Life has been described by many as a series of choices. That's partly true. Obviously there are times when our lives are impacted by things we don't choose. We can be sitting at a red light, and someone can slam into our car. We have little choice about the consequences of that. Sometimes disease impacts our body, and we have little choice about those consequences. But when it comes to the responsibility that we have to live life and to do what life asks us to do, it's probably true to say that life is a series of choices. When we're younger, often those choices are made for us. Our parents tell us when to go to bed and what to eat and what to wear. They decide how we will be educated and how we will live. They also decide how they will motivate us to do those things. But the older we get, the more choices that are placed before us, and every day we are faced with a myriad of decisions. We also recognize that as we make those choices, we often make the same decision time after time until it becomes a habit. Whether they're habitual or spur of the moment decisions, we often live with consequences.
Some time ago I decided I would live by the fact that the early bird catches the worm. If you really want to get ahead in life, you'd better be prepared, and you'd better do it ahead of time. That makes it somewhat difficult when you're a pastor invited to a church supper. You're not supposed to go to the head of the line; you're supposed to show humility. But I recognize that if I wait for the back of the line, all that's left is green bean casserole. The early bird catches the worm, and therefore I like to edge my way as close as I can to the front.
There are some benefits to being first. If you can get to the front of the line, you can get the chicken before everyone else takes it. But there are also some problems. You tend to be excessive and compulsive. People get frustrated with you. And sometimes when you've decided to do something, something else comes along later and you can't do it. But that's a decision you've made. We all live with those decisions. Sometimes the decisions we make are good decisions, and we live life well. Other times the decisions we make are not good, and we live life poorly. One of the problems counselors face is that often as they talk to people who are hurting, they begin to realize those people had made poor decision after poor decision. That's why I want to talk about one of the most fundamental decisions we have to make. In fact we're faced with this decision day after day.
To see what this decision is, I would like us to look at a very familiar Bible story. If you've been raised in Sunday school all of your life, you will have heard at least the first half of this story. In fact, that's the problem. Often we know only the first part but fail to see that this story was put together to give us a contrast of an old man, who had made some poor decisions and lived with the consequences, with a boy who had made some good decisions. As a result, the old man lived with the consequences. The old man, of course, was Eli. He was elderly and going blind, but he was a priest in the tabernacle. The young boy was Samuel, and Samuel loved this man who had become a father to him. One night as they were sleeping, Samuel heard someone call, so he ran to Eli and said, "Eli, I'm here. What can I do for you?" The older man replied, "It's not I who called." Three times this happened, and finally Eli realized that it was God calling Samuel. He instructed, "Samuel, the next time you hear that voice, you say, 'Lord, speak, for your servant listens.' "
God judges those who choose not to obey his Word.
Samuel hears a message that's very unpleasant. The man he loves and respects is a man under God's judgment.
Eli was a priest. He knew God's word. He knew God's instructions. He knew as a priest what he was supposed to do, and had probably always done it. Now his two sons were taking over the priestly role. Those of us who are parents can perhaps identify with Eli. You recognize that there are some things children do wrong over and over again. You get tired of correcting. You get tired of trying to change them, and finally you give up. Apparently, that's what Eli had done with his sons, since they were taking home and eating meat that should have been burned to the Lord. Finally, Eli apparently said, "I've had enough, boys. Go ahead and do what you're going to do." Also recognize Eli had a lot invested. His sons were taking over his position. We have seen this in businesses and ministries, where a father has built a great empire or had a great ministry, and he appoints his sons to take his place, whether they're ready or not. Eli could not bring himself to say to his boys, "Sons, you must find another career. I will appoint someone else to take your place." Because Eli failed to take the Word of God seriously and obey it, even though it would cost his sons' careers, God was going to judge him.
