Religion is the most natural of human behaviors. Both religious and non-religious critics have long been able to trace the contours of our natural religion.
- God is a projection of our wishes and anxieties
- God is a projection of ourselves with more power
It is natural to come into church looking for solutions. We look for a God to fill the gaps left by the limits of our power.
- We ask God to help us control ourselves
- We ask God to control others in the ways we think they need change
- We ask God to provide power, money, security, meaning, happiness, outcomes when our ability to provide these things for ourselves runs short.
We look to our religious leaders to give us answers but our quest isn’t just for knowledge, it is for technology. We want to know how to work God and how to make God work for us.
All of this tends to boil down to two situations.
- When things are not how we want them we want God to change things to be as we want them.
- When things ARE as we want them we want God to make sure they stay that way.
We naturally gauge our relationship with on the basis of these two principles.
God is Holy
Eugene Peterson makes this observation.
Holy is a word that we use to designate the otherness, the purity, the beauty of God. God is holy. We can’t understand God by extrapolating from our human experience, magnifying and projecting the best that we are or can imagine, and then call that God. God isn’t a human being, even the best of human beings, writ large. Because God is other, God is therefore also a mystery. God can’t be studied empirically the way we scrupulously examine evidence in a laboratory. God can’t be figured out the way we logically think through the truth and falsity of language statements. God is so other that we can never pretend to predict what God will do, or get God under our control in any way whatever. Our only appropriate approach to God is in awe and reverence, in humble and submissive worship. Such and approach also contains elements of fear and trembling, for though we’re immensely attracted to what we apprehend of God –goodness and truth and beauty–we’re also apprehensive of what lies beyond our grasp, sensing that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31 also 12:25-29)
Eugene Peterson Leap Over a Wall pg 60
Natural religion tries to domesticate God and imagines God is not holy.
We keep trying natural religion for our own reasons. It keeps failing because God is holy.
In the story of David and Saul in the book of 1 Samuel we find this holy God involved in the lives of Saul and David and the story keeps us focused on both of them at once. In 1 Samuel 21 and 22 we find David becoming the kind of man God wanted him to become and Saul’s gradual corruption continuing to hit new depths. The story challenges natural religion and our efforts to employ it to our own advantage. The story continues to press us to believe that God is not a part of our story but in fact he employs us as part of his.
Fugitive David: No Longer Innocent, Not Yet Mature
When we first meet David in the introductory stories (1 and 2 and 3) David is first a silent boy who is employed by his father to watch sheep and then employed by Saul to control the spirits within himself that he has fallen victim to. When David first speaks in the context of Goliath he has a child’s faith. Material and practical realities of the world are nothing compared to the largeness of God. The God that delivered the lion and the bear into his hand will deliver Goliath, and he does!
Last week we first saw opaque David at the royal court. David is innocent and innocent of the evil transparent Saul. Saul tries one way or another to kill David out of fear of losing what he has but David is slow to realize that evil isn’t just in the heart of the giant of the Philistines but also in the giant of Israel’s king. By chapter 20 it dawns on him what is happening but Jonathan thinks it can still be contained and managed. Jonathan too loses his innocence, the innocence like David’s that we saw in the earlier battles against the Philistines. David now flees.
David flees to the house of God but lies to God’s priest. David had just cooked up a lie to save himself from Saul in chapter 20 and now he cooks a new one up to try to get provisions to save his life. There is no divine intervention to catch him in his lie. The priest innocently assists David. This decision will cost him and his whole community their lives. He was right to tremble when David approached.
David then flees to the enemy but when he gets there he is forced to realize he’s no match for them and this glamorous young hero who in Israel could do no wrong now has to make himself so odious that he’s not even worth a Philistine arrow.
We wonder where God is in this. Just a few chapters before when Saul was doing all he could to “keep his enemies closer” David had the Midas touch. Now we might almost imagine that God has abandoned him. He’s alone, friendless, odious.
What’s more he is dangerous. He will cause the death of the village of Nod. He will seem to imperil God’s project of Israel by going over to the enemy. Because Saul hates him his family knows that Saul will likely kill them too so they flee to him.
A Basket of Deplorables
A funny thing starts to happen.
1 Samuel 22:1–2 (NIV)
1 David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. 2 All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.
David has taken on gravity. He has to send his family to the relatives of Great-grandmother Ruth. A prophet is now with him and that prophet is speaking for God and directing his steps. God is doing something with David but David probably can’t see it.
All of this for David looks like a disaster. He has gone from hero to outcast. He has gone from King’s son-in-law living in the royal court to lying to the priest, acting like a madman in front of his enemies, hiding his family and living in caves surrounded by the deplorables of Israel and THEY want HIM to lead them.
From our perspectives are readers we can see the clear outlines of God’s work.
- David is learning the hard way all of the tools he will need.
- He’s is building a personal army that will be pivotal in his rise to power
- David is learning to lead and to negotiate
David is not done learning. This will continue but God has him exactly where He wants him even though it all feels like lose to David.
Saul has Everything and Lives in Fear of Loss
If we wish to try to discern what God is up to the contrast between David and Saul is stark. Saul is a powerful force trying to take David’s life throwing everything around him into confusion killing a village. Saul, while at the height of his power is filled with fear, anxiety, and tumult. He is calling the shots but he’s desperately trying to secure his future and the future of his family against the perceived threat of David. The irony is that David seems at this point to be no threat at all. Anyone assessing the situation based on appearances would say that Saul’s future is bright and David’s dim.
Also Saul begins his journey also in innocence and piety. Saul early on was overcome by God’s spirit and was counted among the prophets. He first got into trouble by initiating a sacrifice to Yhwh and the second time when he failed to put to the sword the most valuable of the Amalekites he was still very focused on trying to make peace with God and with Samuel. Now Saul in his terror will slaughter the community of priests who were completely innocent in how they responded to David. He allows a non-Israelite to slay the priests of the Lord. He will foment civil war by casting David as a son of Judah in an attempt to rally the tribe of Benjamin to keep him in power. While David plays the madman to save his skin from the Philistines Saul IS a madman on the throne of Israel. David feels like his life is undone but is actually being prepared by God while Saul has every reason to imagine himself blessed but is in torment and all of his attempts to secure himself simply bring on his own destruction.
Misery: Where is God in this?
God is holy. He is behind the scenes moving and working in ways that no one in the picture can comprehend. He is giving David the kind of training he will need to do what he will want David to do later in life.
We see in David a man of sorrows around whom gathers the dregs of Israel and out of these outcasts he will build his kingdom.
In David here we see Jesus. We see Jesus attracting to himself the sick, the weak, the poor, the moral outcasts of Israel. It will be upon denier Peter that he will build his church. Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinful men and women will gather around him and he will be their leader.
These leaders will fan out around the Roman empire and be persecuted and denounced as atheists and moral rejects who fail to promote the gods of the pagan temples. Out of slaves and murderers he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail.
If Israel were to pick their own Messiah in the first century they would have looked for someone like Saul. What they got was the son of David.
Are you a victim of natural religion? Do you try to discern the plan of God based on your circumstances trying to imagine divine projection based on your circumstances or anxieties? It is completely natural that we should do this but the holiness of God as revealed in the story of David and the life of Jesus should ask us to resist this natural urge.
A better response is to accept the revelation of God in Christ and believe in his promises to you regardless of your circumstances. To believe that he is active in history to do his work even when as we saw in David everything seems to be coming apart. Do you believe that he can use trials to perfect us and make of us what is useful to him? Do you know that often when times are good our attempts to secure our welfare undermine our trust in him sending us further from him? Are you ready to trust?