Well over a hundred years ago, Robert Robinson wrote a hymn that resonates with many of us. One line reads like this: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." Robinson was born in 1735, and when he was only 14, his mother sent him to London to apprentice as a barber. At age 17, he and his friends went to hear the famous preacher George Whitefield, intending to heckle him. Instead, Robinson was converted and eventually went into the ministry. He was only 23 when he wrote the famous hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."
Robinson died when he was just 55, and his final years were difficult. It is said that Robinson once traveled in a coach in which a young woman sat across from him, humming a hymn. She asked him what he thought of the song, not knowing he was the composer. With tears running down his cheeks, he said, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds—if I had them—to enjoy the feelings I had then."
There are times in every believer's life when we feel that way—as if the best years of our lives are behind us, because we've wandered far from God. First Samuel 12:20–25 records a sermon preached over 3,000 years ago that explains how we find our way back to God.
Samuel was the last great judge of Israel. In chapter 12, he condemns Israel for asking for a king, because God has always been their deliverer. Then he gives them a stunning demonstration. In the middle of harvest season, when it seldom—if ever—rained, Samuel prays for rain, and within moments God sends a devastating downpour. The Israelites are shaken. Not only are they moved by God's miraculous display; they also realize they are in deep trouble with the Almighty.
It is what Samuel says next that is our focus today. What do you do when you've rejected God's control over your life and come to your senses in fear that you've passed the point of no return? According to Samuel, we have some responsibility, but our ultimate hope rests only in what God can do.
Reorient your life to God.
Samuel lists several things God's people should do, which can all be summed up in this phrase: reorient your life to God. In all, Samuel uses four reorienting expressions.
First, in verses 20 and 21, Samuel instructs the Israelites to turn only to the Lord. People generally turn to God—or a god—in one of two situations: when they want something good they can't attain, or when they want out of something terrible they can't escape. Those two desires make idolaters of us all; they make us "prone to wander." In the context of 1 Samuel, it was the threat of a brutal neighboring king that provoked Israel's desire for a king. Desperate for success, the Israelites demanded a king. But Samuel said that kings, like all idols, "can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are worthless." Similarly, if we want to return to a relationship with God, we must stop turning to anyone or anything else to help us.
The second thing we must do is fear the Lord (12:24a). It's difficult for us to get our heads around this important biblical instruction. In the British television program "Rumpole of the Bailey," Horace Rumpole is a clever and curmudgeonly lawyer who wins hopeless cases. Rumpole is afraid of no one except his wife, Hilda, whom he always calls "she who must be obeyed."
That attitude begins to get at the concept of fearing of the Lord—he who must be obeyed. In the Bible, the fear of the Lord and obeying the Lord are often connected, as at the end of Ecclesiastes: "Fear God and keep his commandments … for God will bring every deed into judgment." To fear the Lord is to have such reverence for God that we would put obeying him above all other considerations, in part because we know that disobeying God has serious consequences. The fear of the Lord is living life with God in your rearview mirror.
Third, Samuel commands Israel to "serve the Lord faithfully with all your heart" (12:24b). This means we are to do all we do, in every part of life, in such a way that we further God's interests. Paul put it this way in Colossians 3:17: "whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." In other words, we must do everything with a Christ-like attitude of service and love. More than that, the text says to do so faithfully; that is, wholeheartedly and with perseverance. That attitude makes the dirtiest work holy and the loneliest working loving.
I read of a missionary in a primitive part of Africa who was asked if he liked what he was doing. His response was shocking:
Do I like this work?" he said. "No. My wife and I do not like the dirt. We have reasonably refined sensibilities. We do not like crawling into vile huts through goat refuse … But is a man to do nothing for Christ he does not like? God pity him, if not. Liking or disliking has nothing to do with it. We have orders to 'Go,' and we go. Love constrains us.