That's the choice we have every day: to obey God's Word and honor it, or to be like Eli and disobey. God says if we don't honor his Word, there's judgment. That's the consequence of an unwise choice. Perhaps we face the same problem that Eli faced as a father. The world says to us today, "We must listen and hear about children's rights. We must learn about the ego of the child. And we must be careful that we don't damage the psyche." Sometimes there is truth in what the world says, but often the world's instructions defy what the Bible teaches. The Bible essentially says a child is a fool, and the parent is charged with making a child wise. The only way you can produce wisdom in a fool is to bring discipline. Children are fools. You can sit down before them a nice, warm plate of vegetables and a dish of chocolate ice cream, and they eat the ice cream. You can say to children, "Go outside and play," and generally they'll play in the street rather than the back yard, because they're not wise. God says we have a choice to make as parents, either to discipline the foolishness out of them or to be concerned about children's rights and and ego.
I'm not talking about child abuse or about being so negative and pessimistic that the child grows up with a distorted view of not only his parents but of God. I am saying this: Children can not be allowed to manipulate their parents. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, spend a Saturday afternoon in the mall, and you will realize the guards have lost control in the asylum. The children know how to throw tantrums and get parents to do what they want them to do. The problem is, sometimes the halls in the mall are no different than the halls in our churches. Because we're concerned about our children, God says we have a choice to make: Do we honor the Word of God and do what it says? If we don't, we'll face judgment. One of the things I've come to learn—since my son is now 6' 4" and outweighs me—is that the only control I have over him is the control I established when he was three, five, seven, eight, and nine. If we decide to choose what the world says about raising our children as opposed to what the Word of God says, we can live with the same kind of judgment Eli had.
Another example of what the world tells us is that we need to advance; we need to be better; we need to have more. Though it is good to achieve things in this life, God also says that we're to be content with whatever we have. The world says, "We deserve more. We deserve breaks. Don't be content." For a number of years I drove a '72 Plymouth Duster. In 1972, a Duster was a good car. But in 1982, '85, '86, it was not the best kind of car to drive. When you pull into someone's driveway for a party, and all around you are brand new Buicks and Chevrolets and sometimes even a Porsche or a BMW, it's like your car lights up and says, "Loser. Loser. Loser." And when your kids say, "Dad, I don't want to ride with you. I'll take the bus," you know the car says, "Loser. Loser. Loser." The world comes along and says, "You can have more. You can have better." But the Word of God says, "Be content."
We're faced with a decision. Most of us decide not to believe the Word of God. We believe it's not the best way to live. We do it in our marriages. The Bible says, "Husbands, love your wives. Wives, submit to your husbands. Care for one another." We men don't look at marriage that way. Marriage is another contract. It's another business deal. It's another mountain to climb. It's another goal to reach. My wife says to me, "You know before we were married, you were so patient." Yeah, I was patient. I had a goal. I had to woo this girl. I had to get her to like me. I had to get her engaged to me. I had to convince her parents to let her marry me. And once we got married it was time to get on with life! I have a career to build. A wife looks at marriage and assumes that six months or a year after her wedding, her husband will still come gliding into the house after work, sweep her off her feet, and kiss her passionately. But soon she starts to think, That's not the way it is. He's got other things to do. He doesn't care about me. So she chooses not to obey the Word of God. She says instead, "I'm going to find my fulfillment in my friends. I'll find it in work. I'll find it in the children." The Bible says, "Husbands, love your wives. Wives, submit to your husbands. Care for one another." We say, "I don't want to live that way. I don't want to make that choice." God says: Fine. I'll let you live with the consequences. We wonder why there are so many divorces even among Christians. We wonder why married people live as singles under the same roof—why there's arguing and fighting and straining. It's because people choose not to obey the Word of God. God said to Eli, "You don't honor me; you can live with the consequences. You don't honor my word; I will judge you."
God blesses us when we are willing to pay the price and honor his Word.
A man had served God almost 90 years, yet God said, "Because you have chosen not to honor my word, there's judgment." Samuel is also faced with a difficult decision. Verse 15: "Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision." It doesn't take much imagination to wonder why Samuel was afraid.
When I was at college, I had the responsibility of calling a man in and saying, "You haven't been fulfilling your task. We're going to have to let you go." It was my responsibility to bring bad news—news that would impact a career and a family, news that would in essence said to this man, "You have failed in this task." That responsibility was a very difficult one for me. I think for Samuel it was far worse. Here was the man who had loved him and mentored him and cared for him. Now God said, "Samuel, take this message to Eli. Tell him I will judge him. In the process he and his sons will be killed." It's no wonder Samuel was afraid. But notice what Eli commanded Samuel in vrse 17: "'May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.' So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, 'He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.'" Notice what the writer says immediately: "The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh. And there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel's word came to all Israel.
Samuel honored what God asked him to do: he delivered a horrible message to Eli. Because Samuel honored God's word and chose a tough path, God said: I'll honor you, Samuel. I'll make you a great prophet. I'll make you a great leader.
When we honor God's word, he sees fit to honor us. Most of us don't believe that. I look at those instructive passages in Scripture: Don't put yourself first. Don't even put your family first, neither husband or wife or mother or child or son or daughter. Put me first. I say, "God, if I put you first, that's going to cost. That's going to bring suffering." But when we honor God, he will honor us.
There are many people involved in ministry at many different churches. Those people may be just like you. They have diseases, they have pains, but there's one thing they have that many Christians don't have: a sense of fulfillment—a sense that they can do something eternal in people's lives. Sports heroes are forgotten in a few short years. Movie stars are forgotten in a few months. Politicians are forgotten as soon as they resign from the campaign. But we can do something that lasts for eternity. We need to realize that ministry is required of us by God, but it is also that which gives us fulfillment, happiness, and peace, because we're no longer focusing on ourselves.
We often talk about the personal disciplines of the Christian life. Sometimes I feel like I don't even have time to read the paper, let alone the Bible. Prayer can also be difficult when we'd rather not take the time to be still before God. Giving? I look at the thousands of dollars that go through my checkbook every year and I say, "God, I can't afford to give you this." Such activities are disciplines. They've got to be cultivated; they've got to be developed; they don't happen overnight. But if you do them and take God's Word seriously, he will honor you. Does that mean you'll get wealthy? Does that mean God will necessarily put your marriage back together? No. Maybe you've had the experience of your employer giving you a task to do, and you've worked hard at it, you've put in overtime, you've spent long hours. Finally you bring it in, and your employer says, "Good job. Well done." Inside you feel good, because you not only did good work, but you also labored hard to do it. God says that when we come to him—when we spend that time each day in prayer and reading the Word, when we share the gospel when we have the opportunity and we're faithful in our giving, at the end of a day we feel a deeper peace. You feel that feeling only God can give. He says, "If you honor my Word, I will honor you."
When I was getting my driver's license, my father tried to give a short lecture on car maintenance. He said one sentence that still bugs me: "There's one gauge you never have to worry about—the fuel gauge. If you run out of fuel, the car stops." That bugs me, because I'm so obsessive compulsive that it's the only gauge I'm going to watch! I can't let it get past half. It seems stupid to me to run out of gas. And yet my father said it's the one you don't have to watch. Why? What he meant was that if you run out of oil, you're in deep trouble. If you run out of water, you're in deep trouble. I had a decision to make as to whether I would listen to my father or not. My first car was a '51 Studebaker, twenty miles to the quart. I decided never to worry about anything except the gas gauge. That's probably why, a year later as I was going down the freeway, the back wheels locked. They never did come unlocked again. I hadn't honored my father's words; I didn't choose wisely, and I had to live with the consequences. But that '72 Duster went 186,000 miles, because I changed the oil, and I changed the water, and I took care of it.
God's Word says, "My words are true." You and I have the decision either to do what they say or not—every day. Our decision will affect how we raise our children, relate to our spouse, deal with our checkbook, relate to our employer. Every day we are faced with a series of choices. If we obey God's word and honor it, he will honor us, and we can avoid the consequences of living under his judgment.
Paul Borden is executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches and author of Direct Hit.