When Obedience Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense

The air in southern Belize was hot and sticky as I saw Maya and Garifuna villagers in my jungle clinic in June and July of 1987.  Having only a stethoscope, some donated medications, the books Where There is No Doctor and Merck Manual, an undergraduate biology degree, and a little experience, I had come to Belize before medical school as a volunteer with Central American Outreach Ministries (CAOM). Dozens of patients lined up for care before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and in between we farmed the banana plantation and orange tree nursery, fed chickens and pigs, took eggs, pumped water, and built a new clinic. John Collier was the founder of CAOM, and he worked on the ranch with two long term volunteers, a man and a woman in their late 20s. The four of us hosted a volunteer team from West Virginia. Once per week we took a side trip, hiking to the ruins of a Mayan temple, swimming in a jungle pool, or relaxing on the Belizean beach near Dangriga.

John Collier had been a successful builder and pilot when he was nearly killed in his company plane. During the emergency John had promised God to sell his business and become a missionary if He would save him. God did, and John was faced with the prospect of redirecting his life. The change was painful, and in many ways did not seem to make sense, as John had been active in church and supported other missionaries. Nonetheless, he kept his promise and CAOM was born. When John Collier died on 17 June 2016, he had served forty years in Belize, hosted over 400 missions teams, built a ranch, a mission house, a hotel, and dozens of other projects, and introduced thousands of people to Jesus Christ.

God often calls His people to do things that don’t seem to make sense. We plan our future according to what we think will make us financially successful, safe, and comfortable. Using the limited information at our disposal, we make what seem to be the logical choices, or at least those choices that we like the most and can justify to ourselves, our families, and our friends.  The Bible has many stories of people who obeyed God even though it did not seem to make sense, and we will review one such incident today. Our question will be, “How can we obey God even when obeying Him does not seem to make sense?” For a change of pace, we will use an equation for our answer.

Background (1 Samuel 26)

Saul was king of Israel, but had failed to obey God, and so the Lord ordered the prophet Samuel to anoint David as king. Saul discovered this rival and spent years hunting for him in the Judean wilderness. David gathered a band of about 600 men around him and managed to elude Saul’s army while providing protection for local ranchers (1 Samuel 25). David spared Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24), and Saul temporarily withdrew his pursuers, but a tip from some locals in the Wilderness of Ziph induced Saul to chase David again.

King Saul personally led an army of 3,000 chosen soldiers into the rugged, desert mountains of southeastern Judea. One night, while the king slept surrounded by his army and their general, Abner, David and his companion Abishai snuck into their camp. They passed the sleeping watchmen and wound their way through the bodyguard. Coming to Saul, Abishai offered to slay the sleeping regent. He believed that the Lord Himself had given David the permission and the opportunity to slay his enemy.

David, however, refused. He would not assassinate Saul, the Lord’s anointed, even though Saul had rejected God and was trying to kill David. Instead, the two took evidence that they had been there, Saul’s spear and water jug, and escaped. Just before dawn and from a safe distance, David announced to Abner and Saul what he had done. He produced proof, the spear and the jug. Saul, chastened by David’s courage and skill, returned to Jerusalem.

The Equation

Courage + History of Obedience + Facts/Emotions + Knowing God’s Character + Wisdom about Human Nature = Obedience

With this equation as our guide, let us consider this story and see how David obeyed God by not killing Saul even when sparing his life did not seem to make sense.

Courage

Except for certain of the Ziphites, David was popular among the people of the area. He had treated them fairly in the past, was a skilled leader and mighty warrior, and thus had legitimacy as a ruler. David’s spies told him that Saul was personally leading this army, and good reconnaissance showed him where Saul was physically located in camp. At this point, most other leaders would send a team into the enemy camp to kill the king. Doing so would protect David from harm, but also remove his ability to control the team’s actions once they got to Saul. It might be a sign of wisdom to his followers, but it certainly would not be a sign of courage. Instead of sending someone else, David asked for a single volunteer to accompany him. The man who had the most to lose was going to handle this most dangerous mission himself. Imagine what his men must have felt.

