Little by Little

In Exodus 20, with the Children of Israel gathered around Mount Sinai, God launches into a rather lengthy discourse with Moses covering a wide array of topics. Nestled in the heart of that oration, in which God institutes the very framework through which He would relate to and separate His chosen people, He provides an interesting insight into what lies ahead for Israel. With the eyes of the people trained on the promised land, God not only reminds them of where they’re going but how they would get there. Describing how He would drive out the inhabitants of Canaan and give Israel their long-awaited inheritance, God says, in Exodus 23:30:

“Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased, and you inherit the land.”

I can still recall being taken back by how strange that sounded when first reading this passage. “Little by little” … why would God do that? Wasn’t God eager to drive out His people’s enemies and give them the land He’d promised them? Didn’t He want them to start enjoying its goodness right away? Wouldn’t it be safer, and more loving, for God to hand Israel a land free of enemies and conflict? Based on human logic, these certainly seem to be legitimate questions.

After all, little by little appears to be at sharp odds with our great and awesome God: the God that called light out of darkness in an instant, the God that made both seen and unseen in only six days, the God that, not long before this, destroyed an entire army in the Red Sea in a matter of moments. Compared to this, little by little sounds almost disappointing and underwhelming. It seems reserved for those who lack the firepower to get it done in one shot. It smacks of a strategy born of weakness and limitations. But it certainly doesn’t sound like something an Almighty and all-powerful Being would restrict Himself to. Yet, little by little is precisely the pace and exactly the manner God arranged to drive out Israel’s enemies before them.

While it might seem counterintuitive at first glance, God just handing Israel the land and its plenty would have actually been extremely damaging to them and their inheritance in the long run. It would have been a hindrance to them ever possessing it to the degree God intended in the first place. As strange as it might seem, God simply giving them the land would have ultimately positioned them for failure because it would have taught them nothing about themselves, the land, their God, or how to trust Him. In fact, God was very merciful to Israel in allowing them to observe His destruction of their enemies and participate in that process … little by little – and He is merciful to us in much the same way today.

Surrounded by a culture addicted to instant gratification, the idea that it might actually not be in our best interest to have it all right now is likely both foreign and unpopular. Thankfully, God sees the entire picture; and instead of always giving us what we want, He gives us what is good for us. Just like Israel, what seems to be good for us is “little by little.” Little by little is the process God chose to drive out Israel’s enemies, cause them to increase, and give them their inheritance – and, praise God, little by little is how He accomplishes His sanctification in our lives today. It’s little by little we face our many sins and shortcomings. It’s little by little we’re shown just how miserable and helpless we are without Him. It’s little by little we’re tested and refined. It’s little by little we’re taught to stop relying on ourselves and start trusting Him. Little by little is the very means God often teaches us the valuable, yet difficult, lessons we wouldn’t seek out on our own. While the conflicts, trials, and obstacles in our life are often lamented, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes to know just how genuine our faith really is.

Jumping ahead in Israel’s history to the book of Judges, we find an entirely new generation from the one that crossed the Jordan to carry out the conquest. One, it says, that did not know God or the works He had done in Israel. Obviously, a sad description, yet one I find telling. Having not gone through the process of driving out the inhabitants of the land themselves, this generation didn’t know God like they should have and it was evident in their idolatry. As a result, as Judges 2 ends and Judges 3 begins, God says He’s going to put them to the test. He’s no longer going to drive out the nations before them in order to test Israel and teach them to know war.

I don’t find it a coincidence that this generation that hadn’t fought in the conquest, that hadn’t watched the Lord drive out their enemies, that hadn’t participated in that process were doing evil and chasing the gods of the nations around them. Nor do I find it a coincidence that the method of their testing and training was essentially the same as that of the previous generation – to face their enemies and the conflicts around them by trusting the Lord and obeying His words. It sounds like such a simple lesson. Yet for most of us, it takes a lifetime of “little by little” to learn. My encouragement for us is simply to appreciate and embrace the process by which God is sanctifying us and preparing us for our inheritance. It’s not easy or fun. We often make it more difficult than it needs to be. But, ultimately, it’s for our benefit. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Don’t be afraid. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart.