This sermon is part of the sermon series "Dealing with the Difficult Person". See series.
For the next few weeks, we're following the story of Saul and David in First Samuel. We discovered last week that he is one of these characters who are difficult for everybody else around him. Recall from last week that he made life absolutely miserable for David, who followed him as king. Saul was filled with bitter jealousy towards David. He attacked David twice. He hounded him for years so that David had to live on the run as a fugitive. On more than one occasion, David had the opportunity to take matters into his own hands, but he refused to do so. And when Saul died, David wept.
We described Saul last week as being a royal pain in the neck. Yet David was loyal to him for 15 years. So the question we're asking is simply this: "How did he do that?"
We're looking at this story for a very practical reason: Some of us have a "Saul" in our lives. There may be a Saul at your work. There may be a Saul in your home. Saul is a very interesting character. He's very self-confident, but he has terrible judgment. He's self-centered. He's easily threatened. He's temperamental, volatile, and unpredictable. He has very little idea of the pain that he causes to people around him. He lives in a plastic world of self-deception, insulated from everything else.
So we're trying to answer this practical question in our time together: "How do you deal with the difficult character—the person who makes life miserable for everybody else?" Even more, we remember that Jesus specifically said to his disciples, "You must love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44). The fact that he said this indicates that dealing with difficult people is a normal thing in the course of a Christian life. Some people will come across your path who will be challenging for you, and God will allow it to be so. They may oppose you. They may show a sour spirit towards you. They may find all kinds of ways to make your life unpleasant. And the question is, How are you going to deal with them?
We took our first step in forming a biblical answer to that question last week when we saw that a loyal person understands providence. In other words, the difficult person in your life is not there by accident. In fact, if you're a Christian, the wonderful thing is that nothing in your life happens by accident. You're not adrift on the sea of chance. The whole of your life is in the hand of a loving God. There may be bad things in your life, but God works in both the good and bad things in order to advance his own ultimate purpose for you—which is not that you will have a pain-free life, but that you will increasingly reflect the beauty and the character of Jesus, to the glory of God.
David recognized that God had anointed Saul king. In other words, he knew that Saul was there because God caused it to be so. Miserable fellow that Saul was, David at least could recognize that he was there in the purpose and the plan of God. Even though he made life difficult for David, David knew that Saul could be part of God's ultimate purpose—however painful it may be—for shaping within David the character that God wanted to form for his own glory.
The Saul in your life is not the result of some chance or accident or bad luck. The Saul in your life is God's "stonecutter" for his own glory. When you come to this understanding of how God uses even difficult characters, then you will come to the place of having a different attitude towards the difficult person.
And so, the first prayer with regard to the difficult person in my life must be, "Lord, show me what you would have me learn. Bring about your purpose in me through this person's presence in my life. And Lord, use even this to advance your eternal purpose for your own glory."
Once you've grasped the providence of God, you'll have an entirely different perspective on the Saul in your life.
That's as far as we got last week, and today we're going to take a second step in answering this question of how we're to deal with this difficult person who God may allow in our lives. We're going to look at it not from David's reaction to Saul, but from the prophet Samuel's dealing with this difficult man.
The difficulty of Saul
The interesting thing about Saul is that he wasn't just difficult for David. He was difficult for everybody. Some people are like that, aren't they? They're difficult for their husband or for their wife. They're difficult for their children. They're difficult at work. They're difficult at school. They're difficult in the church. Usually they have a very low level of awareness of how much trouble they cause everyone else, but they do bring pain into the lives of everybody around them.
How do you deal with someone like that? In order to answer that question, let's take a look at First Samuel 15, a story of how the prophet Samuel dealt with the ever-difficult Saul.
The story begins in First Samuel 15:1: "Samuel said to Saul, 'I am the one that the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people, Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord.'" Remember that Samuel was a prophet, meaning that God spoke to him directly, enabling him to know the very word of God. Samuel continues in First Samuel 15:2: "This is what the Lord Almighty says, 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.'" The prophet then goes on to describe this very drastic judgment that God is now about to pour out on this whole community of the Amalekites. God is specifically sending Saul to wage war on the Amalekites until they are wiped out.
