Her silence was deafening. We sat in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, enveloped in a chorus of slurping coffee drinkers and cackling carpool moms, yet all I could hear was her silence. The expressionless stare on her face told me everything. I had been found out.
There is a lot of thoughtful work that goes into masquerading as someone you are not. Hours of careful study are required to create a veneer of maturity. The appropriate lingo must be used to ensure you don’t say anything that would give yourself away. Personal conversations must be prepared for in advance. Smiling is key and, occasionally, a well-appointed tear shed will dismantle any concern that this is just a facade. I worked hard at delicately crafting what appeared to be a “faithful” life. But the scary thing is, it was only the appearance of faithfulness; I had no idea that it was all just a masquerade.
What I thought I had found was theological maturity. Books, sermons, podcasts—you name it, I wanted to get my hands on it. I felt proud as long as I was just a few steps ahead of others on theological hot-topics and remained informed on the latest controversy stirring in Christian subculture. I prided myself in reading the dead theologians of the past and loved studying God’s word for the gain of knowledge. Lofty theological lingo, praying the most biblical sounding prayers, and attending every Bible study offered made me feel like I had a vibrant personal relationship with God, and I loved when others noticed it. But I couldn’t shake the gnawing sense that I was missing the whole point. My private devotional life in God’s Word was severely malnourished, my prayer life was pretty much non-existent, and my words rarely matched what was really going on in my heart. I was a mile wide and an inch deep. And I was terrified of being found out.
My friend had just thrown me a curve ball—a question I had not prepared myself for—“What does your private relationship with God look like? Describe it to me.” I grasped for the right words, a garbled mess of theological jargon spilled out of my mouth. It didn’t quite answer the question, but I felt like it was sufficient to distract and, at the very least, allow us to move on. She was unimpressed and unwilling to retreat. She asked again, this time with more force.
Panic began to set in as I gripped the broken pieces of my carefully crafted self and held them in place. After taking a moment to think, I gave a more sufficient answer. She stared at me in silence, unmoved. I knew she could see right through me. But thankfully, she acquiesced and the conversation changed course. Victory. I expelled a hurried sigh of relief, but it wasn’t quite satisfying. I had come scarily close to being exposed. That day, as I left the coffee shop, I felt completely exhausted. Pretending to be someone you are not is the most laborious work there is.
Since the dawn of time, this has been man’s struggle. God clothed his people in his image and crowned them with the highest form of dignity in creation, calling them his children. But over and over again, his people have looked for their identity in all the wrong places. Our first parents grasped for the dangling fruit of significance in the garden, Cain fought for it with his brother, Israel searched for it in the wilderness, judges starved for it in places of honor. Every time they came up empty. Years later, I myself would fall for the fatal lie that acceptance and applause from others would satisfy my longings. God’s people have gotten it backwards in a million different ways for centuries. They have doubted their God-given identity and instead grabbed for the glimmering hope of vanity.
King Saul is one of the most classic examples of someone who got it royally backwards. God had appointed Saul as king over his chosen people and entrusted him with great earthly dignity. If anyone did have a reason to trust in their significance it was him. However, Saul still felt the need to prove he was something special.
As God’s chosen king and image-bearer, he was called to simply obey the commands of God. Saul received very specific instructions—go and completely destroy the Amalekite nation. This included livestock, possessions, people, rulers—every precious thing that made the Amalekites who they were. It was so clear. But how did Saul respond? He went went and destroyed most, but not all. He kept the Amalekite king, Agag, and the best of the livestock. When he deemed his work complete, he “set up a monument for himself” (1 Samuel 15:12) and proudly told the prophet Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me” (1 Samuel 15:20). Sure he stood in the midst of a chorus of bleating sheep and lowing oxen—the very livestock he was called to completely wipe out—but that was only because he saved the best for the Lord. And yes, a quivering king was spared, but he’s locked in chains and held as prisoner. Saul thought God would be pleased by the great sacrifices he made, but God was not. He saw Saul’s partial obedience as complete and utter disobedience.
It was painfully obvious. This was not the Lord’s work. This was for Saul’s own gain. Samuel pointed out to Saul that God doesn’t delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices if the pathway to get there is peppered with perversity. “Behold,” Samuel exhorted, “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22b). True, genuine, heartfelt obedience is far better than great acts of perceived faithfulness.
