Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Killing Cattle Doesn’t Work

Do you ever find yourself reaching an intense spiritual high one moment, only to crash and burn the next? Perhaps you get some wonderful inspiration from a time of prayer and meditation, you make all kinds of fresh resolutions, and then you’re faced with another human being. Then your true colors show when you hit the roof about a tiny problem, or you gripe or gossip, or you do exactly the opposite of what you’d just been intending to do.
Cow by Atli Harðarson
Cow, a photo by Atli Harðarson on Flickr.

That’s the story of my life, unfortunately, and it’s coming clear during this time of fasting and prayer. Just as I think I’m doing something wonderfully holy (giving up snacks and dessert—yikes!), I mess everything up by some act of disobedience.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who experiences  this. In fact I know  I’m not the only one, just from looking at the ancient Israelites. You have probably heard the phrase “obedience is better than sacrifice,” but do you know where it comes from? Those are the words of Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, spoken to King Saul after a particularly nasty incident involving the Amalekites. God had commanded Saul to utterly destroy these people, along with their possessions and animals. Saul was more than willing to fight the Amalekites and went out in obedience to God’s command, but when it came to slaughtering all of those perfectly good cattle and sheep—he just couldn’t do it.

For Samuel it must have been like watching a train wreck in slow motion. He was incredibly upset at Saul’s act of outright disobedience, and finally cornered him. What was the king’s excuse? He said that the animals were meant as a sacrifice to the Lord. That sounds wonderful, right? Read Samuel’s response and listen for the frustration in his voice:

Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He has also rejected you from being king.

Sacrifice isn’t enough. My fast from snacks and dessert isn’t enough. It is impossible to please God without wholehearted obedience because that equals rebellion. Does this mean that we should never fast or sacrifice? Not at all! It just means that such spiritual exercises must be accompanied by a true spirit.

Perhaps you have considered sacrificing something to the Lord—watching television, indulging in special food, working overtime, social media, etc.—as an act of repentance or rededication. Before you embark on this worthwhile quest, however, you need to know five ways to give an obedient sacrifice:
  1. Be Honest: Don’t be hypocritical. If your sacrifice is an attempt to cover up guilt or somehow make up for a spiritual failing, it’s not going to be effective. Find what is coming between you and God and fix it directly.
  2. Be Righteous: Isaiah 58 says, “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness…?” Fasting and sacrifice are opportunities to break off the yoke of sin which may be weighing you down. Don’t ignore conviction when you feel it.
  3. Be Humble: Jesus gave very clear orders concerning fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting....” Tell as few people as possible about your fast (or blog it to the world, like me, but neglect to mention it to friends and family) so as to avoid pats on the back and a massive case of head swelling.
  4. Be Gracious: If you’re abstaining from something you truly value, it’s going to hurt, but don’t take that hurt out on other people! Instead of biting someone’s head off because you have a caffeine headache, learn to give that pain to God and make it another part of the sacrifice.
  5. Be Generous: God’s definition of fasting goes beyond self-deprivation—it involves radical generosity. “Is this not the fast which I choose… to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house…?” If you’re fasting, don’t just go without food for yourself, give it to someone else who needs it. A great way to do this is through CompassionInternational’s gift catalog, where you can buy garden seeds, chickens, and drought survival food for poverty stricken families.  

A sacrifice is defined as “a giving up of something valuable or important for somebody or something else considered to be of more value or importance.” Remember that the point of sacrifice is not to be more uncomfortable, it is to humble yourself, learn dependence on God, reconnect with Christ, and reinvigorate your prayer life. And this is the marvelous reward that God promised to the Israelites if they would sacrifice in obedience, “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Is there something that you need to sacrifice? If so, what is it?

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