This is actually quite unusual in the Old Testament, and it's important for us to understand what is happening. The Amalekites were the Al-Qaeda of the Old Testament. They were, in fact, a marauding tribal group who, from generation to generation, had launched unprovoked attacks on innocent people of all kinds of races. The Jews were just one victim. If you look at First Samuel 30, you'll see that the Amalekites also launched an attack on the Philistines.
God had been very patient with the Amalekites. Their violence and their plundering had gone on generation after generation. But now God had determined that the time had come when he would bring an end to the actions of this entire community.
Saul was being sent as the agent of God's judgment towards the Amalekites. That was, incidentally, why the army was not allowed to keep any plunder from their campaign. This was not, as other wars had been before, for territorial gain or territorial defense. This was a war in which Israel was to deal with what had been a centuries-old problem, at the express consent of God.
There are only a few times in the Bible when anything like this happens, and when it does, it's always important.
Remember the first occasion when God wiped out an entire community? It was the flood. He allowed sin to develop to a certain point, and then he wiped out an entire generation, saving only one family.
Do you remember that God did the same thing with Sodom and Gomorrah? The level of evil had progressed to such a point in these two particular communities that God actually served notice to the rest of the world as he wiped them out.
God also brought destruction to a rebellious, evil group called the Ammorites. He did so by way of the military campaigns of his servant Joshua.
The same thing was now happening in regard to the Amalekites, who for so long had brought nothing but violence and despair.
That's the unusual context of the story in First Samuel 15. Saul is commissioned—specifically through the prophet and by God—to raise an army and wage war in order to bring an end to the Amalekites and their evils.
Though Saul and his army agreed to do battle with the Amalekites, they aren't too happy about it. It was a traditional practice for an army to bring back the plunder of the war waged. As already noted, God had specifically told them that there was to be no material gain for Israel from this war. They were to get nothing out of it—they were to only do what God had commanded them to do.
But herein lies the difficulty of Saul.
The army is evidently unhappy with such a thought, so along the way Saul tells them that they can keep whatever plunder they like.
God had also specifically said that Agag, the king of the Amalekites, was to be put to the sword. But it occurred to Saul that it would make for good publicity if he could bring Agag back alive. There's nothing quite like having a king in your dungeon, bringing him out on parade days. So he decided that that's what he would do.
Confronting the difficulty of Saul
Let's now take a closer look at the story, picking it up in First Samuel 15:10: "The Word of the Lord came to Samuel, 'I am grieved that I have made Saul king because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instruction.' Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night."
I'm not surprised that Samuel had a completely sleepless night when he heard about Saul's disobedience and unfaithfulness to the commission that was given to him. What is the community of God's people to do if it finds itself in a situation when its own leader will not be faithful to the word of God? This was a great tragedy.
But there was a bigger reason why Samuel was troubled that night—he knew that come morning, God was calling him to go and look Saul straight in the eye and confront him about his own sin. If you've ever been in the position where you have had to confront someone about a secret sin that has now become exposed, you will know why Samuel couldn't sleep all night, just thinking about the difficult thing that he had to do the next day.
It is the hardest thing in all of the world to do—to speak the truth to someone you love and care about after you've discovered some fundamental unfaithfulness in their lives—but the Bible says that that is part of loyalty. A loyal person understands providence, and a loyal person also speaks the truth.
Being loyal to the Saul in your life does not mean being a doormat. It does not mean that you turn a blind eye to his actions and let him or her carry on irresponsibly. God revealed the truth to Samuel, and Samuel knew that the following morning he would need to meet this man he had prayed for, anointed, loved, and supported for years. He now had to confront him with the painful truth.
Follow the story into First Samuel 15:12: "Early the next morning Samuel got up and went to meet with Saul, but he was told, 'Saul has gone to Mt. Carmel. There he has set up"—would you believe it—"a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone down to Gilgal.'"
This is not a very encouraging start for Samuel. He must have hoped that Saul would have some awareness of his sin—some conscience that at least would have subdued him. But this hope is far from reality. Having directly disobeyed the clearly revealed commandment of God, Saul actually feels good about himself. Saul feels so good about himself that he thinks this is the time to erect a monument in his own honor.
Samuel pursues Saul and eventually catches up with him at Gilgal. In First Samuel 15:13, Saul takes the initiative and comes out and greets him: "The Lord bless you. I have carried out the Lord's instructions."
