Doing what you’re told rather than what you want to be told.

Saul was the king. He struggled with his temper, especially when it came to David. That kid just annoyed him. Always with the top of every list. Songwriter, singer, soldier. Most eligible bachelor. James Dean kind of outlaw look, except this rebel had a cause.

But it wasn’t David that took Saul’s job. Saul lost it.

He went to battle at God’s direction. In one of the violent scenes we don’t understand, Saul killed all the people as he was told. But he and his soldiers didn’t kill the best of the sheep and cattle as they had been told.

Samuel was the priest. He visited Saul, asked about the noise he heard. Saul said, “we kept the best to sacrifice to God.” Samuel said to Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Saul was told that his reign was about done.

It’s a familiar idea, this improvisation.

  • “I know that you asked me to do this, but I thought that would be a better idea.”
  • “I know you asked me to wait in the car, but I wanted to come in and help.”
  • “I know that you said to wait until you got here, but I figured that I could just get started.

It happens all the time in our lives. In fact, it’s called “taking initiative”.  But when it comes to spiritual improvisation, things can get sketchy. What God wanted Saul to do was to listen and follow directions. God wanted the sacrifice to happen on his terms, not Saul’s.

We try to pick what God would like and do it. And we wonder why we feel like he’s not listening. We say to God, “You ought to pay attention. I’m doing all this reputation-damaging stuff.”

And we hear Samuel’s voice echoing: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”

7 thoughts on “Doing what you’re told rather than what you want to be told.

  1. Stephen Crate

    How can you be sure what God is telling you to do? God is mystery. When we start to judge others for not following God’s will because we think we know his will for others that seems to cross the line to judging others. Unfortunately, we can’t call on the phone and say. ” Hello God, I am not quite sure I understand what you want me to do, can you clarify that please”. I know what you are saying is when we are directed to God’s will and you have discerned it clearly, to then take initiative is contrary to our role as a disciple of Jesus, but sometimes the communication is not clear. Satan can come to us in disguise. Samuel may be right in this example, but we must be very careful not to judge others discernment. Praise be to God Always.


    1. Jon Swanson

      ah, stephen, but sometimes the communication is clear.

      My concern is not with identifying the disobedience of others nearly as much as addressing my own disobedience. And I know clearly that God is calling me to love my wife and that loving includes listening and deferring and not being, by my own stubbornness and selfishness an obstacle to her listening. I know clearly that Jesus spent time with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors and a Samaritan woman and that they wanted to spend time with him. I know clearly that Jesus said that feeding hungry and clothing naked and visiting sick and prisoners is showing love to him and so I need to be doing those things and looking for ways to do those things. And I know that Jesus looked at the people who were concerned about technical obedience as a way to not obey the larger intent of the law (using the laws about sacrifice to avoid using those resources to help their parents) and I have to look at my own time and wonder.

      I completely understand the danger of judging others. Jesus was clear that we are to look to our own obedience first. And Samuel was following God’s clear (in a conversation) direction.

      My friend Rich Dixon talks about how we don’t always know the connection between our requests and God’s actions (I just don’t always know). That post and the one it links to illustrate the challenge of God’s time not being our time and his ways not being our way of doing things. And that being part of the mystery.

      What is clear right now is that of the two options of keeping writing and cleaning the toilets, I know which is most obedient.

      catch you later.


  2. Rich Dixon

    Often we don’t know what God wants. We focus on those times and throw up our hands in confusion.

    But in my life the REAL problems haven’t come from not-knowing. Almost every significant problem has happened when I knew what was right and didn’t do it.

    Perhaps if I do the right I know I get an expanded glimpse of the right I want to know.


  3. Cindy

    The listening piece is easier said than done since we no longer have those prophets giving us God’s instructions. At least, when it comes to those big life decisions. “Is this where you are leading me?” Or is it, “This is where I want to go and I hope it’s you leading.” Discernment can be a sketchy exercise. I guess it’s how you obey once you get there…


    1. Jon Swanson

      good questions, Cindy. A number of thoughts come to mind: 1. I once said, “here’s what I’m seeing/hearing/feeling about my priorities if you call me to that job. If you don’t want me to do them, don’t let me get that job (in a position of being a shepherd). I didn’t get that job. But I’m doing most of the exact same things where I am now. Lesson to me? I was hearing the right things, but it was the wrong place. 2. I struggle sometimes with the reality that we do have the same prophets and instructions, though they aren’t addressed to us in the same way that Saul was given a specific command and Samuel was given a specific command to give to Saul. So how much applies directly to us and what was just to them. I’m assuming in the case of this story, that “kill the Amalekites” was directly to Saul and “You are no longer king” was directly to Samuel for Saul and “to obey is better than sacrifice” is a principle that applies to Saul and us. 3. I’m increasingly uncertain that God specifically puts us in specific parking places. The way that we pray for them. 4. I’m increasingly concerned for myself that if I spent more time talking with and listening to Jesus, especially through scripture since the Gospels give his voice a lot, that I would have fewer questions about specifics and more clarity about what does matter. thanks for helping me think. Say hi to J.


  4. Stephen Crate

    Great responses from all. I think Jon’s comment touches my concern the most. We must be most concerned with our own obedience to God’s will for us. I pray that my interpretation of God’s message to me is accurate. Thanks for this.


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