How often do we fail to obey God for want of courage? How often do we fear to follow and then justify our fear with a list of “logical” reasons for disobedience? We justify inaction because we feel that we don’t know the will of God. We want a detailed map and timeline of how God plans to work in our lives, and we want to know the outcome before we begin. The Lord never works this way; He only gives us enough information to take the next step.

History of Obedience

Obedience to God is a habit – the more we obey, the easier it is to obey in the future. Also, the more we obey in the little things, the easier it is to obey in the bigger things. The converse is also true. David obeyed God when caring for sheep, when facing Goliath, when playing music for Saul, and when he could have killed Saul in a similar situation. David’s pattern of lifelong, albeit imperfect, obedience enabled him to again spare Saul’s life in this most trying of circumstances.

No man obeys the Lord flawlessly; few men consciously try. But those who continually practice the presence of God, asking Him what to do in common situations, listening, and obeying, reap a rich reward. Such men learn to know God, which is the ultimate blessing, and to obey Him. Those who have no history of obedience should not be surprised when they falter at challenges, and when they fail to obey, in the future.

Do we have a history of obedience? Do we speak to God while waiting in line or sitting at a stop light, asking Him what to do next? Do we go to Him in prayer for guidance? Do we wait to receive an answer? Do we recognize the answers that He provides? Do we obey when He tells us what to do?

Facts over Emotions

When David’s friend Abishai stood over Saul ready to strike him down, David was excited. Saul had pursued David and his men for years, and David wanted his adversary dead. He knew that God had allowed him to sneak unmolested into camp, and that God had anointed him king. David did not even have to personally dispatch Saul, his tormentor. Abishai would do it. Many men would have let Abishai kill Saul, and if public opinion had gone against them, would have denied giving permission and executed Abishai. There were plausible ways that David could have justified killing Saul, and he really wanted to.

Despite these emotions, David also knew some important facts. No matter how misguided he had become, Saul had been anointed as king of Israel by God. To murder the king in his sleep had serious consequences:

  1. Killing a sleeping man could not be considered honorable, much less heroic.
  2. Saul still had legitimacy in the eyes of many of the people, especially the ten northern Hebrew tribes. Even after Saul’s death by the hand of the Philistines, it took David years to win the support of these people. After Solomon’s reign, the House of David lost the ten northern tribes forever. Had he assassinated Saul, David probably would never have received their backing.
  3. David was considered a brigand. The people of Keilah, Nabal, and the Ziphites were among many who opposed him, and his own band of men included some unsavory characters (1 Samuel 22:2).
  4. Allowing Abishai to kill Saul, and later denying involvement and killing Abishai, would not have protected David in the court of public opinion. Such pitiful leadership may be acceptable to politicians today, but was not in ancient Israel.
  5. David’s anointing several years before had been secret, and even now few people knew of it. He had no prophetic legitimacy, and Samuel was dead.
  6. To have killed the king would have set a precedent in Israelite life, and David’s own life would have been in danger.

David had spent many hours thinking of all of these facts. With Saul’s life in his hands, David overcame his emotions and obeyed God. Do we practice putting facts over emotions? Do we control our emotions, or do we let our emotions run away with us? God’s people feel emotion, they do not deny them, but they always subordinate their emotions to their godly will.

Knowing God’s Character

David did not know how God would make him king. In fact, soon after this episode, David became depressed, despaired of his life, and fled to the Philistines (1 Samuel 27:1-4). This was a desperate move because living among these implacable enemies of Israel would harm David’s standing in the eyes of his own people. He and his men lived a double life, always in danger of being discovered by the Philistines and of being rejected by the Hebrews. From his little room in Gath, David would hardly have been human if he had not second guessed his decision to spare Saul that night in Hachilah.

Nonetheless, David knew God. The Ten Commandments forbade murder and the Law taught that God alone would chose Israel’s king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). David had experienced the heart of God throughout his life, and this knowledge prevented him from killing Saul. David valued a clean conscience and a pure heart; he could not abide guilt before God (Psalm 51).

