I have a friend whose dad recently passed away, and now he has to deal with all his dad’s “stuff”: here’s a photo he posted on Facebook of just ONE of the storage buildings of his dad’s stuff. Someone might say: “HOW did he accumulate all that stuff?” Well, you know how he did it, don’t you? He didn’t just go out there one day with a semi truck and get a bunch of stuff and fill that building up. Hardly anyone ever does that. It just happened “little by little,” didn’t it? Just a few things he picked up off the side of the road; just “a little bit” from this garage sale; “a little” here, and “a little” there. It’s the same way with those “hoarders” shows — “little by little,” it becomes a LOT!
Which leads us to the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. Our readings there this week have been so rich; there is the Shema in Chapter 6: “Hear O Israel, YWHW our God, YHWH is one;” “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD,” and more. But one verse that addresses a principle that many of us need to understand about how God works, is found in Deuteronomy 7:22, where God tells the people of Israel through Moses how He will help them take the Promised Land. He says:
“The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them quickly; for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you. But the LORD your God will deliver them before you, and will throw them into confusion until they are destroyed.”
That phrase in :22 is a key one: “little by little.” How would God give them the Promised Land? Not all at once in “one fell swoop;” but “Little by little.” This reveals a spiritual principle: that God often works — not only in Israel, but in our lives too — “little by little.”
I. “Little By Little” and Salvation
The crossing of the Jordan River by the people of Israel is often compared to salvation: just like God brought Israel into the Promised Land, so He brings us into His “land of promise” in salvation. And there are some similarities: Just like Israel came into the Promised Land at a point of time when they crossed over the Jordan River, so our salvation happens at a point of time, when we stop following our own will and the ways of this world, and “cross over” and start following Christ. That happens at some point of time. Ephesians 1:13 says “when you believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” You believe, and are sealed with the Holy Spirit, at some particular moment. If there is not a moment of time when that happened, then you are not a Christian at all. There has to be some point of time at which you “crossed over the river” and came to trust Christ and were saved.
But God most likely brought you to that place of crossing over, “little by little.” Just like Israel didn’t leave Egypt and arrive in Palestine all in one day; it took them some time to get there — so God works in our lives and “little by little” draws us to Himself. Rare is the person who is totally apart from God, then hears the gospel of what Jesus did one time, and asks Him to save them. That happens, but usually there is a process in which God works in a person’s life “little by little” and draws them closer to Himself, until they finally make that decision to “cross over” and follow Him.
C.S. Lewis was like that. As a young man, Lewis had rejected the idea of God, and was an atheist. But God began a long process of working in his life. Lewis was a scholar, and he loved to read. He picked up some classic books, among them George MacDonald’s, and G.K Chesterton, and they began to stir something up inside him. Lewis would say later that “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” (Surprised By Joy, p. 191). Lewis began to notice that the best authors he read, who made the most sense: Milton, Spenser, MacDonald, all had this one thing in common that they were Christians, and God used those authors to nudge Lewis closer to Himself. Then he had some relationships with atheists who, because they were living out the natural ends of their belief, were very bitter and ugly, and one even went mad, and that drew him closer towards God. Finally he read G.K. Chesterton’s overview of Christianity and history — he had always admired Chesterton’s mind, “apart from his Christianity,” but now this began to make sense. And he said, “In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed.” (Surprised by Joy p. 228) But the thing is, it didn’t just happen all at once; it was a process that took time, reading, relationships, experiences, pondering: God worked in his life “little by little,” drawing Him to Himself.
We need to understand that it is often that way with salvation. Somehow we often picture salvation as happening where someone is totally lost, then we share the gospel one time, and in 5 minutes they get saved and their life is radically changed. That DOES sometimes happen, but more often than not, it happens like it did for C.S Lewis: just “little by little” as God works in their lives, drawing them to Himself over a period of time.
We need to take that into account in our witnessing and ministries.
A few years ago, our Southern Baptist International Mission Board came out with an emphasis they called “x + 1.” They said that we often hope to lead someone to the Lord all at once, but that salvation more often happens as a gradual process over time; as people are exposed to the gospel numerous times and in different ways. So if you are able to share with a person and move them one step closer to salvation, that was a successful witness. Don’t think if you didn’t lead someone in a “sinner’s prayer” that moment, that it wasn’t a good witnessing opportunity. No, God may well used that little word, that little act, to bring them one step closer to Himself, “little by little.”
