In October last year I acted incredibly foolish one night. I had been praying about being a credible witness toward one person in particular—a dramatic nonbeliever (and by that I mean someone who is more angry than ambivalent toward God). And then, given a perfect opportunity to show grace and mercy and love, I got selfish. I felt offended by him and reacted with indignation. It was a very ugly night, one I wish had never happened. After I had a little time to calm down and realize how terribly ashamed I was and how completely I’d failed God in that moment, I knew I had to apologize to him. Whether or not the apology would mean anything to him personally, I had to humble myself before him, admit my guilt, and ask for forgiveness. I had to be a minister in love by my humility where my grace was obviously lacking. The Holy Spirit was heavy at work within me, stressing the importance of that apology.
Yeah, so. Anyway.
I didn’t do it. I just left it alone. I had about a million justifications for why an apology was not necessary or would even be welcome to him, but of course it was just too awkward and I was just too proud.
The fallout from the event dragged on. It caused a lot of problems. There were a lot of hard feelings, and not just on my part. It greatly hurt my husband—the most important person in the world to me—and still I tried to ignore it. I’m the poster child for complete selfishness, motivated by pride.
A couple weeks later, in my Monday morning quiet time, God spoke loudly and clearly—I was being blatantly disobedient to what he’d commanded and I had to fix it. I couldn’t continue on, worshipping him and acting like a good little Christian if I wasn’t obeying him. Kinda’ like how Jesus tells the disciples if they love him, they’ll obey his commands. That’s a little nugget of truth that hasn’t changed over the past 2000 years. Oops. So I prayed in anticipation of apologizing. I prayed a lot. I prayed and fasted and prayed. And once I took that step in apologizing, he was quick to acknowledge we’d both acted ridiculous and we’d just pretend the event never happened. And it hasn’t been spoken of since.
So back up a bit. Meanwhile, I had been getting super-stressed about finances. The numbers just weren’t where I needed to be, and I couldn’t understand it. Ronnie and I are careful to tithe off every income we get and give above and beyond the tithe monthly to other places. When someone has a need, we usually pray about it together and donate at least something to help with the need. And yet we were struggling, big time. This had gone on for a while, and I was so stressed about money I could barely focus on anything else. I didn’t understand—we were obedient, we made sacrifices, and still we were struggling.
Then that Monday morning came, I obeyed God in apologizing, and afterward experienced a shocking transformation in my mind about other areas of faithfulness. This is about where the Bible says (in James), “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws.” I may be the best steward of my money that I possibly can be, but if I am deliberately disobedient to God day after day in an unrelated issue, that’s as bad as if I was greedy with my money and kept it all to myself. Instead, I fell in line with the Pharisees Jesus cursed when he said, “[Y]ou are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” Again, here’s the “love of God,” which is equivalent to obedience to God. Meaning: yeah, you need to be tithing, but don’t think being obedient to God in one area cancels out disobedience to him in another.
I got it, then. I wrote in my journal, “I really feel like I’m understanding more about what you mean when you say ‘obedience is better than sacrifice.’” That’s from 1 Samuel 15:22. King Saul had been told explicitly to destroy this town and kill every living thing—including the livestock. Instead Saul kept the livestock. Samuel, a prophet, asked him why he had disobeyed God’s commands and Saul tried to justify it by using the livestock as a sacrifice to God. Samuel responds, “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” Meaning: if God had wanted Saul to sacrifice the livestock to him, he would have said so. Instead he demanded obedience, and he didn’t get it. You’ll find similar comments in Isaiah 1 when God really unloads on the nation of Judah. “‘What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. …Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.’”
Did that mean God hated sacrifices? Absolutely not. Open to almost any page of the Pentateuch and you’ll find God outlining instructions for one offering or another. But the sacrifices and offering to him are meaningless if we’re disobedient to his commands. I’ll end with Hosea 6:6, which echoes the same idea: “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.” Jesus re-emphasized this point in Matthew 9 when he scolded the Pharisees that they needed to learn the meaning of Hosea 6:6. That, if you can imagine, was a huge insult to someone who’d spent his entire life studying the Scriptures. It’s kinda’ like telling a rocket scientist that he needs to learn what Newton’s First Law of Motion means.
God’s commands to us? Give offerings and sacrifices, pay tithes, help others, yes, all of this. But above all: Know me. Love me. Obey me. These things come first.