Recently I’ve been thinking over my prayer life and my approach to God. When things are busy and hectic in my life my discipline in prayer and bible study will often increase as well. But what has been concerning me is that my disciplines reflect a good deal of selfishness in my Christianity. In 1 Sam 4:1-11 the children of Israel use the arc of the covenant as a sort of insurance policy – a free ticket to victory in battle. They presume upon God.
Why Grace gets misunderstood
The problem of presumption and dependance is a complicated one. We are supposed to go to God with all our problems no matter how small or large. What is more, we are supposed to depend on God for deliverance and in faith believe that He can and will deliver us. So how do we know when we are presuming upon grace? How do we know if we are merely manipulating God or righteously resting in Him?
Here the story of Israel’s defeat by the Philistines is helpful. In the battle between Israel and the Philistines the elders of Israel assume that the arc of the covenant is the missing ingredient for victory. They carry the arc as a magic charm but not as a sacred emblem. This is shown in the comparison of the Israelite army in verse 3-5 and then the Philistine camp in 6-9. The comparison shows little difference between the two, indicating that Israel is “practically heathen” in her understanding of her relationship to God. The elders of Israel ask the right question, “Why has the Lord defeated us today…?” But they fail to see the obvious answer, “because they did not seek the Lord (only) with all their heart” (c.f. 1 Sam 7:3). They tried to use God but not submit to Him. Even worse, they confused the symbol for the reality, and placed hope in the presence of a religious token rather than in God Himself.
Sacramental and Pietistical Presumption Today
Today we are still able to fall into this same sort of pagan hope. We can use the tokens of God presence as magic formula rather than trusting the in real presence of Christ. As Spurgeon noted,
It is very easy to use the name of Jesus, but not quite so easy to know his person; it is common to talk about what he did, and not to feel that he lives just as truly as we do, and that he is a person to be loved, and to be trusted in, just as much as our own brother, or father, or friend. We want a real, living, personal Christ!
When Israel brought the arc – they did not bring God as they thought they would. When we trust in religion without the heart of the relationship, we too will be left presuming upon God and dangerously close to defeat. God does delight to show his glory through his ordained means (weather the arc, sacrament or even prayer), but it is not the glory that we are to seek, but the God of that glory. Without the most intimate of relationship with God, trust in any of the tokens of religion is but pagan magic and self worship. Jesus is the only way to God, because he alone brings us to God through the most intimate of relations (John 17:6, 20-21) without any presumption.