all went to hell because they were all unbelievers at the end of the day and they hardened their hearts against God. So God says, ‘You never had any faith. You’re outta here!’”

Well, I don’t think so. I think there were many people who went into the desert who were a part of that disastrous decision who will be in heaven someday. God says, “I pardoned them.” They had experienced the blood of the lamb and they had gone through the Red Sea. Certainly, some of them were great unbelievers, and God judged those specifically, the sons of Korah and some other things. There were some very severe judgments. I rather think that the people in the desert are like Christians who have been saved but refuse to enter into the fullness of their walk with God. That’s the way in which I interpret it. So God says, “I’ll forgive them.”

Secondly, He blesses their children. Verse 31, “But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know that land that you have rejected.” Wow! Isn’t that gracious? God says, “Mom and Dad, you are going to die in the desert. But guess what? Your children are going to inherit what you should have had.” I’d say that’s a great blessing. God says, “I’m going to provide for you.”

There are so many references to this that I won’t even give them all. God gave them manna, He gave them water, and it says in Deuteronomy that their clothes never got old because God kept caring for them in the desert. God guided them. The cloud that guided the Israelites up until now appeared from time to time to give Moses some direction as to what he should do with the people.

God also fights for them, and they win wars because of their prayers. If you have your Bible, you really ought to look at this. I was so surprised when I saw this yesterday. In chapter 21 they are fighting the Canaanites, and it says in verse two, “Then Israel vowed a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.’” God says, “All right, we have a deal.”

You see what Israel said is, “We will destroy their cities and take nothing for ourselves. Those cities, in effect, will be an offering to you if you help us fight.” Now notice the text. It says in verse three, “And the LORD obeyed the voice of Israel.” God says, “I am going to help you fight in the desert, I am going to answer prayers in the desert,” and then God instructs them in the desert. You read these chapters and you discover that He gives instructions to the priests as to how to dress and all that. That’s what God does in the desert.

What is it I’m trying to tell you today? This could be misunderstood, but it’s going to come out all right. God sometimes blesses us even after we’ve chosen the second best. Some of you are here today saying, “I should have taken more time to decide whom to marry.” Don’t turn to your partner right now, all right? You can have that discussion this afternoon, but not now. Some of us have had the good fortune to have been led by God in whom we marry. But some of you perhaps are thinking to yourself, “I have to be in this desert.” God says, “I can come along, and I can help you, and minister to you, and bless you even in the desert.”

I know a man who is in heaven today who really strongly felt called to the mission field. Now let’s assume that it was a genuine call. But he kept resisting God all through his life until he got older. Then he fell on his knees and deeply repented. He said, “God, I know that you have been calling me but it’s too late to go.” He chose to become a godly man.

He was running a service station in Canada, and he decided to do something. He said, “In light of a decision that I am quite sure was wrong, what do I do now?” He began to give out tracts and booklets in his service station to everyone who came by to buy gasoline. He witnessed to everyone at that station that he could, and God blessed him. He led people to Christ.

I’m saying to you today that God isn’t through with you yet. There is one requirement, are you alive today? I’ve always prayed, “Oh Lord keep me alive until I die.” It’s a good idea, I think. So God gives grace; He mixes His discipline with grace. He certainly does that!

Secondly, He gives grace to the faithful. Let me back up and say that He gives grace to the disobedient whom He pardoned, but He also gives grace to the faithful. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer what are you talking about in this context?” I’ll tell you.

I’m thinking of Joshua and Caleb and Moses too, even though Moses ended up unable to go into the land. I’m thinking of Joshua and Caleb and they’re saying to themselves, “Hey! We were the obedient ones; we were the ones who had faith and we were the ones who tried to convince them to go into the land. Now the whole congregation of Israel has made a decision that the answer is “No.” So what do we do for 38 years?”

The answer is for the next 38 years you wander in the desert with everybody else in the dust and the heat and all the conflicts of the desert. They were victims of decisions that others made for them. Does God give them grace, strength, and health to endure it? Yes!

Some of you listening to this are victims of decisions that other people made for you. Maybe it was your parents, because you were brought up in a very, very dysfunctional, even abusive home. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I still have consequences in my life because of the way I was raised.” Yes, and it’s possible that you will have some of those consequences until you die.

So what does God do? What about those of you who have had a spouse who has left the marriage? Usually that happens when there are two people at fault, but I’ve known instances where somebody just simply takes off for no real good reason. They decide to create havoc with what they do. Does that mean God says, “Well this was plan A, but now we are dealing with plan B. I’m wiping my hands and saying, ‘You are the victim of circumstances.’” No, no, no. God is bigger than all that and more gracious than all that. God is just as willing to help you in messes that other people have made for you as He is to help you in messes that you’ve made for yourself.

Some of you say, “Pastor Lutzer, I’ve got both of those circumstances.” God is bigger than that. We don’t make decisions independently; they affect others. This decision affected a number of different people in a very diverse way, but they stuck it out and Caleb ends up conquering the land. What a story that is!

You think of all the barriers he overcame. The barriers of peer pressure (they wanted to stone him), the barrier of race (he was a Kenizzite and not an Israelite), the barrier of old age (he should have had a condo in Florida at the age of 85). But he said, “Give me this mountain.” God says, “Caleb, because you have followed me with a whole heart I will even bless you in your old age, even after the 38 years are over.” God is gracious.

God blesses the disobedient, God blesses the faithful, and God’s grace really does come to all of us, does it not? Is there anyone here today who says, “Pastor Lutzer, I have not made one bad decision.” Would you raise your hands please? If you would have raised your hand I would have told you, “You’ve just lied.” That’s a bad decision.

What God does is He comes to the nation and He says, “I will lead you and my strength will be upon you. I’m going to come along and I am going to bless you in ways that you wouldn’t have guessed, so that mingled with the judgments, mingled with all of the problems and the consequences of your sin, there is mercy and there is grace.”

Jesus told the story of a young man who went into the far country. He was a man, a boy actually, who was very disrespectful of his parents. He comes to his dad and says, “Dad I want your inheritance and I can’t wait for you to die. I want your inheritance and I want it right now.” The father gave it to him. What are you going to do with a boy like that? So he wanders off into the far country and there in the far country he begins to get poor and he ends up in a pigsty. Then he comes to himself and he does the right thing.

All of you who are listening to this message wherever you may be, here at The Moody Church or elsewhere, there is always a right move that you can make, and that is to hurry back to the Father. Hurry back in repentance and humility, acknowledging all that you have to give to him is the mess that others have made and that you have made. Then we say, “Father, it is all yours now.” And when we hurry back to the Father in repentance and faith, the Father accepts us and begins where we are.

That’s the good news of the Gospel. In fact, because Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and because He is the one who shed His blood, He now says to all of us, “You can be forgiven, you can be welcomed, and you can be received into my presence. You can be all that I can make you. You’ve taken wrong turns but I will meet you right there.” That’s why you’re here today and that’s why I’m here today, to be reminded of that.

Do you remember that old story about somebody who took a blotch of paint and poured it haphazardly unto a canvas? A wonderful artist came along and was able to take the blotch of paint and paint around it and over it and make it part of the scenery. That’s what God does to us. He is saying to you and to me, “I want you to let go. Lose your grip on yourself, your own way, and your rebellion. Come to me—I’ll pardon you and I’ll bless you even in the desert.”

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we want to thank you today for your love and grace. Thank you that you enable us in such a wonderful way to give ourselves to you completely and fully and to say, “Father, we’ve all messed up and you know how we’ve done that.” We thank you today that no matter what decisions we have made, you meet us along the road and then walk with us all the way to our heavenly home, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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