Now, as I said, at some point, a person has to repent of their sins, and trust Jesus as their Savior, and the Holy Spirit comes into their life at that moment. That happens at some point of time. If that has never happened to you, it needs to happen today! You have to “cross the Jordan” sometime and make a commitment to follow Jesus. If you haven’t, you’re still on the other side, and you’re lost. But just like Israel, most of us don’t get there overnight; it takes time, and God gets us to salvation “little by little.”
II. “Little By Little” and Sanctification
Not only does God often bring us to salvation gradually, but I think one of the main applications of this verse to the Christian life has to do with our Sanctification. If you remember, “sanctification” is the theological word for the process by which God makes His saved people, holy.
One of the things I try to teach new Christians — and we cover this in our “Discovering The Ridge” class — is that our salvation unfolds in 3 “steps,” if you would:
Some of you are familiar with these terms, but if you are not, they are important for us to understand the nature of our salvation, and what is going on in our lives:
Justification is what we often think of as our “salvation;” it is the state of being “justified” before God by faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 says “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He speaks of justification for the Christian as PAST tense: “having been” justified by faith. You WERE (past tense) justified, you WERE made right with God the moment you trusted Jesus as your Savior. You were “saved” from the penalty of your sin forever. That is justification.
But justification is not the end of the Christian life; it is just the beginning. Once you are justified by faith in Christ, now you begin the life-long process of “Sanctification.” Sanctification means “to make holy.” And the process of sanctification takes your whole life. This is so important for all Christians to understand — especially new Christians. Often, people get saved, and then they wonder, “Why do I still get angry with my husband?” Or “Why do I still think bad thoughts?” Or “why do I still say bad words?” It is because although you HAVE BEEN justified by faith in Jesus — you are saved and are going to heaven — but you are just now in the PROCESS of being sanctified. And that is going to take some time.
As we said the other day, a new Christian is like a house that has been bought by a new owner: the title has been transferred, but there is still a lot of remodeling to do to fit the tastes of the new owner. That’s how a Christian is: you belong to God now; you’ve been saved. But now you’ve got to get “remodeled”: You have new thoughts and words and actions and habits to learn. And that takes TIME.
Again the other day we said that becoming holy is like getting a tan. You don’t get a tan all at once. You get it “little by little,” just like this verse says. You’ve “crossed the Jordan” and been justified. Now you are going to take the Promised Land “little by little” as you get sanctified. But just like with Israel here, it is not going to happen all at once. It is going to take TIME, and will happen “little by little” as you walk with God every day in His word and prayer. Sanctification is a process that takes your whole life.
Then Glorification happens one day when you go to heaven and you are made perfect, just like Jesus Christ. I John 3:2 says “we will be like Him, for we will see Him just as He is.” But that won’t happen until then. So you need to be patient with yourself, and with others. Just because you, or someone you know, is a Christian, doesn’t mean you are going to be perfect here on earth. You are still in that process of sanctification, getting holy “little by little.”
We need to understand this process 1) so that we aren’t too hard on ourselves or others, AND 2) we need to know that this IS a process which happens gradually, “little by little.” This goes against our nature. Especially in this society we are in, we want things to happen all at once. We want to “microwave” ourselves into being better Christians, but it won’t happen that way.
— we want to go to one conference
— we want one class, one book
— one “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or some “one great experience” to change it all for us at once, and we need to know that is NOT going to happen.
Now, sometimes God does give you an instant breakthrough in some particular area of your life. I had a church secretary who had a great testimony of how she wanted to quit smoking because she felt like she was being a bad witness, so she got down on her knees and prayed — and when she got up from that prayer, she suddenly had the desires of a non-smoker. And she has never picked up a cigarette since. It was extraordinary. And sometimes God does that.
But we need to understand that more often than not, sanctification is usually a slow, gradual process — just like clearing the land, “little by little.” It involves making new daily habits in our lives: walking in God’s word every day, praying, memorizing scripture, fighting temptation, and learning to obey the voice of God’s Spirit. As we learn to do those things, day by day, we re-shape our minds, and our attitudes, and our habits. But it is a slow, daily process. It does NOT happen all at once.