Saul is quite sly, isn't he? He is using a lot of spiritual language to cover up his direct disobedience to God. But Samuel knew that Saul was lying through his teeth, because God had already revealed the truth. It had been exposed to the prophet.
Samuel looks Saul straight in the eye and says to him: "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears?" (He's referring, of course, to the sheep that the army had kept for plunder under Saul's leadership—and they're bleating away at the time when Saul says, "I've carried out the Lord's instruction.")
Saul immediately has a cover story. First he tries to blame the soldiers, saying: The soldiers brought the sheep in from the Amalekites.
Then he offers a more spiritual motive: We kept the best of the cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God.
By the way, did you notice that phrase: "the Lord your God?" Now there's a whole world in that. He does not say "my" God or "our" God, but "your" God—your God! Do you see what Saul is saying? Well, it's somebody else's responsibility and, anyway, it was all done with a good intention.
This is rather like someone saying, "Well, it wasn't me that took the money. It was my assistant who did it and, of course, the reason that it was done was that we wanted to give it to the church." Some difference that would make!
Here is a man who has directly disobeyed the clear commandment of God, but he's talked himself into thinking that he didn't do anything wrong—that it was someone else's responsibility or that it was done with good intentions.
What do you do when the Saul in your life deceives you? What do you do when someone in accounts starts massaging the numbers to make things look different from what they really are? What do you do when your spouse or your son or your daughter starts spinning you a story about where they were, what they were doing last night, that you know isn't true? What does a loyal person do when the Saul in his or her life starts spinning a pack of lies? The loyal person speaks the truth. They recognize the spiritual danger of a man or a woman who's lying to himself or herself. A loyal person cares enough to confront.
Look at how the confrontation progresses, because Samuel handles it very skillfully. Notice that his primary aim is to show Saul the seriousness of his actions. As Saul carries on with his cover story, Samuel simply stops him in First Samuel 15:16 and goes right to the heart of the issue.
First, Samuel identifies the sins that are involved. Look at what he says in First Samuel 15:23: Saul, you're giving me all this spin about your good intentions and wanting to offer sacrifices to God. The problem here is very simple—you have rebelled against the plain commandment of God, and the reason you've done that is because you've acted out of pride and arrogance in your heart.
That's the reality with which Samuel confronts Saul. That's the truth, and however painful, it's got to be said. You can't help a Saul by protecting him from the truth. One of the fundamental spiritual realities is that a man or a woman can't progress spiritually until they learn to name their own sins. It's not enough for Samuel to go and say: Well Saul, you've done wrong here.
No, Samuel names the wrong: This is the issue. It's rebellion and it's arrogance. And that's what we've got to deal with here. That's the root of it all.
Second, Samuel not only names the sin, but he also shows the scale of the sin. Notice how he does this in First Samuel 15:23: "For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry." Samuel names the sin because he is well aware that Saul's first instinct will be to deny it, saying he's done nothing wrong.
Samuel also anticipates Saul's other instinct—to minimize his sin's significance. Saul will want to say: A bit of rebellion is it? A bit of arrogance? What's the big deal? Lighten up.
For that reason Samuel says: Let me give you a sense of what we're talking about here—your rebellion is like divination, and your arrogance is like idolatry.
Why did Samuel pick these two? If you study the laws of the Old Testament, you'll notice that the sins of divination and idolatry were punishable by the death penalty. We now understand the significance of what Samuel was saying: Saul, you can't blow this off. What you've done here is the kind of sin that leads to death. If you're ever going to move forward, you not only need to recognize and name what your sin is, but you will need to start to come to terms with the scale and the seriousness of your actions.
This is true even today. If a man or a woman can't come to terms with the scale of their sin, then they will never enter into what the Bible calls "repentance." All they will do is blow it off, trying to get on with their lives.
Notice the third thing that Samuel does in his confrontation of Saul—he announces the consequences of Saul's sin. Sin always brings consequences, and the consequences for Saul in his particular situation are stated in First Samuel 15:23: "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he (God) has rejected you as king."
