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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are there bleating sheep in your ministry?

In 1 Samuel 15, Scripture relates the story of Saul’s failure to completely follow God’s instructions to completely destroy the Amalekites and how he allows the men to take the spoils, allowing the king of the Amalekites to live. When questioned by Samuel the prophet of God why he disobeyed, Saul only attempts to justify his actions. By calling his partial obedience a completed task, refusing to admit any wrong doing on his part, and blaming others for what had happened, Saul totally fails the true test that God was giving. The test was not just a call for an elimination of an old enemy of the Hebrew people, but a test to see if Saul would wholeheartedly follow God’s command. Saul failed in several areas:

First, he failed to see that partial obedience is disobedience.
Second, he confused the task to be done for the lesson to be learned. By only focusing on the goal of winning the battle, he never asked himself if God might have a higher purpose in the assignment.
Third, he allowed fear to motivate his actions, rather than faith, because he defined who he was by what he did more than who God had called him to be.

Let’s briefly look at each one of these. I was reminded of this first issue while visiting with our daughter who was correcting our grandson. After not doing all of what his mother has asked him to do, I heard her give some instruction and completed her statements with the phrase, “partial obedience is disobedience.” I was completely impressed, for this is a lesson that really must be learned from childhood.

In God’s sight, partial obedience is disobedience.
This may seem cruel and cold at first, but look at it this way. Suppose that the surgeon who is about to operate on you asks the nurse, “Has the scalpel been sterilized?” and she replies, “Yes, all but this one tiny part.” Would you want the surgeon to use it? Of course not, for regardless how small that “one tiny part” may be, there could be enough bacteria to kill the patient. If this is true in our physical world, in the spiritual realm only God can see what lingering “bacteria” is left by our partial obedience, and such sin separates us from open fellowship with the Father. In the case of Saul, God’s commentary is tragic: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” [1 Sam. 15:11] Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the LORD all that night.” [Notice that Saul’s disobedience was a grief to Samuel, who had anointed him as king. Our failures rarely affect only ourselves.]

As finite creatures we are incapable of understanding the infinite mind and purposes of God. However, that does not mean that God does not want or allow us to discern some of the purposes of His actions. The most obvious revealed purpose is why He sent His Son to redeem man, – “for God so loved the world.” Other areas of God’s actions and will may not be so clear. Sometimes what God has called us to do is not as important as the character quality He is developing in us in the process of doing it. I remember in the movie, “The Karate Kid,” the older master tells his young apprentice to paint the fence, but in a very specific way. Later, he has him polish a car, again in a very specific manner. The confused teenager obliged, but did not understand and finally in frustration tells the man that he came for training in karate, not to paint fences. Then the master shows him that the motions he gave for painting the fence were actually a part of a specific defensive move in karate. The activity was painting a fence, but the lesson was detailed training in defense. Saul had confused the task to be done with the lesson to be learned.

After Saul had defeated the Amalekites, he proceeds to set up a monument to himself. This is revealing in that he [1] takes credit for what God had done, not realizing that God had only used Saul as the instruments of His will, and [2] Saul was defining who he was by what he had accomplished, not by his character. Understanding this is key to the conversation that follows with the prophet in 1 Samuel 15:13-34. Rather than cite the entire passage, I just refer to specific parts. When Samuel finds Saul, probably in front of the monument he had set up for himself, Saul greets him, saying, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.” [v. 13]. The prophet does not mince words in his reply: “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” Which is to say, “Saul, if you had obeyed I wouldn’t be hearing what I am hearing. The proof of your disobedience is all around you.” Saul then tries to shift blame: “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.” [v.15] Saul did not understand that disobedience is disobedience, regardless when attempts are made to spiritualize it. He could not own up to his own failure of responsibility to oversee the actions of his troops.

Samuel does not allow for excuses or justifications, his reply is swift and clear: “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.” God doesn’t play our games of trying to justify our actions. Samuel again confronts Saul with the truth: “Why did you not obey the LORD?” Saul fails to see this as an opportunity of grace and forgiveness on God’s part and again tries to defend his actions: “But I did obey the LORD,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.” [v.20-21] Saul just does not get it. Only when judgement falls does Saul begin to reveal the truth. Samuel’s response to Saul’s excuses are words that we must take to heart if we are going to have effective ministries. Listen first to Samuel’s response to Saul’s rationalization of his sin:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.”
[1Sam. 15:22-23]

The tendency is try to explain away our sin, to push the rationalizations in which we have used to delude ourselves on God in a feeble attempt to justify our actions. When Saul refuses to respond to the grace of God and admit guilt, judgement falls. Saul’s rebellion against God was like idolatry in that he had set himself up as his own authority, worshiping the image of himself for what he had done. Saul had even taken that mental image of himself and turned it into a physical monument for him admire. However, now it was too late, his unrepentant attitude has been judged by God and with one quick word, God has rejected Saul as king. Disobedience, especially among the leaders God has placed in power, has serious consequences.

The tragedy of the situation continues to unfold: “Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD.” [v.24-25] When Saul finally admits he is wrong, it is too late. God has already chosen another leader, one whose heart would follow after His. With his confession he revealed the motivation of his action: fear. Since Saul understood who he was only by what he did, that is, king and leader of the army, he feared doing anything that would reduce their numbers, thus, weakening his image and potential. He was not depending on God for his battles, but sheer numbers of men. So, when the men wanted to take the plunder from the battle, Saul did not have the courage to trust God, to set the standard of complete obedience based on God’s command to destroy everything. In short, he failed to see that his worth was not based on the size of his army or the battles won, but on the what God had called him to do and be. [This is clearly seen later in the battle when David kills Goliath.] The price he paid was very costly, for though he continued to reign as king, he did so without the blessing of God, and he grew more self-centered and suspicious until he finally commits suicide on the battlefield.

Let’s returning to the original question, “Are there any bleating sheep in your ministry?” Bleating sheep can be any area of our lives in which we settle for less than complete obedience, any time we confuse the task to be done for the lesson to be learned, and any time we allow fear to motivate our actions, rather than faith, defining who we are by what we do more than who God had called us to be.

{This is Part 1 of a Character Study on the life of Saul. Part 2 may be found at Worship HeartCries: Do We Always Have to Learn Lessons the Hard Way? }

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