Saul’s relentless ambition to boost his significance required him to refashion God’s commands to suit his own needs. Samuel, struck with utter disbelief, reminded Saul:
Although you may think little of yourself, are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel? The LORD has anointed you king of Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission and told you, ‘Go and completely destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, until they are all dead.’ Why haven’t you obeyed the LORD? Why did you rush for the plunder and do what was evil in the LORD’s sight?” (15:17-19).
Saul thought so little of himself that he looked to the world around to ascribe to him the significance he so longed for. “I have sinned,” Saul shamefully admitted, “for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Samuel 15:24). Saul was mistaken. He thought the people’s admiration was the prize so he brought home the plunder of the Amalekites to show the watching world that he had material wealth. He captured the Amalekite king to display his great feats of strength and power. And he kept for himself the best of the livestock for a sacrifice to prove to the people that he was God’s chosen man. Saul sought to escape his smallness by making himself great with his own hands.
What Saul failed to realize was that his search for dignity and worth would never be fully satisfied in people’s praise and respect. He was looking for value and meaning in the wrong place. In fact, he was blinded to the reality that this value he so longed for was already given to him as a gift from God; and instead of wielding it with humility, he squandered it with pride. As a result, the kingdom of Israel was ripped away from his hands (1 Samuel 15:28) and most horrifying—God’s Spirit left Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
For centuries, God’s people continued to make the same dreadful mistake. Thinking they could do it better, they sought out short cuts and bypassed God’s ways in an attempt to perform for the watching world. This was my alarming condition that day at the coffee shop. Just as Saul so desperately wanted to prove his faithfulness, I wanted my friend to see mine.
The tragic thing about my story is I didn’t understand how awful my condition was. Like Saul, who pointed to all the righteous acts he had done and felt assured he was okay, I filled my life with so many good things I felt like whatever was lacking was permissible. There was a disconnect, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was seriously wrong with this picture. What I failed to realize was that in my attempt at “doing the Christian thing,” I was missing the real prize and settling for the disintegrating hope of approval. My friend’s long, unmoving stare exposed me, and for the first time I realized—I was in a love affair with myself. I wanted my righteousness to be seen by many far more than I wanted to walk the hard road of genuine faith.
Saul was in a similar position—talking to a friend, trying to prove his fidelity—but his friend Samuel was not convinced and lovingly uncovered his shameful condition. For a moment in Saul’s story it seems that he has taken a turn, repented of his foolish ways, and gained clarity on what genuine worship looks like. He responds with what looks like faithfulness. Yet, as the story continues, we see Saul perpetually seeking to protect his image, prove his worth, and avoid any threat of exposure.
One of his greatest threats was David, the one God had appointed to succeed him as king. David was the real deal, “A man after God’s own heart.” His very presence brought Saul’s lack of authenticity to light. Just like my friend in the coffee shop, David exposed something in Saul—God’s Spirit was not with him. So, Saul spent the rest of his days working with a vengence to put an end to David. His life was characterized by an endless pursuit to protect his image.
I’d like to say that I was different than Saul. I’d like to say when I walked out of the coffee shop that day my whole life changed, but it didn’t. Instead, I despised the feeling of exposure and worked a little harder at mending the weak areas in my rhetoric. It would take a long road, peppered with lots of comforts removed and desires unmet, for me to realize that I was chasing after the wrong thing. Through hardship, God lovingly exposed my faulty foundation and proved to me that he really was better than the charade I had been playing for so long.
Since the beginning, God’s people have been prone to make this fatal mistake, lose their way, and settled for a shadow of the real thing. I did and if I’m being honest I still do sometimes. This world is filled with a multitude of voices claiming they have what we want. But they always underdeliver. Corrie Ten Boom once said, “trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work” —the reward is measly at best, the requirements to carry on as someone else are costly, and ultimately the pathway leads to sure disappointment.
But here is the good news: a greater king than Saul, and even David, would come. This king, though he was great, made himself small and lived in perfect obedience of his Heavenly Father. Rather than clinging to wealth, power, and acceptance, he laid those aside and gave up his life as a ransom for many. He did not have monetary comfort, political strength, or wild success among his peers during his short stint on Earth. In fact, he would live a lifetime being despised and rejected by men. But unlike Saul, whose throne was removed, King Jesus sits on his throne forever as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And when he died he paid for our wandering ways with his blood so that we could taste the satisfaction only he can provide. There is nothing greater than enjoying all that God has promised to be for us in Jesus Christ. No powerful position, no wild applause, no unquestioning acceptance will make up for the lack of him. Don’t get this backwards brothers and sisters, your joy in this life depends on it.