Do we know God’s character? Do we know what the Bible says about similar situations to those we face? Have we meditated on His word so that we feel what He feels in a given situation, at least sometimes? Do we fear guilt before God more than anything else? Do we strive to keep a clean conscience and a pure heart, even if it costs us trouble?

Wisdom about Human Nature

Standing undetected over the sleeping King Saul, David and Abishai had three options:

  1. Killing him
  2. Leaving him alive, but doing nothing else. They would have had trouble convincing their own men that they could have killed the king, and the lesson that David needed to make about respecting the life of the Lord’s anointed would have been lost. They could never have convinced Saul’s army that they spared his life. Their mission would probably have been considered a failure.
  3. Leaving him alive, but taking evidence that they had been there. This diminished Abner’s stature, as well as those of his guards, while raising that of David and his men. No mere brigand would have spared Saul’s life.

A shrewd judge of human nature, David took Saul’s water jug and spear, two items that would have been distinctive to the king. No one could say that he had stolen someone else’ equipment, and no one in the army could have escaped censure for not protecting their king.

Are we wise in the ways of human nature? Do we think carefully about what we wish to do and why?

Conclusion

Christians are commanded to obey God, whether or not such obedience makes sense given our limited information and inadequate powers of reason. David was faced with such a situation, and he obeyed.  The following equation can help us remember how to obey when obedience doesn’t seem to make sense.

Courage + History of Obedience + Facts/Emotions + Knowing God’s Character + Wisdom about Human Nature = Obedience

Talking points, rules of thumb, and even “equations” are easy to understand but hard to practice. The Lord commands His people to obey, and if we had perfect knowledge, there is nothing else that we would rather do. It is up to us to do the things that we have learned here.

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When a Christian Ends His Own Life

My wife called me at work several weeks ago; the morning was good but the news was not. Our daughter had been perusing her friends’ posts on Facebook and saw some from one family that were unclear but disturbing. We called them, close personal friends for over 15 years, and learned that their oldest son had killed himself.

It was a painful shock. These friends were dedicated Christians and had raised their children in the faith. We had known this young man since he was a little boy, playing at our house and sharing birthdays and holidays. He had prospered in the US Army. In the past year, he had inexplicably severed ties with his family and joined a cult.

Our mental and emotional roller coaster began in earnest. How could such a promising young Christian man sink so deeply into despair and confusion that he could do this? Why couldn’t any of us reach him to prevent this? Why hadn’t we prayed more for him when he was growing up, and especially when he went astray? The thought crept in about what this cult may have done to him, and how we could punish them for it.

Two questions are the most important, however. The first is “Is this young man in heaven with the Lord, or has his final, desperate act somehow undone the saving work of God in his life?” The second is “how do we protect God’s children from the despair that so often ends in suicide?” We will address the first question here.

The Lord put on my heart to pray for the family again this morning. Afterwards I read an email from the father. He wrote “We don’t understand it other than he was temporarily led astray by a deceiver, but we have a hope that God did not allow his precious sheep’s soul to be snatched away for good.”

The Problem

We must begin by admitting that suicide, ending one’s own life, is a sin in the eyes of God. The command “Thou shalt not kill” speaks specifically to murder, the Hebrew word (רצח ratsach – to kill) referring accidental or intentional homicide rather than killing an enemy, usually in war (הרג harag), or killing in legal justice (מות muwth – to be executed). As suicide is self-homicide, it falls under the prohibition in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). However, nowhere in the Commandments does the Bible imply that killing is somehow worse than the other things listed there and nowhere does it imply that homicide/suicide somehow disqualifies a person for salvation. If it did, Moses (Exodus 2:11-14), David (2 Samuel 11:14-21) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16) would be disqualified from salvation.

Medicine has much to say about suicide, but the final common pathway is that those who commit suicide do so because they see their problems as overwhelming and believe that there is no way out; no future for them. People who are depressed and who use alcohol and/or illicit drugs are more likely to end their own lives. Chronic painful illness and epilepsy are other risk factors. It is not clear that treatment is preventive; over half of people who ultimately commit suicide have received mental health care in the previous week. Medicine, however, cannot answer the question at hand, “Will a Christian who commits suicide still go to heaven?” We must look to the Bible to find the answer.

