When things aren't working in our lives, our families, our churches, we often decide to make some big change—quit, leave our spouse, buy something, sue somebody. But we may be making a big change that won't change anything at all.
That's what happened more than 3,000 years ago in Israel. The pressure of enemies on their borders provoked Israel's elders to go to their leader, Samuel, and demand a change. Well, God gave them their request—a king named Saul—as well as a stunning victory over their brutal enemy, Nahash, king of the Ammonites.
There's a bittersweet moment, however, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 12. With the confirmation of the new king, Samuel must step aside. But before he goes, he speaks to the people—including us—about our propensity for making big changes that don't change anything at all.
Remember Your Salvation Story
In 1 Samuel 12:6-8, Samuel tells Israel to remember their salvation story: In Egypt they cried to God—not a king—for help. In response, God rescued them and led them to the land flowing with milk and honey.
Our salvation stories are all different, of course, but they're all the same too. We were in bondage to sin and Satan and death. We had no hope and cried out to God, "Save me!" And he put Jesus' blood over our hearts, took us out of bondage, and brought us to lives lived in the milk and honey of God's promises.
Then Samuel offers a short summary of the Book of Judges, which tells of seven cycles in the life of Israel. They'd forget the Lord, he would get their attention by pulling back his safety fence, they'd get miserable enough to cry out to him and repent, and he'd send a deliverer. We have cycles like that too. "I accepted Christ when I was kid," one friend told me. "But then when I got out of college, I chucked it all. Then everything fell apart and I couldn't take it anymore. So I cried to God and asked him to give me another chance."
Samuel reminds us of something we easily forget: Every great rescue in our lives came when we cried out to God. Like Israel, we don't usually get in trouble because we consciously rebel against God. We simply forget about him. We make decision after decision without consulting his Word or praying. We go weeks without examining our hearts or confessing our sins.
And when we forget God, he begins to meddle in our lives—usually in distinctly non-spiritual parts such as health, jobs, cars breaking down, or family conflict. One tip-off that God is meddling is that in all this trouble we begin to see how petty, short-tempered, or weak we are. God takes us back to where we started with him—utterly unqualified to solve our problems.
Turn to God in Your Trouble
We get into situations in which we're frightened, anxious, insecure, or confused—some crisis in which it's obvious we should cry out to God in repentance for forgetting him. But instead we say, "I'm going to quit my job. I'm going to try herbal medicine. I'm going to tell my husband to get out of my life."
When we're in trouble we try everything but simply walking by faith, which requires two unpalatable things. The first is the rigor of a relationship with God. Living by faith means keeping careful track of our daily relationship with God; it means we confess sin, rest in his ways, and ask for grace to be what we cannot be otherwise.
Second, walking by faith requires living without a backup plan. It wasn't that Israel wanted to reject God as their deliverer. They just wanted a contingency plan. None of us in our right minds would tell God to take a hike, but we'd like to have alternatives in case he doesn't deliver or bless us on our schedule. No matter what we try to change to get out of trouble, we cannot change the way our covenant relationship with God works. Samuel says: Now you've got your king, but the covenant still works the same as always. Follow the Lord and life will work. Disobey and rebel against the Lord—king or no king—and life won't work.
When we became Christians, we entered into this ancient covenant relationship with God. When we love and obey God through the grace and help of Christ, life works. When we don't, life doesn't work. Change whatever you want, but it won't work until you're where you need to be with God.
Banish Fear by Trusting in God
Israel was driven by fear. They were terrified of Nahash, with his custom of gouging out the right eye of every captive. Who can blame them? We, too, become fear-driven when trouble comes. The fears of failure, or of losing our livelihood, family, standing, or happiness miniaturize God. We may believe all the right things about God, but he shrinks in our minds. We may say he's all-powerful, but he's mini-omnipotent in our heads. The power of whatever we fear is bigger, louder, and more dangerous.
On the other hand, as Oswald Chambers wrote, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else."
When we miniaturize God, he may engineer a demonstration to persuade us to fear him more than anything else. God sends a deluge of rain at Samuel's cue that hammers their crops. It may look like God was just trying to scare the willies out of his people, but he was actually loving them dramatically. That storm was God's love in action—an effort to draw stubborn, prodigal people back to the only safe place: their relationship with God. Eyes wide, mouths dry, brows damp, and scalps tingling, they plead with Samuel to pray for them and ask that God wouldn't pound them for their sin like he just pounded their wheat. Samuel replies, "Don't be afraid."
Seek the Change that Matters
At a time of great stress, instead of changing something that won't change anything, turn to your unchanging God and serve him with all your heart.
How? First, stay close to the Lord. Read your Bible, pray your heart out, and go to church. Second, don't grab some false comfort or help. Rely on God's unshakeable love for you. You are God's beloved. He chose you before you chose him because it delighted him to do so.
"But what about all our sin?" we say, as Israel did that day. Trust God's love to redeem you through Christ. God will give you the help you need—someone someone to pray powerfully for you and to help you know how to think and behave. Know that Jesus and the Holy Spirit always intercede for you in your need. And rely on the unchanging love of your unchanging God.