"Let's all remember the lesson we learned in kindergarten," the radio announcer amicably urged. "Let's play together nicely as a team and share. Treat each intersection as a four-way stop and take turns. Remember, your life and the lives of others may depend on it."
After a major ice storm had knocked out the stoplights in our city, most drivers realized that cooperation and patience were essential to avoid potentially fatal accidents. For the first few days, congeniality and kindness prevailed. The accident rate was amazingly low.
But as city workers repaired power lines and electricity was gradually restored, some people's patience seemed to evaporate. When drivers reached one of the few remaining intersections without functioning stoplights, one or two would occasionally drive straight through without stopping, refusing to wait their turn. With the police force overstretched, the tiny chance of receiving a ticket did not dissuade those drivers from engaging in dangerous behavior. Their desire to reach their destination more quickly trumped any sense of fairness and concern for the well-being of others.
When people feel that no one is looking out for their welfare, or if they believe their chance of being called to account for their actions is extremely low, they may become "a law unto themselves."
That's exactly what happened in the Book of Judges. After Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, God honored His promise and helped them defeat the wicked, idol-worshippers who lived there. "All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered . . . because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel" (Joshua 10:42). Eventually the Israelites enjoyed rest on every side. God fulfilled every promised that He had made to them (21:44,45).
Before he died, Joshua warned the people, "Be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. . . . Hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now. . . . Be very careful to love the Lord" (23:6, 8, 11).
"Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel" (24:31). But after that generation died, the next generation forsook the Lord and worshipped idols. Judges 17:6 states: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." Without a righteous prophet or king to lead and warn them, the people did as they pleased.
If the only motivation for doing right is to avoid punishment or gain earthly rewards, when those incentives are removed each person will act according to whatever he or she thinks is right or personally beneficial. In other words, the selfish desires of fallen human nature will take over.
However, as Christians, we are not like those in the world. Even if we have no earthly authorities to constrain us, judge us, or punish us, we know that we have an eternal Judge and King to whom we must give an account. When those around us live however they please, God expects us to continue to faithfully obey Him and humbly set an example for others. In difficult times, His light can shine more brightly through His children, and some will be drawn to His light.