Biblical Witness

There are several examples of suicide in the Bible.

Person Passage Situation
Abimelech Judges 9:50-54 Abimelech, ruler of part of Israel and the   treacherous son of Jerubbaal (Gideon), was mortally wounded by a woman   casting a millstone down from a tower.    He told his armor bearer to kill him lest he die at the hand of a   woman.
Samson Judges 16:23-31 Samson, one of the judges of Israel, was captured   and blinded by the Philistines.  Rather   than remain a sightless slave to his enemies, Samson asked God to give him   the strength to destroy the Philistine temple, even though it would result in   his own death.
King Saul 1 Samuel 31:2-5 Saul was badly wounded by Philistine archers in   battle and he asked his armor bearer to kill him so his enemies would not   torment him before he died.
Ahithophel 2 Samuel 17:23 Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, asked Ahithophel   how to attack to end his father’s reign.    Ahithophel provided wise counsel, but Absalom rejected it.  Anticipating Absalom’s subsequent defeat   and his own execution, Ahithophel hung himself.
Zimri 1 Kings 16:15-20 Zimri, commander of Israel, assassinated Elah, the   king of Israel.  Israelite forces under   another commander, Omri, rebelled against Zimri.  When Omri prevailed against Zimri’s forces   and captured his stronghold city, Zimri burned the palace down over him.
Judas Matthew 27:3-5 After betraying Jesus, Judas felt remorse at   betraying innocent blood and killed himself.

What can Christians learn from these examples? The first is that the men saw no future for themselves. Abimelech had no way of knowing whether he was actually going to die, and he was cogent enough to talk. Medically speaking, he probably had a skull fracture but his Glasgow Coma Scale was probably at least 12, possibly survivable at the time. However, he saw no future and therefore died. Samson could have lived but wanted vengeance on his enemies. It is impossible to know how badly Saul was wounded but even seemingly mortal wounds occasionally heal. Ahithophel, Zimri and Judas could have lived on but felt they had no future and so killed themselves.

The second thing to notice is that not all of these men had evidence of mental health illness. Saul may have been depressed or bipolar but we don’t know enough about the others to suggest a diagnosis. Substance abuse was common in ancient Israel (Proverbs 23:29-35) but in the examples above acute intoxication does not seem to have played a role.

A third observation is that in every case the person who died at their own hand had lost control of their lives and wanted to maintain at least the control over their death.

A fourth thing to note is that nowhere does the Bible specifically condemn these men. Jesus said that Judas would have been better off if he had never been born (Matthew 26:24-25) but that was because of Judas had a heart of darkness which would eventually betray the Master and destroy the owner; it was not because he was about to kill himself.

Will a Christian who has ended his own life go to heaven and enjoy eternal life with God?

Suicide is a sin, an example of disobedience to our Creator, but it is not unpardonable. It is the result of a tragic series of ideas and events that result in a person feeling that he has insurmountable problems and no future. On one hand, suicide separates us from eternal salvation no more effectively than any other sin does, even those that seem innocuous. On the other hand, suicide is the one sin from which man can never repent.

But Jesus took to the cross all of the sins of those whom the Father gave Him (John 17), including sins past, sins present, and even sins future. Salvation ultimately is of the Lord (John 1:12-13, Romans 9:16), though it is available to whosoever will (John 3:16). Since salvation is an act of God, it cannot be reversed by man by any means. Consider Paul’s magnificent promise:

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written,
“FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Life is long and hard and there are many ways that humans, weak and sinful as we are, can go off track. The love of God, manifest in Jesus Christ, can save and will save His children even when they fall into such despair that they take their own life.

Conclusion

There is no greater horror to a parent than to lose his child, and no worse way to lose a child than through suicide. Guilt, blame, fear, anger, and sadness will continue to trouble parents, siblings, family and friends until the end of life. On this side of the grave, the pain will never entirely go away. One burden that Christians who have experienced such tragedies should not have to bear is doubt about the eternal salvation of their departed loved one. If the loved one ever truly trusted Jesus, they trust Him now.