The Book of Judges is one of the most depressing and troubling books in the Old Testament. It contains stories from the time between Joshua’s conquest of Cannan and the rise of the prophet Samuel. These stories follow a repeated pattern. The people of Israel fall under the power of their enemies; they then cry out to God, and God sends a judge to deliver them. The judge liberates the people and inaugurates a time of peace. The people again fall into idolatry, which yet again leads to their subjugation.
I think it is important to note that the people fell away from God during times of prosperity and returned to him only in adversity. God had been very generous to them, but they were ungrateful and forgot how much they owed to his goodness. We see an instance of this in Joshua 2:10-12:
When the rest of that generation were also gathered to their ancestors, and a later generation arose that did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel, the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They served the Baals, and abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the one who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other gods, the gods of the peoples around them, and bowed down to them, and provoked the Lord.
This lack of gratitude toward God was combined with a parallel lack of gratitude toward other people. After Gideon delivered the people from their oppressors, the tribe of Ephraim quarreled with him because he had not summoned them to the battle. Instead of rejoicing at their deliverance, they let self-importance and envy darken their hearts. This lack of gratitude among the people, combined with Gideon’s own fall into idolatry, eventually led to the destruction of Gideon’s family. Later in chapter 8, the writer comments that “The Israelites did not remember the Lord, their God, who had delivered them from the power of their enemies all around them. Nor were they loyal to the house of Gideon for all the good he had done for Israel. (Judges 8:34-35)
It isn’t explicitly stated in the book of Judges, but I think this may be where the temptation to idolatry enters the human soul. After we’ve forgotten all that God has done and is doing for us, we are left with a focus on what we haven’t got. Even amid abundance, our desires and wants are insatiable. In particular, as Aristotle wisely noted, there is no natural limit to the desire for money. Once we are relatively well off and yet still discontented, the worship of false gods can seem attractive. These evil gods of violence, lust, greed, and power lure us in with the false promise that they can provide what the Lord has not given. And so we are sucked into the terrible spiral of violence, subjugation, and destruction depicted by the Book of Judges.
It is very easy to fall into this habitual ingratitude. We all want lots of things from God, but we tend not to notice what he has already done for us. We forget about it, or just take it all for granted. We tend to feel that we are owed all that we have, and so don’t feel the need to offer thanks, but we are quick to complain when any little thing goes wrong. Similarly, we tend to take the people around us for granted, as if they were put on Earth only to serve us. We can easily come to ignore the beauties of Creation; the marvels of sight and sound, the power and majesty of the sky, the silent green presence of the trees, and the perfection of simple flowers.
Those of us who belong to the middle class in “developed” countries are in particular danger of becoming ungrateful. By historic standards, we are incredibly wealthy and comfortable. We have access to an abundance of food, and the diversity and richness of our diets would have amazed our ancestors. We tend to forget that tropical fruits such as bananas and pineapples were once rare and costly, and that many fruits and vegetables weren’t available in the winter. We take our large houses for granted, and have a hard time imagining how our recent ancestors managed with much less space. Our houses are heated and lit by the flip of a switch, and unlimited hot water flows out of our taps. Even something as commonplace as our drawers and closets full of clothing would impress people from the past; before mechanization, fabric was costly and clothing was valuable. And yet most of us don’t see ourselves as rich; we cast sideways glances at the billionaires, and conclude that we’re merely average, or even poor. Our culture has blinded us to our own wealth, making it almost impossible to be grateful, let alone truly detached. After all, the first step toward detachment is surely a realization of what we really have!
Voluntary poverty is the antidote to this spirit of ingratitude. It is closely connected with the practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. It consists in being content with a sufficiency of material goods, and avoiding superfluous consumption, while keeping in mind that no created good can satisfy our hungry souls. Rather, we should remain hungry at heart and reject the false gods who promise fullness; only if we remain empty can we be filled by the goodness of the Lord. This is the message of the Beatitudes; the followers of Christ must be free to love. Only those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn and hunger and are meek and clean of heart, can bring peace and mercy to those around them, even when they are persecuted. And only the poor in spirit can enter God’s kingdom of love.
Worshiping the false gods of consumption leads to bondage and misery. They turn us in upon ourselves, so that we are unable to see the glory of things as they truly are. Under their influence, we are unable to love God and neighbor; we are even unable to truly enjoy and appreciate the good things that God has made. Our world shrinks to a tiny point of discontent and frustration. By contrast, the Lord calls us to freedom and thanksgiving. He calls us to renounce our chains, leave the dark cave of our own desires, and join the joyful song of Creation. The Letter to the Hebrews instructs us to remain free from the love of money and be content with what we have, because we have here no lasting city, and our confidence is in the Lord. Rather, we should “continually offer God a sacrifice of praise.” (cf. Hebrews 13:5-15)