Serving God or Manipulating God?

One day soon, Chris will post on this blog.  Until that day, you’re stuck with yours truly.  I offer you my sincerest sympathies.

I want to start by recalling the following story from 1 Kings 18:


So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, `Choose one ox for yourselves and prepare it first for you are many, and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.’ Then they took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, `O Baal, answer us.’ But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made. It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, `Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.’ So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. When midday was past, they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.

Christians and Jews everywhere are familiar with this story.  Ahab has led the nation of Israel into full fledged idolatry with Baal for the past few years.  Elijah enters without any prior Biblical introduction in 1 Kings 17:1 and announces YHWH’s judgment in the form of prolonged drought, causing a famine in the land.  After years of hiding, God brings Elijah forth to, by the end of chapter 18, end the drought.  But first a small matter of business must be taken care of.

Baal is a fertility god, and allegedly responsible for rain.  Were YHWH to simply restore rain and food to Israel, many people could simply insist Baal had gotten his jive back, and ignore the act of the true and living God.  So first Baal must be thoroughly discredited.  That happens in the passage I quoted above.  We clearly see from his lack of answer to the pleas of 450 of his followers that Baal does not exist.  Or at least, if he does exist, he’s not very good at helping out his worshippers.  Elijah then goes for the jugular and, after soaking his altar, prays God to light it on fire, which He does.

But before moving on, try to notice some facts about the theology of the priests of Baal.  We see that they cry out loudly.  We see that they have ritualized dancing or leaping or spontaneous movement of some kind.  We see that they cut themselves with lances and swords.  Incidentally, I am very curious as to how one cuts oneself with a spear or lance.  That seems very awkward given the proportions involved.  I think it would be rather difficult.  Which actually turns out to strengthen the point I’m getting to.  The defining theology of the Baal worshippers is that Baal will do things for them if they do things for Baal.  The harder they exert themselves, the more manipulated Baal will be.  To put it in different words, Baal will work if they work.

As Christians, we understand this is not true of our God.  We have an understanding of His sovereignty and power, that He can do anything consistent with His will, that He is not subject to external authority, and most certainly not subject to us as humanity.  We know the statement, “God helps those who help themselves,” is heretical, and can even be damning if interpreted as works based salvation.  We know that putting money in the plate at church does not cause God to bless us or grow us spiritually or even necessarily cause people to be saved through the ministries funded by that money.  But regardless, this pagan theology can sometimes sneak into our thinking.

Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines, “If everyone in this ministry prayed for thirty minutes each day, God would do so much here!”  We know from James that God has promised us that the prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.  But the example he gives if of Elijah praying for drought before 1 Kings 17 and again for rain at the end of 1 Kings 18.  What’s interesting is that Elijah prays for that rain seven times.  The first six times God did not answer.  When someone tells a congregation that their prayers will fix the ministry, they, as humans, will start looking for visible results from those prayers.  Oftentimes, if they don’t see results within a few months, they are tempted to think, “God is not at work here.  Why is He not listening to my prayers?  Do I need to be more holy?  Do I need to pray harder?”  This is pagan theology.  Why?  It doesn’t express a trust in God.  It expresses a trust in our ability to cause God to do things through prayer or personal holiness.

Or perhaps you’ve been told you’ll grow so much through reading your Bible.  And finally, after years of trying and failing, you start to read the Bible regularly.  Perhaps then you look for growth in your life.  And perhaps after a few months, not much change seems to be there at all.  Maybe you get discouraged and think, “Why have I not grown that much?”  Perhaps you find a particularly pernicious sin that is causing you not to grow, but perhaps not.  In the latter case I think you’ve been tempted towards pagan theology.  You expected God to grow you and work in you because you faithfully read your Bible.  Didn’t you earn at least some of His favor through the means of reading His word regularly?  But you and I both notice that question smacks of works based religion.  We know it to be false.

This potently pernicious pagan philosophy doesn’t limit itself to our private personal practices.  Perhaps I start regularly meeting with someone for the purpose of personal discipleship.  Maybe I’m an all star—scratch that—MVP and World Series MVP caliber discipler.  I pray for that dude all the time.  I walk him through the Roman road backwards.  I explain the difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism perfectly with a thorough Biblical treatment of relevant texts and their contexts.  I teach him how to study the Bible.  We hold weekly prayer meetings together.  I get to know his friends and show him ways to better serve them.  I serve alongside him at church scrubbing toilets and praying for every single Sunday school teacher.  We memorize the entire book of Psalms together.  Now suppose this dude, at the end of all that, says, “Naw man, I’m not so sure I’m into the whole Jesus thing anymore.  I don’t think that’s for me.  I’m going to go find my own way to be happy.”  How should I feel?  Devastated?  Yes.  Mourning for that man’s eternal soul?  Yes.  But I think I would feel, above all else, betrayed.  And much of that would be this disciple’s betrayal, but some of it would be a sense of betrayal by God.  And that is sinful pagan theology.

It’s tempting to be disappointed when our ministry to others seems to accomplish little in their lives or shows no external fruit.  And often some of that disappointment is a disappointment with God.  And that is a sin to turn from.  This is very applicable to our daily lives, whether that be meeting up with younger people or serving in a formal capacity at church or evangelizing to our unsaved friends and family.  We should be humbled by seeing ourselves as, in fact, no better than Baal priests, if left to ourselves.  We must learn to trust God with the results instead of expecting Him to work.

Much as we desire to be useful to God, we must instead value faithfulness to God.  There are many examples of people who were useful to God, but not faithful to Him, such as Samson, Saul, Jeroboam, Jehu, the Babylonians, those who preached out of spite while Paul was imprisoned, and many more.  But remember also that many of the most faithful to God have appeared the least useful, such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, and even Elijah himself.

No matter how much I pour into another’s life, I can’t cause God to work in that individual.  The YHWH on Mt. Carmel that day is the God I worship, and He is not the Baal that was shown to be so impotent and fake.  He isn’t manipulated by His worshippers.  He owes nothing to external beings.  That should cause me to worship.  But that should also cause me to trust Him.  Because I know that He shall accomplish His will, and His will is by definition the ultimate good, not subject to any external or impure being.  And that should encourage me to serve Him faithfully, regardless of what the results may be.

A further application of this is that we can trust God to work even when we fail.  If I fail to be a good discipler in my previous example, perhaps by failing to pray for my friend and rarely meeting with him and not perceiving how best to shepherd him, God may still decide to grow that man mightily.  This is incredibly freeing, for one shouldn’t feel obligated to “serve” others for fear that those people will fail to grow or be saved, or because it’s a good Christian thing that one needs to do if he wants God to be pleased with him.

In closing I want to acknowledge this post was inspired by a paragraph in Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary on 1 Kings, which I highly recommend.  I also want to highlight the applicability of the Old Testament to our daily lives.  This partly comes from God revealing His character very clearly throughout His interactions with Israel, but also from the focus the Old Testament puts on issues of the heart.  Thinking of the Old Testament as predominantly concerned with external obedience, a belief that stems from misinterpreting the Mosaic law, is not helpful for Old Testament interpretation.

Serving God or Manipulating God?

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