To obey is better than sacrifice.
1 Samuel 15.22
God creates every individual uniquely for His pleasure. In other words, we’re born and we live to please Him. As often as we fail at this, we’re just as likely to overdo it—to set our hearts and minds to impress God rather than please Him. It’s as if we’ve not yet got out of grade school. We fall back into pre-adolescent, “teacher’s pet” pursuits, which is nowhere we want to be. And here’s why. When we throw all our energy into impressing God, what we’re really doing is drawing attention back to us. The question changes from, “Are You pleased with me?” to, “Aren’t You glad I’m so”—fill in the blank—“loving, giving, holy, smart, humble, patient, and so on.” Impressing God is folly for a number of reasons. First, it simply can’t be done, which means (second) we’re foolish to try. This leads to the third reason; when we try to impress God, we abandon His plan for ours. Ergo, trying to impress God typically results in what most displeases Him: disobedience.
How Better Ideas Go Bad
Not long after Samuel anoints Saul as Israel’s first monarch, God gives the warrior-king some very specific orders. He’s to lead an army against the idolatrous Amalekites and slay every living thing in their possession: them, their families, and their livestock. Saul and his men do as commanded—up to a point, that is. They rout the Amalekites so handily it almost seems too easy. Instead of praising God as they go for delivering their enemies into their hands, Saul & Company come up with a better idea. They’ll kill everyone except the Amalekite king and they’ll slaughter all the animals except the finest ones. Those they’ll bring home and offer in praise for their great victory. In their scheme, the enemy king and livestock become trophies they can hold up to God, so He’ll be impressed with their fine work and their fancy sacrifices of thanksgiving.
Well, God sees this and pulls Samuel aside, informing him, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Samuel 15.11) This news robs Samuel’s sleep. The next morning he goes looking for Saul. When he finds him, the king says, “I’ve carried out the LORD’s instructions,” to which the prophet answers, “Really? Then, what’s with all the sheep-bleating and cow-mooing I hear?” Saul explains he’s come up with a new plan, an improvement on God’s original orders that will certainly impress Him. That’s all Samuel needs to hear to understand why Saul displeased God and why he needs to reel in the overachieving king. “Listen,” the prophet says, “you’re not making sense. Think this through with me so you’ll see how better ideas go bad. How can you impress God with a big sacrifice when you weren’t supposed to have what you’re sacrificing to begin with? How is that a sacrifice? And why would it impress God, since your sacrifice was gained through disobedience?” Saul’s big plans and ego get smaller by the second. Samuel seals his chastening with a statement for all seasons and all times: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”
When works of art come to auction, their authenticity is verified by provenance—documents that trace their ownership back to their creators. Without provenance bidders can’t be sure their Rembrandts and Cezannes and Picassos are real. The paintings may be lovely and aesthetically impressive, but they’re not worth very much. Offers to give a museum a Renoir that lacks verified provenance will most likely be rebuffed and might get the donor into big trouble as an attempt to defraud the museum for tax purposes.
In the same way, many things we enjoy in life also come without provenance. We can’t prove where they originated or why they’re valuable to anyone other than us. Some of what we’ve gained over the years has come about by our trying to impress God rather than obey him. Today and tomorrow, as we consider what our Lenten sacrifices should be and why, let’s evaluate them for provenance and motive. How did they come to mean so much to us? What is their true value? And are we forgetting to obey in order to impress? Sacrifice is important. Indeed, it’s essential. But it’s also susceptible to showing off for others and God. That’s why basic obedience is better. It always seeks to please God rather than impress Him.
Sacrifices meant to impress mean nothing if tainted by disobedience.
(Tomorrow: Prayer and Fasting)