The Danger of Partial Obedience

Real obedience is “right away, all the way, and with a happy heart.” Anything else is disobedience.

By Mark D. Harris

My oldest daughter Anna hates washing dishes. While she was growing up, whenever my wife or I asked her to rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher, she suddenly remembered homework or some other desperately important thing to do. My wife Nancy would ask again and again until Anna started shouting and Nancy started crying. Eventually I would intervene and Anna would do the dishes. She did a fine job, but the process was exhausting.

“Mack”, an employee of mine from several years ago, never refused to do a task, but did a poor job at it. If I asked him to update a spreadsheet, he might update a column and leave the rest unchanged. This had the unfortunate effect of changing the results in most of the other columns and ruining everything. In the time it took to correct his work, I could have done it, and four other things. “Mack” soon found other opportunities.

Sometimes we identify tasks that we would rather not do and assign them to ourselves. Often someone else, like a parent or a boss, gives us undesired work. Parents have varying amounts of influence with their children, but workers who wish to keep their jobs rarely refuse their bosses. The right way to handle a legitimate command from an authority is right away, all the way, and with a happy heart, but few manage this. Instead, people partially obey, either resisting as long as possible or doing barely adequate work. Both are partial obedience, which is the same as total disobedience. This article will look at the example of King Saul of Israel and discuss four things that people do when they partially obey.


In 1 Samuel 15, God commanded King Saul to destroy the Amalekites, a nomadic tribe that had attempted to crush the Hebrew nation several times before. In the accordance with God’s earlier command to Joshua, every man and beast was to be killed, from the mighty king to the suckling child, and from the stallion to the kitten. Why God gave that command is the topic for another article.

Saul and his men smashed the Amalekites, killing every person except the king, and every animal that they did not want to keep. They kept the Lord’s command only as far as they wanted to. God was displeased; Saul’s partial obedience was really total disobedience. As a result, God rejected Saul from being king, and a short time later, anointed David as ruler of Israel (1 Samuel 16).

We do only as much of the task as we like

Most people are able to find something in any task which they enjoy, or at least tolerate. In the brutal cultures of the ancient near east, and everywhere else on the globe, war was the sport of kings.[1] Saul looked upon the coming surprise attack on the Amalekites as an opportunity for glory and treasure. In a well planned and executed ambush, Israel massacred its enemies, military and civilian. Only King Agag remained alive, probably to demonstrate Saul’s might over his foes.

Saul had destroyed a city, but as a pastoral people, the wealth of Amalek was primarily in livestock, not in gold, silver, precious stones, or merchandise. The king had victory but his troops expected plunder. Since the Hebrews had exterminated the people, they could not take female slaves. The only other booty available was livestock, and that needed to be kept alive to be valuable. Until the modern era, soldiers were often paid through pillage, and Saul probably had no other way to pay his troops. So the king kept the animals, and disobeyed God.

The Lord wanted King Saul to complete the task that He had commanded, but Saul did only the part that he liked. The king could easily justify his actions, but his obedience remained partial. As a result, God rejected Saul from being king. Saul reigned for many more years, but his rule degenerated into weakness, illness, and farce. When we fail to fully follow God’s commands, He rejects us from our positions as well. Whether we are ministers, merchants or managers, disobedience will lead us down the same path as King Saul.

We make monuments to ourselves

Having defeated the Amalekites, secured plunder, and thus satisfied his army, Saul commissioned a monument to himself on Mount Carmel, one of the highest places in the area (1 Samuel 15:12). Such a monument would have practical value; reminding the Hebrews of his great victory, legitimizing his rule and dynasty, providing stability to the nation, and warning to other nations not to challenge Israel. King Saul was not unique; he did what was expected of rulers. Historically, kings have been renowned for fighting (David, Alexander) or for building (Solomon, Herod).

Moderns do the same. Most people remember Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II, a few can name his predecessor, derided for appeasement at Munich, but almost no one can name his successor. Our best remembered presidents are war presidents – Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Wealthy men build universities (John Harvard, Elihu Yale) and set up foundations (John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford) to memorialize themselves.

