In our efforts to serve others and do good in the world, we humans have a remarkable tendency to fall short, no matter how carefully constructed or well intended our plans and designs may be.
When failure occurs, economists are likely to point to some kind of knowledge problem, noting that, for instance, Western Congregation X didn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) know or foresee that sending hundreds of free shoes to Developing Nation Y would put several local merchants out of business.
To mitigate these types of ripple effects, we can work to be more careful in a variety of ways, but throughout that process, Christians have a unique responsibility to order our concerns within a particular context of transcendent obedience to a particular God and Savior. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” as Samuel once said, “and to listen than the fat of rams.”
When we seek to do good on behalf of others, we certainly ought to consider the various modes of “natural” analysis and observation — reason, history, science, tradition, etc. — but we are also commanded to consult and consider the voice of God himself, whether delivered through his Word, the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, a prophetic church community, or otherwise.
This is not to call for some form of anxious and nit-picky legalism, of course, though that temptation is sure to endure as well. It’s to say that ours is a service uniquely empowered to stretch beyond the ways of this world, which are far too aimless, far too arbitrary, and ultimately beholden to the self.
When we neglect transcendent sources of knowledge, danger and destruction will persist, both in our spiritual lives and the witness we bear in the world. As the great teacher and evangelist Oswald Chambers once cautioned, “Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” which “may be a disease that impairs your service”:
Beware when you want to “confer with flesh and blood” or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings— anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.
Abraham did not choose what the sacrifice would be. Always guard against self-chosen service for God. Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service. If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace; or even if He has made it bitter, drink it in communion with Him. If the providential will of God means a hard and difficult time for you, go through it. But never decide the place of your own martyrdom, as if to say, “I will only go to there, but no farther.” God chose the test for Abraham, and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed. If you are not living in touch with God, it is easy to blame Him or pass judgment on Him. You must go through the trial before you have any right to pronounce a verdict, because by going through the trial you learn to know God better. God is working in us to reach His highest goals until His purpose and our purpose become one.
Chambers dismisses the value of “conferring with flesh and blood” a bit too hastily, but if the voice of God is indeed heard and understood, and “flesh and blood” resist that voice in the face of clear spiritual discernment, the warning stands.
Our service and sacrifice will do far more for the Kingdom when sourced according to the Kingdom, whether it be in the ways we love our families, raise our children, interact with friends and neighbors, serve our local churches and communities, participate in creative service and economic exchange, or give and invest our wealth, time, gifts, and energy.
We have plenty of knowledge barriers as it is. As we work to spread the Gospel and pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful across all of life, let us grab hold of the transformative and life-giving power that comes through obedience to God and submission to a love that is higher than our love, enacted in ways that are higher than our ways.