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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Do We Always Have to Learn Lessons the Hard Way?

When I was about 13 or 14, I reached into oven to retrieve a cast iron skillet my mother had asked for to make some cornbread. I had already turned on the oven some time before, and without thinking grabbed the handle with the force I knew it would take to pick up the heavy cast iron. Unfortunately, I forgot, or was not thinking about the fact that the skillet would be hot and proceeded to burn my hand. Obviously, a foolish thing to do, but I can assure you that I have never repeated that mistake.

We don’t always have to learn the “hard way,” but can learn from the mistakes of others so that we don’t have to “burn our hands” with every task that we are called to accomplish. I have been working through the lives of Saul and David in my personal Bible study time and the Spirit of God keeps bringing me back to some lessons that He wants me to learn by observing the failures in the leadership of Saul. I am deeply concerned that those who lead worship lead in such a way that glorifies God and avoids the tragedies exemplified in the lives of so many in Scripture. I would like to add four more lessons we can learn by understanding the failure from Saul, Israel’s first king.

 1. Saul confused manipulation with leading by a positive example. After Saul is crowned king, he received the news that the Ammonites were going to attack Jabesh in Israel [1 Samuel 11]. Notice Saul’s response in verses 6-8:  
“When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger. He took a pair of oxen, cut them into pieces, and sent the pieces by messengers throughout Israel, proclaiming, ‘This is what will be done to the oxen of anyone who does not follow Saul and Samuel.’ Then the terror of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out together as one.”

  Saul is filled with the Spirit of God, but rather than saying that the pagans were defying the Living God [as David has done with Goliath], or even just sending pieces of the oxen out to everyone, he added a threat. In this initial call to arms, the fear of God came on the people and they follow “Saul and Samuel.” God used Saul to win the victory in spite of the method of his recruiting troops, not because of it. This fear was initially motivated by the fear of losing their own cattle. [Already God had touched the hearts of some men to follow Saul [1 Samuel 10:26], but in this case Saul doesn’t see them as enough, and Scripture is silent as to how many these early followers were.] Saul’s relationship with God seemed to be secondary in that it was through Samuel, not one based from a personal walk with God. Saul could not lead by example, he had to default to manipulation and fear. Unfortunately, there are very few signs that his leadership skills ever surpassed these methods.

 Worship leadership that stoops to manipulation and threats to “lead and motivate” others only proves that it can do neither: lead nor motivate. Such behavior reflects only great gaps of character and immaturity in their relationship with Christ.  

2. Saul confused winning a battle with winning the war. After Saul defeated the Ammonites, there was a shift in Saul’s battle plans. Where at first he responded in a defensive manner, his next move was offensive in character. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul and Jonathan made an unprovoked attack on a Philistine outpost and have incurred the wrath of the pagan army. Over confident in his own abilities as commanding general, his initiative proves his undoing. As the armies of the Philistines began to amass, fear overwhelmed the Israelite army, and Saul’s soldiers began to scatter. Tired of waiting on Samuel the prophet and God’s direction, Saul offers the sacrifice himself. This breach of practice was not a mere desire to have God’s blessing and thus couldn’t wait, it was direct disobedience to God’s command.

Following God’s instructions was not just an option, but an absolute necessity for the leader that God chooses. One victory doesn’t guarantee future victory, and such assumptions are foolish especially when done outside the direct command of God. One poor decision only leads to another.  

3. He shifted his focus to from defending the people to defending his position. Saul continued making poor choices, even when God gave him another opportunity by bringing retribution on the Amalekites for what they had done to Israel in the past. Unfortunately, Saul caved into his own fear of the men, and for shows his lack of leadership again by not being able to control his own soldiers. The prophet condemned the kings and pronounces his fate:  

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?” “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.” But Samuel replied: “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.” ... As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” [1 Samuel 15: 17-23, 27-29]

Saul’s focus began to shift from this point on looking for the one that God had chosen to replace him as king. On numerous occasions Saul attempted to kill David. The longer he was in power, the more effort he put in chasing down David to take his life.

When some leaders sense their position and power are being threatened, their focus changes from doing what needs to be done to self preservation. God is the ultimate protector of our reputation. The One who placed the leadership in the position they are in is well able to protect them or remove them as He sees fit.