Years ago A.W. Tozer wrote: “In my creature impatience I am often caused to wish that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short, easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No such shortcut exists. God has not bowed to our nervous haste nor embraced the methods of our machine age. It is well that we accept the truth now: The man who would know God must give time to Him.” (The Pursuit of Man, p. 5) We need to hear Tozer. There is no “shortcut”: no conference or a book or experience can give it all to us instantly. It takes time, day by day, “little by little.”
I am reading a book by Eugene Peterson called “A Long Obedience In The Same Direction.” In it he criticizes a lot of the religious practices of churches today, saying: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
I think that is so true. We want instant thrills, instant results, instant “feelings”, instant success — and if we don’t, something’s wrong! But Peterson is right when he says that holiness takes “patient acquisition;” it is like a “long apprenticeship.” It is going to happen slowly, day by day, “little by little.”
Do you want to be closer to God; more holy? There’s no one conference to go to, no one book to read, no single experience to have. Sanctification is the hard business of life — the “little by little” work. And that’s all there is too it. “Little by little” is where it is at in the Christian life.
Tony Robbins is quoted as saying “Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.” I think we can take that even further: sometimes we overestimate what we can do in one service, or one meeting, or one experience, but we underestimate what we can do over a longer period of time as God slowly works, in our lives and in our churches, day by day, “little by little.”
When I was in college we did a musical which impacted my life greatly, entitled “Alive Again.” In it there is a song I often sing:
“By what I do, by what I think, by every word I say,
I’m fashioning my future, what I’ll be like one day.
Brick on brick, stone on stone, little by little I grow
Into the kind of vessel that eventually will show.”
“Little by little.” THAT is how we grow into the kind of vessel that eventually will show. God will sanctify us, and grow as Christians, just like He gave Israel the land of Canaan: “little by little.”
III. “Little By Little”: In Numerous Applications
So God draws us to Himself in salvation “little by little, and sanctifies and makes us holy “little by little;” but there are also SO many different areas of our lives in which this principle of “little by little” applies. There is SO MUCH we can accomplish if we will just take small steps, and keep at it, “little by little.”
For example: In Your Finances. Many people hope they are going to “hit the jackpot” and suddenly “get rich quick.” But that almost never happens. And when it does, they don’t know how to handle it, and usually squander it, because they haven’t learned to develop good habits along the way. People who become well-off and stay that way, generally do it just like God says here: “Little by little.”
If you want to improve your finances, don’t waste your money on lottery tickets. You literally have a better chance of being hit by lightning than of winning the lottery. And if you are in a financial hole, you probably can’t fix it in one weekend. You didn’t get into that hole overnight, and you can’t get out of it overnight. But you CAN do it — a lot of times if you just make some “little” changes in what you’re doing, that add up. For example, if you stop on the way to work and get breakfast out, you say, “Well, that’s only $5.” But $5 a day adds up, doesn’t it? That’s $25 a week: do you realize that is $1300 a year, from that one thing?! $1300 would be a nice little chunk to have in savings, wouldn’t it? Or to put against your debt. And you can do that, and change your financial picture, “little by little.”
We can do it with reading and other activities like that. The longest book I ever read, I think, was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It was about 1400 pages long in the edition I read. Someone may look at that book and ask: “HOW do you read a book that long?” The same way you read any book: “little by little.” One word at a time; one page at a time; often only 20-30 pages a night. I didn’t read it straight through in 3 days. But 30 or so pages a night is 100 pages in 2-3 days; in a few more days and weeks you’ve read all 1400 pages. And you just did it like you do so much else that is worthwhile: “Little by little.”
In fact, that’s how we are going to read through our Bible this year isn’t it: one day at a time! NONE of us are going to read it straight through in a week — but there are a good many of us who are going to have read it through this year — we are almost halfway through now! — but we will have done it 3-4 chapters a day, day after day, “little by little” until next January 1st we are going to look back and say “We did it!” We read the whole Bible through — many of us for the very first time! But we will have done it “little by little”, just like God told Israel here.
There are so many things in life that you have to do, just little by little. We’d rather God gave us some “big”, sudden answer — and sometimes He does that, to show His power. But more often He helps us like He did Israel with the Promised Land: “little by little”, because it takes patience, and perseverance, and builds lasting character in our lives, which is His purpose for us.
