Call me crazy, but I once prayed to participate with God in doing something that only he could do and that he is doing. It’s a prayer he has answered in ways that have shocked me, and knocked the laughter out of me.
Maybe that’s the key to the terrifying thrill we call the true Christian life: getting in on what God wants to do and is doing, rather than always telling God what we want and how we want it.
A Hand-picked Leader
Take Saul, for example. The people looked around and began to beg for a king like the neighboring nations had, someone to “fight their battles for them” (1 Samuel 8:20), as if God’s miraculous clearing of the Promised Land of enemy after enemy wasn’t enough. God warned them through Samuel the prophet about royal taxation, and requisitions of land and property and children, as servants and soldiers.
But the people wanted what they wanted, and God “gave them their own desire. They were not deprived of their craving” (Ps 78:29-30).
Saul, meaning “asked for,” seemed to start out well. He consulted Samuel. He offered sacrifices to God according to custom. An unusually tall man, he seemed humble (1 Sam 10:22, 27) and won a few battles against Israel’s enemies (1 Sam 11).
But from the beginning Saul lacked the most important fundamental in effective ministry and leadership: he did not take his calling seriously before God; Saul compromised obedience.
At one point, Saul became impatient with the delay in Samuel’s arrival. He preempted priestly duty and offered a religious sacrifice himself. A clear violation of God’s laws regarding worship, Samuel said, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord” (1 Samuel 13:13).
When Saul was commanded to go to war with the Amalekites, Samuel was clear about God’s instructions: “. . . utterly destroy all that they have and do not spare them.” Saul engaged the enemy and destroyed everything worthless and despised, but kept all that was good (1 Sam 15:19).
Saul greeted Samuel enthusiastically the next day, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord!”
And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
Even after the evidence is presented, Saul maintains that he did what God asked. But his statement is the exact opposite evaluation that God made: “I repent having made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not kept my command (1 Sam 15:11).
A play on words, repent means to turn back; it was in this episode of Saul’s short reign that God turned back the kingdom from Saul—who turned back from God—and gave his throne to one who would be worthy of the dignity of its eternal purpose.
In 1 Samuel 15:15 Saul says it was his soldiers’ fault. In verse 21 he says the people did it. Not only does Saul accuse everyone else, he makes it plain he fully understood God’s command from the beginning.
Then he says they only kept the spoils as a gift for God: “But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the Lord your God.”
When all was obviously lost, Saul sort of confesses, but not quite, “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. (But then he says), I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them.’”
When Samuel goes to look for Saul to confront him with all God has revealed, he discovers Saul has built a monument to himself commemorating the spoils of his disobedience. King Saul finally edged God completely out of the picture.
Right away God sends Samuel to secretly anoint Saul’s replacement and the Holy Spirit “rushes” upon David (1 Sam 16:13). A mere 16 or so, some think, he is a handsome red-headed herdsman who once asked God to help him kill a bear, and then a lion, with his bare hands in defense of his little sheep. He single-handedly kills and beheads the giant Goliath when no one else in the kingdom—even Saul—will even confront him.
The prince loves David. The princess loves David. The soldiers and warriors love David. The women of the kingdom love David. David succeeds in everything God sends him to do, because David obeys God through the entire fourteen years that Saul remains king. God makes a king out of David while Saul hunts him unto death for jealousy.
David waits on God’s timing. David submits to God through Saul’s authority, even while Saul falls further and further under demonic influence, trying to kill his own son, murdering eighty-five priests in cold blood, and consulting a witch (1 Sam 20:33, 22, 28).
As Saul continues down the road of sin and personal destruction, David waits on God to remove Saul for good, and remove him he does. Defeated in a final battle that eliminated every prince who might ascend to the throne, Saul finally commits suicide.
God made each of us with a unique potential. St. Thomas Aquinas said we suffer when we do not fulfill this purpose, because our hearts know and secretly long for it. Disobedience towards God is evil because it thwarts our true purpose. God is the only one who can lead us there, so it is only by obedience that we can grow into the mission he has in mind for our duties and station.
Pastors and leaders: Do we seem to lead, but make excuses for our compromises? “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7). “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22).
God is at work. He has plans in his great heart for the world and the times we are living in, and for us personally, but we’re unavailable because we aren’t obedient.
God had a plan in mind for a kingdom that would not only rule his people then, but would be the root of the eternal Messianic Kingdom (2 Sam 7). “God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22).
King Saul seems to me to be the poster child for why we often don’t experience the hair-raising, heart-pounding, breathless excitement of living on the edge between heaven and earth with God. More than once in my walk with him he has used the account of Saul’s life as a warning for me and for all who seek and/or are called to lead.
What do I mean? I mean, if you are not obeying God, you are not really following him. And if you won’t obey, prepare to pay the price.
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