Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Insanity of Faith

Sometimes, when I read stories from the Old Testament like this morning’s lesson (1 Samuel 13:5-18), I’m left with a feeling that God’s sense of justice and my sense of justice don’t always line up. But I also think that’s the point. Today’s story, like so many others from the bible, involves God withdrawing his favor from one of his servants who did something that seems perfectly reasonable to me but, nevertheless, wasn’t according to God’s will. The real issue here is faith. Do I have what it takes to trust God no matter what?

Saul, the first king of Israel, the military and political leader of God’s people, is in a pinch. He’s assembled his troops where Samuel, leader, judge, and prophet, had asked Saul to wait. The enemy’s armies are encamped against Israel, and their numbers were staggering: “thirty thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” And the time for Samuel’s appointed appearance has come and gone. Saul and his people are getting nervous. Many of the king’s fighters have begun to desert him, fleeing to hide in caves, tombs, and cisterns. Saul needs to do something to rally his troops. Samuel is delayed—maybe worse. No one is there to remind the people of Israel that God is on their side. So Saul does what any strong leader might do. He takes the burnt offering and offers it to God himself, rather than wait for Samuel to do it. Bad move.

Of course, just as a Hollywood portrayal of this story would show, as soon as Saul finishes with the burnt offering, Samuel shows up and says, “What are you doing!” Although perfectly reasonable, Saul’s actions were not permitted. He had stepped beyond his appointed duties and assumed a priestly/prophetic role. For this, Samuel says, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you; for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever. But now your kingdom shall not continue.” For his desperate improvisation in the face of calamity, Saul is punished…even though his intentions were good. Justice?

This story is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction within me. “That’s not fair!” I’m supposed to cry. “You can’t do that to Saul! He deserves better. Samuel was late. What else was he supposed to do?” The author wants the reader to sympathize with the wayward king—to fully appreciate the rationale behind his actions. Only then, after setting us up, does the nature of God’s justice have its full effect. I’m supposed to be dazzled by the way God works. I’m supposed to be in awe of the way this story plays out. That’s because, in my own life, I’m supposed to surrender to God’s ability to provide for me and not worry whether that provision makes sense.

Faith requires patience—sometimes blind patience. If I ever find myself in a moment of “certain disaster,” I’m never supposed to say to myself, “Well, God surely can’t get me out of this pickle. I’d better do something on my own.” That’s the exact opposite of faith. And faith doesn’t mean anything unless it withstands the most trying of circumstances. Saul was in a pickle. He was facing insurmountable odds. But what made him think that God wouldn’t take of him? Why, in the moment in which he needed God the most, did he decide to do things his way? Similarly, why, in my moment of greatest need, do I think that I am better able to handle the situation than God?

Our greatest faith is reserved for our moments of greatest need. Those are the times when it’s easiest to give up on God and decide to do things myself. In that state of irrational fear, that makes sense. But my logic, which is bound by my supreme limitations, is flawed. Although my moments of greatest difficulty might be the moments in which I could convince myself that I know what’s best, faith requires that I stop and trust that God will provide—no matter how illogical that might seem.

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