A PASTOR FRIEND OF MINE RETURNED FROM VACATION RECENTLY TO DISCOVER that the church board had met in his absence. Though his church was in "steady mode," attendance had plateaued and the leaders questioned this seemingly downward spiral. Before long, my friend and his wife questioned their own ministry effectiveness: "Am I really the problem here?" Then they doubted their call.

Obstacles come in a variety of forms—perhaps we face others' unrealistic expectations. Or a prolonged illness drains our resources and saps our energy. Or someone harasses us daily, almost daring us to come out and do battle.

The good news is that God has a plan: He deals with the external obstacles by transforming the internal. He transforms His servant for service. Probably nowhere else do we see this more vividly displayed in Scripture than in the story of Gideon (Judg. 6–8).

Because of Israel's idolatry, for eight consecutive years the desert-dwelling Midianites had invaded the land at harvest time. This year, fully expecting to carry out their usual policy of stripping the crops like a plague of locusts, 135,000 Midianites (8:10)  camped in the Valley of Jezreel near the Hill of Moreh.

But this year was different. God prepared a man, Gideon, and raised an army of thirty-two thousand who camped near the spring of Harod at the base of Mount Gilead (7:3). Can you imagine Gideon's feelings? Outnumbered four-to-one, with no weapons that compared to the Midianites', Gideon probably felt pretty low. What a shocker, then, for God to announce that Gideon's army was still too large! His reason: "Lest Israel become boastful, saying 'My own power has delivered me'" (v. 2, NASB).

This is nothing new. God's people today are no different. We're all prone to pride. And God is uninterested in simply giving victory if it sacrifices trust and dependence in Him. If our successes make us self-reliant, they ultimately prove more disastrous than the defeats. We can never be too small for God to use, but we can be too large; we can never be too weak for God to use, but we can be too strong!

God had a method for reducing the ranks: He gave two tests. The first revealed persistent fear (v. 3). Failing this test, twenty-two thousand men from Gideon's army left. Can you imagine how Gideon felt at this point? The enemy now outnumbered his army thirteen-to-one. But God knew that Israel would probably still take the credit.

So He pared them down yet further. He told Gideon to take his men down to the spring and watch how they drank. Some would fall flat on their faces, forget the enemy, and drink to their heart's content. These "kneelers" were sent home. The lappers, on the other hand, would bring their hands to their mouths to drink (v. 6) and lap like dogs. These three hundred men were either the most committed or, as I believe, the most fearful. After all, while they drank, they kept one eye on the enemy across the valley.

With the three hundred weakest warriors, God would deliver the Midianites into Gideon's hands. Gideon had started with thirty-two thousand men. He now had three hundred men to take on 135,000 Midianites! He was outnumbered four-hundred-fifty-to-one!

God reassured Gideon in the middle of the night. He told him to go down to the Midianite camp to listen in on a conversation. So Gideon and his servant made their way to the outskirts of the camp. There they heard a man telling his friend, "Hey, I had a weird dream. A little barley bun came rolling down into our camp, hit a tent, flipped it, and flattened it! What do you think?"

Only poor people ate barley. It was a symbol of Israel, left to eat barley because the Midianites had taken all the wheat. Imagine a little barley bun destroying a tent! Imagine three hundred Israelites defeating 135,000 Midianites! As Gideon listened to those words, he realized as never before that this was no battle between three hundred Israelites and 135,000 Midianites. It was God's battle! At this point Gideon bowed in worship (v. 15).

In a real sense we're never prepared for battle until we bow in worship. God does not call us to believe in ourselves or in our own adequacy. He wants us to rely totally on Him.

Gideon divided his men into three groups of one hundred men each. Imagine how he felt—31,700 of his buddies had gone home. But still he stood ready to fight! Yet it got even worse after that. When it came time to hand out the weapons, the soldiers were given a horn, a jar, and a torch? If that happened to us, we'd say, "What? What happened to the swords? The arrows? The shields?  Where are the bazookas and the automatic weapons?" But no. "Here's your horn. And you, over there, you get a jar. And you—a torch."

It is not up to us to try to figure out how God will defeat the enemy. All He asks of us is that we trust Him. We don't have to understand how He'll accomplish His work. It is our responsibility to obey and do what He commands.

Gideon put the plan into action. To the enemy's ears, the sound of clay pitchers smashing seemed like armies clashing. Suddenly, for the Midianites, every shadow became an enemy! The camels stampeded and, in the chaos, the panicked Midianites slaughtered each other.

It is absurd to believe that three hundred men equipped with jars, torches, and horns could do anything against 135,000 Midianites, but they did, because it was God's battle! You can fight an army that comes at you with swords and shields, but how do you handle three hundred men outnumbered four-hundred-fifty-to-one, who come at you with God's promise?

In many ways we're like Gideon facing the Midianites; the enemy attacks in a variety of different forms. And God is still in the business of enabling weak people to do His work. He reduces dependence on self and increases confidence in Himself. He uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things—when they trust in Him.

Does it bother you that from your perspective you do not appear very significant? Praise God! You are just the type of person God delights in using for His service. God is in the business of taking the small and insignificant and making them strong in Him.

When we feel outnumbered, we need to remember three important principles from this story:

  • We can never be too weak, but we can be too strong.

  • The battle is the Lord's. Whatever we face, we must give it over to Him.

  • We can't let our fear overcome our faith. Whatever form the Midianite takes in our lives, God is bigger.

Without God's help, fear could paralyze us. What if my church fires me? What if God doesn't heal me? What if my neighbor continues to harass me? Remaining faithful and  obedient would be impossible without the Lord to empower us. Yet He transforms us as we trust in Him, specializing in proving His perfect strength in the face of human weakness.