- "What am I not getting? What am I not doing right?"
- "Seems like that person over there has power over sin that I don't have . . . . she doesn't worry (or gripe or covet or spend money, etc.) as much as I do."
- "That person over there has a lot more impact on others than I do . . . why, just look at how everybody wants to be around him."
- "That couple over there are much better parents than we are . . . why, just look at their kids. How come our kids aren't as good as theirs?"
We collapse upon ourselves, we compare ourselves to others, and we condemn ourselves for not finding the right formula or mashing the right spiritual buttons.
Maybe like me, you can relate to the story in 1 Samuel 4. The Israelites had just suffered a crushing defeat by the Philistines. Four thousand of their best soldiers had died in the battle. So Israel's troops did what most of us would do after finding ourselves in a mess: they tried to find the formula for success.
"After the battle was over, the troops retreated to their camp, and the elders of Israel asked, 'Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?' Then they said, 'Let's bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.'" (1 Sam. 4:1-3, NLT)
The Israelites figured out that what they were missing was the Ark of the Covenant. "That's the key!" they said to each other. "If we just take the Ark with us into battle next time, God will bless us and we'll beat those pagan Philistines!"
So they get the Ark of the Covenant, they recruit a couple of priests named Hophni and Phinehas to accompany the Ark into battle, and off they march into a second confrontation with the enemy. The Israelites are pumped! They are confident that this time, God is on their side because they are doing things right. How stupid of them to have forgotten to take the Ark with them in the first battle!
Yes, things did go differently for the Israelites now that they had the Ark with them. In battle #2, they got beat worse than in battle #1.
"Israel was defeated again. The slaughter was great; 30,000 Israelite soldiers died that day. The survivors turned and fled to their tents. The Ark of God was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were killed." (1 Sam. 4:10-11, NLT)
The formula didn't work. The "key" they thought they had found led only to failure.
Why? Because what was missing for the Israelite army was not the symbol of the presence of God (i.e., the Ark of Covenant), but the actual presence of God. It wasn't a thing they needed, like a formula, or a new approach, or a strategy, or a better plan. Not even the throne of God would do. It was God Himself they needed. And God will not accept any substitutes for authentic relationship with His people, not even those that wear the garb of spirituality.
I find it really easy to substitute religion for relationship, don't you? I often find myself thinking that the mere act of praying, or going to church, or reading the Bible, or being nice to somebody will guarantee the presence of God in my life. I'm not denying that those things might be means of grace. But merely jumping through those hoops is not the same thing as relationship with God, and that's what Christianity is all about. It's above all about a relationship of the heart.
Donald Miller, in Searching for God Knows What, says this:
"[The Bible] is attempting to describe a relational break man tragically experienced with God and a disturbed relational history man has had since then and, furthermore, a relational dynamic man must embrace in order to have relational intimacy with God once again, thus healing himself of all the crap he gets into while looking for a relationship that makes him feel whole. Maybe the gospel of Jesus, in other words, is all about our relationship with Jesus rather than about ideas. And perhaps our lists and formulas and bullet points are nice in the sense that they help us memorize different truths, but harmful in the sense that they blind us to the necessary relationship that must begin between ourselves and God for us to become His followers." (pp. 154-155, emphasis his)
Coca-Cola used to have an advertising slogan that went like this: "Things go better with Coke." The Israelites in 1 Samuel 4 were thinking, "Things go better with the Ark of the Covenant." Christians today get duped into believing, "Things go better with prayer" or "Things go better with a daily quiet time" or even "Things go better with Jesus" (as if He's a key or a strategy or a rabbit's foot or something like that).
God didn't die on the cross to help us win battles or get a better job or get healed or find a mate or raise good kids. He died on the cross to win our hearts out of their enslavement to sin and misery, and get a Wife . . . that is, to woo us into a relationship of passion and trust and intimacy. Which just astounds me that the God who needed no one and no thing would do that in the first place, but He did. So we dare not forsake Him, the spring of living water, and dig our own cisterns, "broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah 2:13, NIV).
What the Israelites should have done in 1 Samuel 4 is simply draw near to God, just as they were, with all their fears and worries and misdeeds laid out honestly before Him, and rest their hope in Him alone. If there is a "key" to living the Christian life, it's in James 4:8 - "Come near to God, and He will come near to you."
"Come near." That's it. Just go to God. Just as you are. Tell Him everything. He loves you. That's all you need to know.