It's important to understand what this meant. Saul had already been told in First Samuel 13:14 that his line—his descendants—would not continue on the throne. This is more fully explained in First Samuel 16:14, where we're told that the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul. For years God's people found themselves under the leadership of a man from whom the Spirit of God had departed. Can you imagine a bigger disaster for the people of God than that? But these were the tragic consequences of Saul's sin, as pointed out by Samuel.
Dealing with our own Saul-like difficulty
It's interesting that Saul has no idea of the significance of what's going on here. In fact, the only thing that seems to trouble him is whether or not he can retain his position of authority. In First Samuel 15:25, Saul wonders aloud if Samuel will come and publicly appear with him during worship. That seems to be all that Saul's bothered about—whether or not he can fool people into thinking everything is all right and thus retain his kingship.
There is no sign of repentance in Saul. He couldn't care less about restoring the blessing of God. He cares only that he won't "lose face." First Samuel 15:30: "Samuel, honor me before the elders."
A man who is more concerned about losing face in front of other people than about losing the blessing of God, is a man who's never understood the Christian faith at all. The way you respond to the critical moments of the discipline of God is one of the most revealing things about you. God sends the prophet Samuel to Saul, and Saul has no idea as to the significance of the word that he's getting.
There are critical moments in our lives where we're confronted with the truth, and we either respond to the mercy of God (and it will be wonderfully restoring for us) or we'll just get angry (and careen down a reckless path to ultimate destruction). That's the warning of the story of Saul. It's one of the most sobering stories in all of the Bible.
God is speaking the truth as part of his loyalty to you. God will never allow his children to remain in disobedience. However disturbing it is, God will speak the truth to bring you to your senses in order that you may embrace his mercy. A person who doesn't hear the truth is in a very dangerous position.
Here is an illustration to consider. All members of our family are very sound sleepers. That means that we are heavily dependent upon alarm clocks. My wife and I have three alarm clocks in our room. They are usually set several minutes apart. The first wakes us up with music. It's really quite gentle. The problem is that it's so gentle, we often go back to sleep.
The second alarm clock is more disturbing. It's there in case the first one has not done the job.
The third alarm clock could serve as a tornado warning. It is too painful to put into words; it is quite awful. We have it for the simple reason that as painful as it is, it is actually better than having the entire family being late.
On occasion, we have slept through all three. It's actually very easy to do. When each one goes off, we reach out a slumbering arm and press the little button on the top of the clock.
God uses three alarm clocks to wake his people from their sins. The first one is very gentle—it's the work of the Holy Spirit through the word in your conscience. The problem for some of us is that we've switched that one off. It's very simple to do. Perhaps it's been a long time since we actually sat down, opened the Bible, and examined ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. We just hit the snooze button, ignoring the Spirit.
When that happens, you shouldn't be surprised if God sets off the second alarm. The second alarm is when God sends a Samuel to a Saul In other words, God sends someone to speak the truth to you.
God will most likely send someone who's near to you, as he did with Saul. It may be your mother. It may be your father. It may be your husband. It may be your wife. It may be a member of your small group. It may be an accountability partner. It may be a pastor. But it will be—in all likelihood—someone who cares for you, loves you, and prays for you. If God sends such a person in his providence to speak to you about something that needs to change in your life, then realize this is the second alarm.
Do not reach out and switch this alarm clock off. A man who won't listen to his wife speaking the truth or a friend calling for change is foolish. It's the mercy of God that he's sending a louder alarm through a person who cares enough and has enough loyalty to you to speak.
The tragedy is that Saul paid no attention to the first two alarm clocks, and he had to face the third. The third alarm is disaster. For Saul, it was disaster on the battlefield.
No one's ever suggesting that everything that goes wrong in a person's life is somehow the discipline of God, but you can be sure that if a man or a woman refuses consistently to listen to what God is saying, he will sound the third alarm. Painful and disturbing though it is, his direct discipline is better than sleeping in your sin.
I want to suggest that for some of us, the first alarm is gently ringing, right now. The Word of God is being preached to you. The Holy Spirit is at work. In your own conscience, God's applying it to something that probably no one else knows about. But you know about it, and he knows about it. Your sin has been there, hidden away, and it needs to be put right. If that's what's happening, I plead with you: Don't shut off the alarm. That's the road to spiritual disaster.
Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.