But we ALSO need to be warned that this principle of “little by little” can also affect us in a NEGATIVE way: We just read Proverbs 24:30 which says you can walk by the field of the sluggard, which is “completely overgrown with thistles; its surface was covered with weeds; its stone wall was broken down.” How did this happen? How does it get like that? Verses 33-34 gives the answer: “A LITTLE sleep; a LITTLE slumber; a LITTLE folding of the hands to rest, then your poverty will come as a robber, and your want as an armed man.” How does a place deteriorate like that? It doesn’t happen all at once; it happens “a little … a little … a little …” — just “a little” bit of neglect, over time, adds up. And it applies in so many areas:
— “a little” overspending over time will put you in a big hole eventually.
— “a little” neglect to your house or car can lead to a big problem as that neglect accumulates over time
— “a little” neglect of your walk with the Lord can lead to some big spiritual problems eventually.
— just “a little” neglect of your spouse can lead to some big marriage problems over time. It’s important for you to continue to “date” your spouse after you get married, and spend quality time together. I have never had ONE couple in my office for marriage counseling who said that they were going out or spending time together each week. Cheryl & I just recently celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary, and I believe that one of the reasons for that is that we have always made having Friday off together a priority in our schedule. Is missing it once going to destroy our marriage? No, and sometimes we have to, with an emergency or something. But if you miss it, and keep on missing it, “little by little” it adds up, and you can grow apart if you’re not careful. “A little” neglect of anything will add up over time, and can become a big problem.
There have been reports in recent days of several spiritual leaders in our country who have had moral or ethical lapses. Someone asked, how does this happen? The poet Emily Dickinson said it very well:
“Crumbling is not an instant’s act …
‘Tis first a cobweb on the soul …”
That’s a great picture, and so true: how does a house fall apart? It doesn’t do it all at once; it begins with the neglect of one cobweb — and “little by little” it deteriorates from there. And how does a LIFE fall apart? How do you end up “burning out” or “backsliding”? It doesn’t happen all at once; it begins with what Dickinson called “a cobweb on the soul.” It starts with one missed devotional time. It starts with one little compromise. It starts with “a cobweb on the soul” and that life comes apart “little by little.”
So we need to know this principle. We need to purposefully guard against it getting out of control in our lives, and use it to develop the good things that God wants to do in us, “little by little.”
Doesn’t God ever do “big” things in us, all at once? Sure He does! Sometimes He instantly converts an Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, or gives His people a “Jericho”, where all the walls miraculously fall down flat in second. God does things like that; and when He does, we should thank Him for it.
But we should also realize that God doesn’t give us a “Jericho” every day. Most of the time He works in our lives, and in our ministries in the same way He gave the Promised Land to Israel: “little by little.” Because it is in that “little by little” that consistency, and patience, and faithfulness, and holiness, and character, are built into our lives. And that’s what God is really after. That’s why He usually goes about His work in us, “little by little.”
Is there something in your life today that you’ve been hoping God would answer for you in “one fell swoop” — but today you realize He is saying to you: I AM going to do this, but I am not going to do it all at once. Instead I am going to do this for you, just as I did for Israel, “little by little.” Talk to God about that thing right now, and ask Him to help you be patient, and take the “little steps” He wants you to take.
In fact, ask Him: “Lord, what’s ONE little step You want me to take today, in the right direction You want me to go?” Ask Him to help you to take that one little step …”.
Maybe you’d say today that the Lord has been working in your life for some time — maybe weeks or months or even years — drawing you closer to Himself. He’s been making you tired of your old ways, your old friends, your old self — but today you are ready to take that final step to turn away from all that and turn to Him … If so, why don’t you pray right now, and ask Jesus to be your Lord & Savior …
Maybe there is somebody whose life you would like to see changed, and God has shown you today that it can happen, but it may happen in “little by little” steps — as you are faithful to pray, and witness to them, and trust Him to work in their lives in “little” unseen ways. Spend some time praying for them this morning, and ask God to help you commit yourself today to be faithful to pray, and witness, and do those “little” things that will one day add up to their salvation …
Let’s all talk with the Lord, and ask Him to help us do what He wants us to do, “little by little.”