1 Sam 15:22 “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams”
1 Samuel 15 explains why the first king of Israel (king Saul) lost his kingdom. God told him to defeat the Amalekites and “utterly destroy them and all they have” (v3). He didn’t do that. Instead, he defeated the Amalekites but spared their king, and spared many nice goods that they had with a plan to sacrifice them to the Lord. The worst part was, he thought that he was pleasing God by doing this! (v17). He must have felt so proud with an intention to sacrifice all those nice things to God. But then Samuel the prophet came along with a surprising rebuke – “obedience is better than sacrifice” (v22). We go on to read that this is when God decided to take away the kingdom from Saul.
A MISCONCEPTION OF WHAT IT IS TO PLEASE GOD
Like Saul, it’s possible that we can have a wrong concept of what’s pleasing to God and what isn’t. It’s possible that we are laboring in this Christian life to live for God in a way that isn’t the best and may even be disobedient altogether. In this Christian “race” we are running, we should be sure we are running toward the right goal. We should be much more focused on the goal of obeying God (inwardly from the heart), rather than sacrificing many things to Him (externally with many works).
Inward obedience is what God wants us to focus on. If we have a terribly angry heart, God would rather have us focus on being delivered from anger than to set ourselves to read the Bible an hour every day. How many Christians set themselves to be delivered from anger? I don’t know the number but I’m pretty sure it’s far less than the number who commit to reading the Bible daily! There’s no command from God to read the Bible daily, but Ephesians 4:30 tells us to put away all wrath. That’s an example of God desiring inward obedience over outward sacrifice.
If we have been living this Christian life for any period of time, chances are we’ve attempted to please God in many different ways like this. And we may have felt for a time that we were pleasing Him by doing many works. We may have felt very “productive” evangelizing and spreading the gospel, proving unbelievers wrong, tithing, serving five days a week in church, sticking to a prayer list… and many other external things. And not all these things are bad. Many of them are good. But what a pity if for so many years we’ve been most excited about those things and missed the thing that God wants us to focus on most; inward obedience of the heart - where we are progressing in the Christian life and our hearts are becoming more and more to be like Jesus' heart. (1 John 3:3). “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
It’s better to pursue humility, than to be a proud evangelist. It’s better to seek God for deliverance of a hateful heart toward some brothers and sisters in church than to serve them with a hidden bitterness. It’s better to give only a little money to the church, but be ‘rejoicing in the Lord always’ than to give a large bag of money every month, but at the same time have constant dissatisfaction with God and the Christian life.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN INWARD OBEDIENCE AND OUTER SACRIFICE
I’m not sure why I have so often in the past had a wrong conception of what really pleases God. The Bible makes it very clear that God is not focused on the external but the internal:
(Romans 14:17) “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
(1 Samuel 16:7) “God does not look on the outward appearance but on the heart.”
(Matthew 23:26) “First clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”
(Hosea 6:6) “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”
(1 Samuel 15:22) “To obey is better than sacrifice”
(Psalm 51:16-17) “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
I suppose that for myself it has been very easy to miss it, because in the past I have judged a successful Christian life by what looks ‘productive’ and the concrete results I could see. But as I am growing in the Lord and getting to know His heart, I am seeing more that what is admirable in His eyes is not what is admirable in the eyes of men (Isaiah 55:8-9). Men look at ‘results’ (sacrifice), but God looks on the heart (inward obedience).
Going back to the example of king Saul – if we read the chapter carefully we can see that the problems of his inward heart were the cause of his downfall:
(1 Sam 15:17) Samuel said, "Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel
(1 Sam 15:24) Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice.
Verse 17 makes it clear that king Saul once had humility (he once was little in his own eyes), but then lost it and became proud. Verse 24 makes it clear that he was a slave to the fear of men. His inward sins of the heart (pride, and the fear of men) were ultimately caused his downfall. No outward sacrifice could make up for this. He would have done much better to judge himself inwardly and work with God on that first, rather than focusing on doing so many things for God. And we would too.
FREEDOM FROM GUILT
A wonderful benefit I have gained from this truth which has brought much joy to my walk with the Lord is that since God is not as concerned about these outward things, that I don’t have to feel guilty if I am not able to keep them up as I’d like. I don’t have to condemn myself if I’ve missed my morning time in the Word, or if I forgot to pray for a brother or sister. What a joy to see that God is so easy on us! This freedom from guilt and condemnation in these areas helps me to focus with more joy on cleansing myself inwardly. Unlike Martha, we don’t have to feel like we have to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders so that we can be “productive” for the Lord (Luke 10:40-42). We can joyfully live in the freedom that God is not pressing all these things on us – always telling us “do more, do more, do more, not good enough, not good enough.” He wants us to spend our energy and our thoughts on obedience in the inward life.
To clarify - it's not that we should be undisciplined in our devotional time with the Lord, or be unproductive for the Lord. But in His eyes, if we focus more on cleansing ourselves inwardly then we will actually be much more productive for Him! How is that possible? It’s possible because in God’s eyes a pure widow’s penny is worth much more than a proud Pharisee’s bag of money (Luke 21:1-4). Our small works done for God with the right heart are worth much more to Him than many works done with inward sins – wrong attitudes, pride and such things.
Do your best, but don’t compare yourself to anybody, and don’t see God as looking down on you with disappointment over these things if you fall short. Jesus came to “set the captives free.” (Luke 4:18) God meant to set us free from sin, but He also meant to set us free from guilt! Don’t forget to claim God’s promise of freedom from sin without also claiming freedom from guilt, or you may find the Christian life very burdensome and discouraging. Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). If your walk with God is not restful, then you must be carrying some false weight which God does not want you to carry.
THE CHURCH GOAL
I am thankful that I have been blessed with many brothers and sisters who I believe have this same goal (of cleansing ourselves inwardly), who are in my church. It helps me to keep focused on this same goal. And I really didn’t get this goal until I was in fellowship with such people.
I’m not sure if our church family considers ourselves to have a list of ‘church verses’ which define us, but if we did, it would definitely contain Romans 8:29 – “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son."
The goal which we are aiming to run toward is cleansing ourselves inwardly so that we will be conformed to the image of Jesus. We believe that evangelism is good, and helping the poor is good, and serving the church is good, and giving money is good... But we are most excited about inward purity and obedience to God in our hearts. I believe this is what it means to focus on obedience rather than sacrifice. I encourage everyone to fellowship with the people who have a passion for this same goal, and not primarily on external things which many churches these days can be occupied with.