Why Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice

by Ben Sternke on October 18, 2012

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In the midst of a scathing indictment against King Saul’s presumption and arrogance, the prophet Samuel utters these famous words,

To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

Saul had heard the word of the Lord, but thought he had a better idea. He was supposed to destroy the Amalekites completely, taking no plunder, but instead he spared the best of the sheep and cattle “to sacrifice to the Lord.” This might seem like a noble gesture on Saul’s part, wanting to sacrifice to the Lord… so why does Samuel make such a big deal out of this? Why is obedience so much better than sacrifice?

Sacrifice in this sense is actually an attempt to gain independence from God. If we sacrifice for him, then we have put him in our debt. If we sacrifice for God, he owes us something (so we think). Sacrifice is a way of “buying” whatever we want to get from God (protection, deliverance, provision, favor), while at the same time remaining independent from him.

“God, look at all I’ve done for you! You owe me this, it’s only fair!” we say. We demand our goodies from God, but we retain our right to do what we want with our lives. We just need to make sure we throw a few sacrifices God’s way every once in awhile to keep him at bay. This is the attitude of sacrifice that Saul personified.

Obedience, however, is the response of someone who is in a relationship of trust with God. We trust God, we depend on him, we are interactive with him, but he takes the lead. Obedience is better than sacrifice because we are letting God be God and staying in our proper place with him, the place of dependence and surrender to his goodness.

It’s like a woman once said to Tim Keller, upon realizing the gospel for the first time,

“I know why I want my morality to save me. If I’m saved by my good works, then like a taxpayer, I have rights. I’ve paid into the system and God owes me a good and decent life. And there is a limit to what the Father can ask of me. But if I’m saved by sheer grace, then my life belongs entirely to the Father, he owes me nothing and there is no limit to what he can ask of me.”

It’s a theme repeated over and over throughout Scripture,

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

“To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

“Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:7-8).

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42).

The life of sacrifice is a life of demanding my rights and living as I wish. The life of obedience, though, is a response to God’s gracious invitation and is lived as an upward spiral of dependence and intimacy. This is why Jesus didn’t say, “If you love me, sacrifice for me.” Instead he said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

This kind of obedience (as a response to divine love) always leads to intimacy and dependence. This is why obedience is better than sacrifice.

 

15 comments
LincolnThompson
LincolnThompson

Yep. Not a good idea trying to game God. What was it the prophet Jeremiah said? Great post.

tmechele
tmechele

this is GREAT...Put in laymen's terms so that I can understand and carry the word forward..Love it.

MissyDB
MissyDB

Wonderful Blog. You've truly allowed God to open up more understanding of this VERY popular scripture. God bless you. MDB

Jeremy
Jeremy

"The life of sacrifice is a life of demanding my rights and living as I wish."

Sacrifice is not about trading or buying; it is not equal to shopping or opportunity cost. It is about willingly giving something of personal value without expecting anything in return. A life of sacrifice will see a person sacrificing their rights and desires (desires to live as they wish), in order to serve the Lord.

Romans 12:1 "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your intelligent service."

Here, obedience and sacrifice are tied in together. Sacrifice does not imply debt.

Chris Jones
Chris Jones

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. That is real sacrifice through obedience. Obedience versus Sacrifice debate is silly because Samuel was speaking directly to Saul that to obey the Lord is way better than having to sacrifice a proxy to cover the sin. It has nothing to do with the fact that Jesus expects us, out of love and obedience, to sacrifice our lives and follow Him no matter the hardship.

Ron Allen
Ron Allen

It is gratitude though that is the password into God's Presence.

bensternke
bensternke moderator

@Jeremy Thanks for your comment. It's probably semantics. Yes, true sacrifice is the kind Romans 12:1 talks about (which is actually obedience). But there is a type of "sacrifice" that causes us to think we've done something noble for God, as opposed to simply responded to his invitation to have life to the full.

That's why I like Dallas Willard's phrase that discipleship is actually a bargain. It's the best deal any of us are ever going to get as humans. We sell everything, which looks like sacrifice, but it's not, really, because there's a treasure in the field we're buying. The obedient life IS the abundant life. Taking up our cross is the same thing as the easy yoke.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Hi Chris - thanks for your comment.I do believe that Jesus expects us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him, but think it's unhelpful to think of this as "sacrifice," because it fosters a belief that we are somehow helping God out. Ultimately we aren't heroes for sacrificing, because what we are receiving in the long run far outweighs what we give up.The secret is that taking up our cross is the same thing as taking on the easy yoke of Jesus. We deny ourselves because we believe God will give us our real self if we do so. Discipleship is about seeing the treasure in the field and selling everything to get it. That's not a "sacrifice," it's receiving grace!So that's what I mean there about sacrifice and obedience.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Indeed! Gratitude is implicit in our response of trust to God's lovingkindness.

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