People of lesser means make monuments to themselves by writing books, behaving badly, or being social media celebrities. We even use our children as monuments to ourselves. I coach my youngest daughter’s soccer team, and during the final game of a tournament (from which we had been eliminated), parents and coaches from both sides screamed at each other, shouted profanities, and nearly came to blows. The game was no longer about the children; but about the adults.

God does not need glory; He is infinite in glory already, and you can’t add to infinity. As the Creator and Mover behind all things, He deserves all glory. Furthermore, humans have physical and psychological needs to give Him glory. Implicit in every task that the Lord gives us is the command to give Him glory. To take glory for ourselves, such as by building monuments, is to disobey that part of God’s command.

We deny our partial obedience, and try to justify ourselves with ritual

When King Saul saw the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel, Saul reported that he had obeyed the Lord. Samuel openly challenged his assessment, and Saul countered that the animals were to be used for a burnt offering to God. Saul’s excuse is hard to believe – the soldiers would have been paid with plunder, and such a mass sacrifice was unnecessary under the Law. Even if the king had planned to sacrifice all of the livestock, he would have been substituting religious ritual for obedience. Samuel replied, as David would write after his most famous sins about 40 years later, that the Lord wanted pure hearts and obedient hands, not the blood of calves and goats.

How many people live shamefully Saturday nights and try to make amends by being active and “holy” on Sunday? How many pastors, rabbis, priests, shamans, and imams visit elderly women in hospitals by day, visit young women in brothels by night, confess, and repeat? Behaving badly and trying to atone for it by ritual is not limited to religious leaders; executives, politicians, athletes, artists, and military officers do the same. People assuage guilty consciences with “noble” thoughts, charity, community service, and religious activity. Poor conduct followed by ritual “cleansing” is not limited by race or sex either. Mothers have murdered their children, wives have slept with their lovers, and then tried to justify their actions with flimsy excuses or make amends with perfunctory apologies.  There is no “master race” or “nobler sex”; indeed “there is none righteous, no, not one.”

Partial obedience is total disobedience. No thought, word, act, or ritual can change this fact. Our efforts to atone for our selfish deeds are as disobedient to God’s command as they are futile. God the Father has provided God the Son, Jesus Christ, and His sacrifice alone can cleanse us from our sin.

We blame others for our disobedience

Saul blamed his soldiers for wanting to keep the livestock and therefore causing him to disobey the Lord’s command (1 Samuel 15:24). With these very words, the king proved himself unworthy of his title. Saul was the absolute ruler of Israel, responsible for every person in his realm but also holding life and death authority over his people. To complain that he was afraid of his soldiers was a stunning admission of incompetence. Napoleon spilled oceans of blood but never feared his soldiers. He was a military genius, knew a large proportion of his troops by name, and endured with them. God had rejected Saul from being king, and Saul’s excuse for his partial obedience proved that God was right.

Few leaders have authority over life and death today, but that is no excuse for blaming others for the leader’s mistakes. A commander in the US Army today would be (or at least should be) instantly relieved of command if he made Saul’s excuse. One of the biggest problems in modern society is that leaders try to keep glory for themselves and shift blame to others. Hillary Clinton failed in her duties; blaming her staff for the tragedy at Benghazi, and claiming incompetence to justify her misuse of classified emails.  She is not the only 21st century leader to have done so.

Ordinary people, likewise, are infected with the “blame others” disease. Society tells us that we are victims of circumstances, whether biological, chemical, social, or parental, and we readily believe it. We pursue power but we eschew responsibility because with it comes guilt.  We tell favored groups that they are the victims of unfavored groups, and that therefore they bear no responsibility for their actions. Oppression certainly exists and must be remedied, but every man and woman will stand before God, accountable for their own wickedness.

Since Adam blamed Eve for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, people have blamed others for their wicked deeds. Excuses notwithstanding, the Lord of the Universe demands blood for every sin (Ezekiel 18:20). The only question is whose blood, the sinner or the Lamb?


King Saul partly obeyed God, and God rejected him as ruler of Israel. We partly obey God, thereby totally disobeying Him. If we persist, He eventually rejects us from our place of service as well.  If we understand and complete each task, give the glory to God, reject excuses, and avoid blaming others, we have fully obeyed. The Lord will keep us in the work that He has assigned, and bless us in it. Only then have we truly loved (John 14:15), and truly experienced abundant life (John 10:10).



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