In college, I took a course on rhetorical theory. I honestly can’t recall why I signed up for this particular class; it must have fulfilled some core curriculum requirement. For the purposes of this story, I want to emphasize the theory part. There was never supposed to be any public speaking—just studying the classical forms of rhetoric and persuasive speech. But about two weeks after I could drop the class without consequence, the professor had a “wonderful idea” for an assignment that would really cement what we were learning in our textbooks: a speech in front of the whole class.
I decided to make my ten-minute talk about the separation of church and state, and what that means for Christians in the public square. I spent hours in the library researching my topic and writing notes on index cards. By the day of my speech, I was sure I had my arguments nailed down. I was ready to go. But then, when I got behind the lecturn, I froze. I looked down at my cards and couldn’t read my own writing. In about three minutes flat, I stuttered, stumbled, and otherwise bumbled my way through the talk I’d prepared. I’m sure I left out several points I’d meant to make, and judging by the looks on the faces in that room as I walked back to my seat, I’m not sure what I said made any sense at all.
Thankfully, my professor was gracious in his grading, remembering that the initial syllabus for the course required no such public speaking. But the whole experience left me a bit shyer and more reserved. To this day, I don’t like speaking up in meetings unless I’m very comfortable with the other people in the room. When I’ve been asked to preach or teach, it takes every ounce of focus and energy I can muster to see it through.
This fear of failure has made me very sympathetic toward Barak. We’re not told precisely why he didn’t act when God called him to gather an army and face the Canaanites. We just know that Deborah called him out (Judges 4:6–7). Barak was reluctant but agreed to obey the Lord, but only if Deborah would go with him. Because of this request, Barak lost out on a blessing that could have been his. “‘I will gladly go with you,’ [Deborah] said, ‘but you will receive no honor on the road you are about to take, because the Lord will sell Sisera to a woman’” (v.9).
In the end, the victory was Barak’s and Deborah’s together. The song of praise that comprises chapter five of Judges credits them both: “Awake! Awake, Deborah! Awake! Awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and take your prisoners, son of Abinoam!” (Judges 5:12). And the chief prize, the defeat of Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, was taken by Jael, a woman who knew two things: that it’s always wise to be on God’s side in any conflict, and… how to wield a tent peg.
God didn’t need Barak, or Deborah, or Jael to defeat the Canaanite army oppressing the Israelites. He could have obliterated it with a single thought. But like He has done throughout redemption history, He chose to use His human image-bearers to bring about His purposes. We may not be asked to stand down a thundering horde of chariots, but God has called us to advance His kingdom, testify to the truth of the gospel, and do good to everyone we meet. Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not be afraid of failure. God will still get the victory if we falter, but we might miss out on a blessing God has in store for us if our obedience is an afterthought rather than a reflex.
Written by John Greco