4. He confused the mercy and grace of God with the approval of God. Perhaps one of the most bewildering things of all in this biblical account is that God left Saul in power for 40 years. Saul’s life was marked with a few great military victories and a series of tragic failures as a leader. He had lost the respect of those under him as well as the moral authority to lead. All he did have was the position. The longer Saul stayed in power, the more he assumed everything he did was right. He became his own standard for right and wrong. He misunderstood the mercy and grace of God that allowed him countless times and opportunity to repent and respond correctly.

God had even anointed David as the new king, but David does not take any initiative to remove Saul, allowing God to do this on His timetable. [Speculation that David was too young and lacked experience might be a valid consideration, as well as the fact that God was building His character into David by allowing him to go through the years of hiding from Saul. David needed to learn that God was his fortress and shield when being chased, he needed learn to seek God in discouragement, etc. Some of the most endeared psalms were written during these years. These may be valid, but only God knows why He did what He did.] Saul just never understood.

We must never confuse God’s mercy and grace with His approval. Sometimes God blesses us to bring us to repentance; sometimes he disciplines us to bring us to repentance. Saul’s life ended tragically, and ironically after a failed attempt at suicide, at the hands of an Amalekite. His great battle victories forgotten, Saul leaves a legacy of failures in character and leadership.  

Do we always have to learn lessons the hard way? What is the “take away” from the life of Saul as a leader? We must learn from the mistakes of leaders like Saul to help us avoid repeating similar failures. -We must lead by positive example, above reproach, never manipulating or in unethical ways. 
-We must not confuse one or two major victories and think that we are invincible. 
-We must focus on what God has called us to do, not on how to keep our power and position. 
-We must never confuse God’s mercy and grace with His approval.

{This is Part 2 of a Character Study on the Life of Saul. The first part is found at: Worship HeartCries: Are There Sheep Bleating in Your Ministry? }

Monday, May 7, 2012

Who Decides What Is Good?

The truths in God’s Word are inexhaustible. I was reminded greatly of this in a Bible Study led by Dr. Bob Cole at our church recently. I have been reading the Bible through each year for nearly 40 years and have heard countless sermons on Genesis, Adam and Eve, etc., but I had never heard some of the truths I heard just two weeks ago. Dr. Cole, who did his doctoral in Hebrew, shared how the writer of Genesis would add the commentary “and God saw that it was good” after God would speak into existence different aspects of creation. God also defined that “it was not good” that man should be alone, and so a helpmate was formed from him. From the very beginning, God was the one who determined what was good and what was not.

When the serpent tempted Eve, the temptation dealt in questioning God and God’s Word. The back side of the temptation was getting Eve and eventually Adam, to reject God’s design and set their own standard for what was “good.” Scripture states that “when Eve saw that the fruit was good, she took some of it and ate.” Up until that time God alone had set the standards of determining what was good. The rebellion in the garden was not just about going against the direct command of God, but establishing one’s own standard for what was good. The application is simple, anytime we come to the place where we bypass God and set up our own standards for what is good for us, we have fallen into the same temptation as the first two in the garden of Eden. Choosing to make our own decisions about what is good is tempting because it appeals to our pride. We want, in our fallen selves, to make our own decisions. It is somehow degrading to have to take someone else's (even God's) advice. Dr. Cole shared much more, but I will narrow the discussion on the above, and honestly, I am still processing as the Spirit of God is working the applications in my own life. The implications for worship leadership are our focus at the moment. God has declared what pleases Him, what He has declared as good, He has declared what is not good. Correct worship style and musical taste are not specifically clarified in Scripture; the object and focus of worship are. The focus of worship is God and God alone. Obedience is better than sacrifice and the attitudes with which we approach God are important. These are only basic, foundational concepts.

When we begin to define what God accepts as "good" by our own standards and not God's, then we are falling to the same temptation as Adam and Eve. Remember God's admonition to Samuel when looking to anoint a new king: "man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart." Our natural tendency is to assume God approves of what we have defined as good, worshipful, and meaningful, which many times is based on our feelings or emotional response. Worship is our obedience response to the revealed nature and character of God, and without that obedient response our worship is incomplete. If we ignore obedient response, we are redefining what Scripture teaches about worship and succumb to the same temptation as Eden's first pair.

The question is, "Who decides what is good in worship for you?" Keeping these thoughts in mind can make a world of difference as we plan and as we function as "lead worshipers."