Fourth, Samuel commands Israel to "consider what great things he has done for you" (12:24c). Another way to say that is this: Reorient all your memories around God's work in your life individually and in our lives corporately. First of all, remember what Jesus has done for you on the cross. One way to do that is through Communion. Also, think of how God maneuvered you to salvation, and how God was doing great things for you even in life's harshest experiences. This is one of the reasons we gather together for worship or meet in small groups—so that we do not fail to "consider what great things the Lord has done" for us. Remembering what great things God has done will orient us toward living by faith in him in the days ahead.
Vance Havner talked about times when our Christianity is "as dry as dust, as cold as ice, as pale as a corpse, and as dead as King Tut." Is that you? If so, you can reorient yourself to God by looking only to him for help, showing him obedient reverence, serving him faithfully, and remembering what great things he has done for you.
But there is only so much we can do. In fact, we have limited ability to do the things we can do. So the good news in these verses is that God can be trusted to do everything we can't.
God will do everything we can't.
We read these words today in a different light than the Israelites did, for we have spiritual advantages they could not imagine. What Samuel promised Israel was a shadow of what we enjoy now as Christians. That is, these promises are now ours through God the Three-in-One. God's great promise is that we have a Father who will never let us go.
The anchor of these verses is verse 22: "God was pleased to make you his own." Sure, you might think, but that was when I was behaving myself. In reality, your good behavior had nothing to do with it. God told Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7–8, "The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you." And he tells us in Ephesians 1:4–6, "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves." In other words, God has never loved us because we deserve to be loved, but simply because he has chosen to love us. When you've been a spiritual failure, it is a matter of life and death that you remember that long before you made God your God, "God was pleased to make you his own."
In verse 19, the people wanted Samuel to pray for them, because they were well aware of their wickedness. They were guilty before God and were terrified he would hammer them like he had hammered their crops. They trusted that God would listen to Samuel; he was the only one with whom God was not angry, because he had not sinned as they had. Reconciling with anyone we've deeply offended is difficult, but reconciling with God is downright dangerous. Earlier in 1 Samuel, Eli told his wicked sons, "If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the Lord, who will intercede for him?" Nevertheless, Israel had Samuel to intercede on their behalf.
In the same way, when we return to God from our wandering, he welcomes us only because we have an intercessor Who prays for us—who stands before God as the only one innocent of sin. In Romans 8:34, Paul asks, "Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." In his book entitled Prayer, Philip Yancey writes:
As Jesus once prayed for Peter, now he prays for us … In fact, the New Testament's only glimpse of what Jesus is doing right now depicts him at the right hand of God 'interceding for us.' In three years of active ministry, Jesus changed the moral landscape of the planet. For nearly two thousand years since, he has been using another tactic: prayer.
This same Jesus prays for you!
Samuel knew it wasn't enough for God's people to return to him; they needed to know how to walk with him. So he told them in verse 23, "And I will teach you the way that is good and right." We have a better teacher by far than Samuel—the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, he would guide us into all truth. The only problem is, just because I know "the way that is good and right" doesn't mean I'll walk in it.
I once read an article about people who are hired to shadow movie and rock stars who are prone to getting into trouble. These folks are called Clean Living Assistants. The article explains:
[O]n a typical movie location, [the Clean Living Assistant] lives with the celebrity in a home far from the hotel that houses the rest of the cast and crew. In the morning, he rises with the star and they meditate together. After breakfast, he accompanies the star to the set and then to a support group meeting. During off-hours, [one assistant] said he tries to make sure the star has fun, although he steers him or her clear of 'slippery places'—any locale where drugs or alcohol are available.
In a sense, the Holy Spirit is our clean living assistant who not only teaches us the way that is good and right but helps us walk in it.
No one knows what happened after Robert Robinson spoke to that young woman on the coach. But this I do know: there is no one who wants to come back to God who cannot. There is no one who cannot begin to reorient his or her life around God, because God can be trusted to do everything you cannot. The Triune God will triple-team you—the Father will never reject you, the Son will ever intercede for you, and the Spirit will constantly teach you the way that is good and right and will help you walk in it.