To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice: A Challenge to ‘Good Intentions’
By Joseph Sunde
When decrying instances of do-gooder activism gone wrong, it’s become rather routine for critics to respond by saying, “good intentions aren’t enough.” And to a great extent, rightly so.
Yet in addition to assessing and critiquing the outcomes of our actions, we should also pause and ask ourselves whether our “good intentions” are all that good to begin with. If we are only responding to an impulse to “do something,” and that certain something ends up harming the very people we’re trying to help, what does that say about the origins of our actions? What does it say about the voices we’re heeding?
As Christians, we are called to help those in need. But from where does our direction come, and to whom does the glory ultimately go? As Peter Greer and Chris Horst explain, we ought to reach beyondhumanitarianism, stretching toward a level of whole-life transformation not easily captured by earthbound metrics. Such transformation will surely be “of this world” in many of its methods and effects, but it will necessarily correspond with a supernatural order — one that often runs contrary to our own plans and designs.
Far too often, we embrace God’s message even as we ignore his method. Each requires our close attention, but the latter demands a spiritual attentiveness, a level of prayer, prudence, and discernment that we often don’t acknowledge.
In 1 Samuel 15, we see the implications of this. Samuel is sent by God to tell King Saul to destroy the Amalekites, a command that comes with specific instructions: “Go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
King Saul conquers the Amalekites (the command), but proceeds to stray from the specifics (the method), sparing the king, as well as “the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good.” His excuse? They were destined for sacrifice.
When Samuel returns, Saul brags about his “good deeds,” rejoicing over the spoils he has secured as a “sacrifice to the Lord.” But despite his attempts to convert disobedience into a blessing, Samuel’s response is damning:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
We don’t know Saul’s actual attitude and aims — whether he actually had “good intentions” or not — but regardless, how often do we convince ourselves of the same, believing that our good deeds or sacrifices can somehow be “good” apart from fellowship with the Holy Spirit and active relationship with God?
Such active and particular obedience can be difficult to perceive and achieve, and our failures in this area have no impact on our salvation or eternal status before God, but we were made for much, much more than humanistic action. God has given us plenty of tools to assist in transforming society — the Word, the Spirit, the Church, community, reason — and that includes active fellowship with God in the here and now.
As fallen beings in a fallen world, we are bound to falter and fail, and God gives us grace throughout that process. But how much better would our social and cultural witness be if we’d just begin to ask that first question? “Lord, what would you have me do?”
The way of the Christian is one of altruism — of generosity, of sacrifice, of service. For God so loved, he gave. But only when our love for others is rooted in the love of God, enacted according to ways that are higher than our ways, can we expect ends that are higher than our ends.
Where is your heart ultimately pointed? Toward “good results” based on your own “good intentions,” or toward obeying and glorifying God based on his? Alas, if your good intentions aren’t enough, your good results won’t be, either.