When having God on your side means losing the battle
Based on the Catholic Mass readings for January 14, 2016.
I woke up this morning really feeling like I could use some encouragement. So, I turned to my iBreviary to see what the Word of the Lord has to say to the Church today. Surely I’d find it there, right?
As I started reading 1 Samuel 4, I found myself getting pumped up, and excited for Israel. Here they were losing a war against the Philistines, so they go fetch the Ark of the Covenant and bring the presence of God into their camp. I’m thinking, “Yes! This is exactly what I need to read this morning! One of those crazy Israel victory stories like Gideon or Jericho where they overcome their enemy because GOD, that’s why!”
Man, were the Israelites and I in for a major disappointment. I had to do a double take, and read the lines over again, because I was still a little asleep, and thought maybe my brain was taking the words in wrong or something.
WHAT?! Israel LOST?! What the heck just happened, Lord? How am I supposed to be encouraged by that?
(I’m not just writing that for effect here, by the way; these were my actual thoughts. It’s how I pray sometimes.)
So I read the passage again, knowing this time that the Israelites were about to bite it big time, and suddenly the reason for their failure became very clear. It seems they did not bring God into their camp in order to worship Him, and figure out what His plan was. They did not make it about His glory. They brought God into the picture to serve their own agenda. Rather than fall on their faces in humility and repentance in the real presence of the One, True living God, they shouted in boastful arrogance as if to say, “God is ours, suckas! We've got 'im now! You can’t handle this! What? Come at me!”
Oops. Wrong answer. Not only did they not win the battle, they lost even worse than they were losing to begin with, because their loud boasting provoked their enemy to fight harder. “It was a disastrous defeat,” the Scriptures tell us. And the Ark of the Covenant was taken into the hands of the enemy.
When it comes to God, one thing is certain: if we don’t voluntarily humble ourselves, and fall to our knees in recognition of who He really is, and who we really are in relation, we will eventually end up there anyways. It is the natural order of things. Because He is not some football mascot we rally around to get our spirits pumping as we set out to accomplish our goals; He is the I AM. Owned by no one.
Because GOD, that's why!
So many times, we pray really hard about stuff, and when things don’t go the way we were hoping, we tend to doubt God, questioning if He really is all that powerful, or if He really is on our team. We feel slighted and disillusioned. But perhaps it would be more beneficial to turn our questioning towards our own intentions, and what it is about our posture that made God see it fit to serve us humble pie for dinner in the first place.
There are two attitudes we can take in making requests of God: Not my will, but your will be done, and not your will, but my will be done. I’ve learned through many a trial and error that the first one is the only one that ever pans out well. Prayer becomes more and more about simply surrendering and trying to listen, rather than convincing God of my cause.
After the story of Israel's devastating loss, the responsorial reads:
Yet now you have cast us off and put us in disgrace,
and you go not forth with our armies.
You have let us be driven back by our foes;
those who hated us plundered us at will.
Redeem us, Lord, because of your mercy.
I was recently listening to a teaching from St. Paul Center (and I don’t remember which one it was, but if you recognize it, let me know and I’ll add the reference) where the speaker pointed out that we tend to get God’s mercy and God’s wrath mixed up. We think His mercy is giving us what we want, and His wrath is giving us what we need, when in reality, it is the other way around. In God’s infinite wisdom, His wrath often looks like handing us over to what we want, even if it means we destroy ourselves in the process. But in the same infinite wisdom, His mercy often comes in the form of giving us what we need. For example, sometimes we need just enough failure to gain perspective, and save us from our own destruction. Sometimes, our perspective is so off that the failure is significant.
I wonder, if instead of shouting boastfully in God’s presence, the Israelites had humbled themselves and listened for a better plan, would we be reading a very different story today? One of true victory?
Today, the Israelites are the liturgy's major losers. But thank God, the story isn’t over. We know from the readings earlier this week that God has not abandoned Israel, because He is forming Samuel into a great prophet who will be His voice to them in the midst of their stubbornness. And we also know that eventually, David is going to come into the picture, and that’s a really big deal.
I would not be surprised if many of us find that this Year of Mercy is met with a whole lot of failure and humble pie. If it is, let's not lose heart. It’s just what we need, that’s all. It gives us the chance to correct our posture, and in that, remember who God really is, and who we really are because of Him. Let's embrace the reality of His authority, and be grateful as our Savior offers us the grace to fail at being anything less than truly His own.