By Joseph Sunde
In our efforts to serve others and seek justice in the world, we have a remarkable tendency to fall short, no matter how carefully constructed or well intended our plans may be. Across our culture-making endeavors — whether in the family or work, politics and policymaking — we are easily lured by the contours of our own designs.
When failure occurs, economists are likely to point to some kind of knowledge problem, observing that, for example, Western Congregation X didn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) know or foresee that sending hundreds of free shoes to Developing Nation Y might put Local Merchants A, B, and C out of business. To mitigate these types of unintended ripple effects, we can work to be more careful and attentive in a variety of ways, but throughout that process, we have to realize that our knowledge problem has a more basic solution.
As followers of Christ, we have a unique responsibility to order our concerns within a particular context of transcendent obedience to a particular God and Savior. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” as Samuel once said, “and to listen than the fat of rams.”
Service isn’t about us, and it can’t be about them until it’s first about God.
That means engaging in plenty of “natural” analysis and observation, to be sure, looking to reason, history, science, and tradition. But it also means consulting and considering the voice of the Holy One himself, whether in Word, Spirit, or the prophetic voice and council of the saints. This needn’t mean descending into an anxious legalism. Rather, it points our perspectives toward a service that stretches beyond the ways of this world.
When we neglect transcendent sources of knowledge, danger and destruction are bound to persist, both in our spiritual lives and the witness we bear in the world. As the great evangelist Oswald Chambers once cautioned, “Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” which “may be a disease that impairs your service”:
Beware when you want to “confer with flesh and blood” or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings— anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.
Abraham did not choose what the sacrifice would be. Always guard against self-chosen service for God. Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service. If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace; or even if He has made it bitter, drink it in communion with Him. If the providential will of God means a hard and difficult time for you, go through it. But never decide the place of your own martyrdom, as if to say, “I will only go to there, but no farther.” God chose the test for Abraham, and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed. If you are not living in touch with God, it is easy to blame Him or pass judgment on Him. You must go through the trial before you have any right to pronounce a verdict, because by going through the trial you learn to know God better. God is working in us to reach His highest goals until His purpose and our purpose become one.
Chambers is too hasty in his dismissal of the value of “conferring with flesh and blood.” But if the voice of God is indeed heard and understood, and “flesh and blood” resist that voice in the face of clear spiritual discernment, the warning surely stands.
Our sacrifice will do far more for the Kingdom when sourced according to the Kingdom, whether in how we love our families, interact with our neighbors, serve our churches and communities, participate in creative service and economic exchange, or give and invest our time, treasure, gifts, and energy.
We have plenty of knowledge barriers as it is. As we spread the Gospel and pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful across all of life, let us grab hold of the transformative and life-giving power that comes through obedience to God and submission to a love that is higher than our love, enacted through ways that are higher than our ways.
Image: Abraham and Isaac by Titian (1542)