Prophet Samuel’s words “obedience is better than sacrifice” have become a common Christian lingo. His audience when he spoke them was Saul, a man who was no novice when it came to disobeying God’s commands. Previously he had just sinned by assuming the role reserved for the priest, for which the Lord rejected him and promised not to establish his kingdom over Israel for all time – 1 Samuel 13:13.
Here he was two chapters later pushing the envelope again; sparing sheep and cattle from the plunder after war and offering the best of them as sacrifice to God – 1 Samuel 15:21. He cared less that God’s clear command had been that nothing be spared.
He thought God would delight more in sacrifices, but his fleeting wisdom would soon be overtaken by the reality of his foolishness when Samuel asked “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams – 1 Samuel 15:22”.
Asaph and David echo Samuel’s truth later in the Psalms;
“I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens” – Psalm 50:9
“Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High” – Psalm 50:14
Unlike Saul who brought himself judgment by seeking to earn God’s favor through sacrifices He didn’t need, David threw himself headlong into the arms of redemption by acknowledging how empty any sacrifice he could bring God was. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” – Psalm 51:16, he confesses.
Another subtle sacrifice God despises
How about us? We may live thousands of years after these men lived, and monetary gifts to the church may have taken the place of sheep and cattle, but the God they worshiped is the very same one we worship also.
This unchanging God (Hebrews 13:8) still prefers obedience to burnt offerings, to our monetary tithes and offerings, and to another sacrifice we hardly ever find fault in.
The flaws of this third sacrifice are never obvious to the eye because of how closely it mimics true devotion. Its cost is way greater, and often it will be the more devoted believers who will fall into its trap.
I was never quite aware of this trap in my very own life and ministry until recently when I had a brief chat with a friend I hadn’t been in contact with for a while. When I last spoke to him, he was still a missionary in Marsabit loving on the Samburus with the Gospel.
But as we talked I was pleased to learn that he, his wife and their two children were on their way to Lodwar. Their assignment in Marsabit was done and a new mountain to be conquered waited to their delight. While many prefer the ease of Nairobi, this family thrills at moving from one hard station to the next.
The heat, the struggle with language, adapting to new culture, and opposition from men and Satan are all welcome challenges because nothing pleases them more than that their lives get to join other saints in singing “You are worthy to take the Scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” – Revelation 5:9.
Saints I wouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath with. Men like Paul who always made it his ambition to preach Christ where no one had preached him before (Romans 15:20), even when that meant unspeakable persecution. Men like William Carey who famously said “We must expect great things from God, and we must attempt great things for God” and backed it up by going to India and singlehandedly spurring the greatest missions movement yet.
Women like Helen Roseveare who in the midst of great suffering – she had been assaulted multiple times, raped even by rebels in Congo, felt the Lord say to her “You asked me, when you were first converted, for the privilege of being a missionary. This is it. Don’t you want it?… These are not your sufferings. They’re mine. All I ask of you is the loan of your body.”
I envied my friend. I wished I was him. My wife and I have for a while prayed that God will someday allow us the privilege of living cross culturally and serving as missionaries in places we might even not know yet. Hard places only God’s glory can motivate one to. But this wonderful desire, at least for me has sometimes contained within it a not so wonderful motivation.
“What wrong motivation could produce such a good longing?” you ask. The thought of just how cool it will be to part this life as one who lived it so peculiarly; the heroism of giving up so much for the sake of Christ. Don’t you sometimes wish that your devotion will be talked of so highly like we do Paul’s, or William Carey’s, or Dr. Roseveare’s?
At the heart of such a desire are people. Not God. It is the praise of men we subtly seek, not the glory of God. We welcome suffering because men will hail it. “Oh how daring he was”, “Few can give up everything in life for the sake of the Gospel like she did”, and praise upon praise we picture our biographies littered with.
We are not so much motivated by the joy set before us like we are by the praise around us and someday upon death, behind us. Jesus however endured the greatest undeserved suffering because of the joy that was set before Him – Hebrews 12:2. He didn’t wish for death so He could be hailed as the most loving and selfless man that ever lived. He embraced it in the greatest act of obedience there ever will be.
The future motivated Him more than the present and impending past. The praise of His Father delighted Him more than the praise of me
My devotion sought the right things but lacked the right motivation. And God is helping me understand that though sacrifice may appeal more, He desires obedience of me instead. While pursuing sacrifice may insist I live overseas as a missionary, obedience may pluck my family from the comfort of Nairobi and plant us in Juba, South Sudan, or Tehran, but it also may establish us here all our lives for God’s bidding.
With obedience, persecution in the harshest of mission fields is not treated as more meaningful than faithful service in a city where the Church enjoys so much freedom. Death as a martyr, though more painful is not superior to daily dying to self.
Unlike sacrifice that obsesses with where to serve and with what fashion one does serve, obedience simply cares that a command has faithfully been fulfilled.
God is not against sacrifices
The words of Samuel, Asaph and David can easily be misconstrued as implying that God hates sacrifice. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God instituted sacrifice and so He couldn’t hate it. What He abhors is the wrong vessel attempting to sacrifice to Him. If a man’s heart is far from Him, what he gives by his hand will only push God farther.
“God does not ask us to choose between obedience and sacrifice, but rather delights in obedience with sacrifice!”
The best of plunder from a heart that refuses to heed his command to wipe out everything, millions in tithes and offerings from a heart that ignores the widow and the orphan (Isaiah 58:6-7, James 1:27), and endurance of unimaginable persecution by a heart selfishly set on the accolades of men and not the glory due Christ all disgust Him in equal measure.
God does not ask us to choose between obedience and sacrifice; as though one were good and the other bad. He asks us to discerningly prefer obedience to the flawed kinds of sacrifices we’ve seen. In fact, He delights when we obey Him with sacrifice.
“It is no sacrifice whatever is offered to God outside of obedience, and it is no obedience whatever is done for Him without a willingness to sacrifice.”
It pleases Him when we kill everything because He commanded even though we have need for the plunder. When we tithe big and still joyfully care for the widow and orphan without our paychecks needing to increase. And finally, when we suffer for Him, and even die as we proclaim the Gospel in those ‘God forsaken’ places even though no one ever notices.
Therefore, it is no sacrifice whatever is offered to God outside of obedience; and it is no obedience whatever we may do for God without being willing to sacrifice something if He should allow us the privilege to.