by Matthew Raley
One day when I was 11, I stood eyes down in our family’s laundry room while Dad bawled me out. I don’t remember what I had done. But I do remember taking my eyes off a pile of dirty rags and giving Dad the sharpest look my face could make. And I remember the look as a conscious decision.
Dad changed. His voice dropped. “You are looking at me with defiance. Don’t you know that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft?”
He was quoting the verse we examined last week, 1 Samuel 15.23, in which the prophet defines rebellion as the overthrow or disregard of authority, and the search for power.
Rebellion is not a phase in a child’s life. Identity formation is a phase; rebellion is a sin.
It takes strength for a child to maintain defiance against his parents — moral and emotional strength. Morally, a child has to be convinced that his defiance is right. Emotionally, he has to be able to hold his course without parental approval.
Maintaining strength requires the child to twist his mind and habits with falsehoods.
The twisting is on display in Deuteronomy 31. The Lord and Moses confront the rebellions of Israel, both in the past and those coming in the future. The passage shows that rebellion is a close association of four distinct sins, all of which give rebels a feeling of empowerment.
The Lord says (31:16) that after Moses’ death Israel “will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them . . . .” That is, they will leave the true God who loves them, has brought them out of Egypt, and is giving them their own land, and will follow the gods of their imagination.
Rebels have to receive spiritual blessing from somewhere. They fabricate gods who will meet the need. A woman recently told me she was leaving her husband. “Your God wants me to be in bondage,” she said. “My god wants me to be free.”
The Lord tells Moses that Israel will “break my covenant that I have made with them,” a phrase he repeats four verses later (31:16, 20). He is referring back to the covenant at Sinai and ahead to the renewal of that covenant in the land (Joshua 24.19-22). The nation is going to lie.
I have noticed a pattern in rebellious people, both young and old, of deceit. They create different personalities for different sets of people. They make up half-histories of ill treatment — legitimate claims, but highly selective. And they tell outright falsehoods.
The Lord foretells that the Israelites “will despise me,” having “grown fat” from the land’s fruit (31:20).
A rebel’s emotional life needs the energy drink of scoffing. The feeling of superiority, of remaining unaffected by others, and of knowing people’s “real” motivations becomes the animating power of the rebel’s personality. There’s security in sarcasm.
Moses tells the people (31:27), “For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!”
Rebels do not listen. They debate, rationalize, and shift blame. But they do not consider the points of view they don’t agree with.
We will look at each of these characteristics in more detail over the next few weeks.
For now, here’s the point. I do not think of my fatherly task as controlling my boys behavior at all levels so as to make them compliant. Instead, my task is to counter these four sins separately, before they join. My boys need to learn how to gain strength from the true God, Jesus Christ, strength from being personally truthful, from cultivating humility, and from a habit of listening to counsel. They need to draw strength from grace.
This is how my parents raised me. So, in our laundry room when I consciously attempted defiance, I did not have the toxic compound of sins to carry it off. My strength was already coming from good sources. I submitted sincerely, for the right reasons.
Looking back, it was a crucial moment in the formation of my identity as a man.