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Playing theological Scrabble

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 13:16-23

I have an article written by someone with too much spare time. This person has played Scrabble in an unusual way: by rearranging the letters, “George Bush” becomes “He bugs Gore,” “dormitory” becomes “dirty room,” “the Morse code” spells “here come dots,” “slot machines” is “cash lost in me,” “eleven plus two” is “twelve plus one,” and closing with the worst on the list, “mother-in-law” becomes “woman Hitler.”

Today we’ll close our series with King David by playing theological Scrabble. There is only one way to arrange the letters of our days to make genuine meaning of them. Most of us want to write volumes with our lives and work. But there is only one sentence which will give us the harmony, peace, and joy God intends our lives and relationships to possess.

Refuse a divided heart

Today we’ll choose between David and Saul. Between two kings, two ways of life, two approaches to faith, two worldviews. Meet your first option.

Saul was the largest and mightiest man in his entire nation, a head taller than his contemporaries. When the Israelites wanted a king to protect them from their enemies, it only made sense that they would choose him. If the Mavericks could sign Shaquille O’Neal or me to play center, Mark Cuban wouldn’t have a hard decision to make.

And Saul’s early years were successful in the extreme. He led Israel to defeat the hated Philistines, to liberate the people from enslaved bondage, to procure a measure of freedom and security they had not known in generations.

But then came the test of Saul’s heart, the moment which revealed a destiny.

The Lord commanded the king to attack a people known as the Amalekites for their sins against Israel during the Exodus. Here was his clear word: “…destroy everything that belongs to them” (1 Samuel 15:3). But Saul kept “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good” (v. 9).

The Lord responded thus: “Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions'” (v. 10-11a).

God gave Samuel this further word: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (v. 22).

With this conclusion: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you” (v. 28). The point was not the lambs and calves, for the God of the universe has plenty. The point was partial or complete obedience.

Saul typifies the spirit of our day: serve God, but serve yourself as well. Give him what he asks, so long as you get what you want also. If we give him Sunday, we can have the rest of the week. If we give him some of our money, we can spend the rest as we wish. If we give him some of our time and abilities, we can use the rest as we please. Live in two worlds, serving two masters. This is the divided heart.

It is not a new worldview. Six centuries before Christ, a Greek singer and philosopher named Orpheus taught his followers that our souls are separate from our bodies, that in fact our bodies were created to punish and purify our souls. So the “spiritual” is good, while the “secular” is bad.

This single idea influenced Pythagoras, who influenced Plato, who influenced Augustine, who influenced Luther. It has come to permeate all of Western civilization, so that it is in the very air we breathe today. There is the spiritual and the secular, the church and the “real world,” Sunday and Monday. Give God what he wants, but only so long as we get what we want as well.

The divided heart affects us in every way. Here are some hard questions. They are intended kindly, but they reveal the way we are all tempted by this worldview.

This week, did you meet God every morning for an extended time of prayer, Bible study, and worship? If not, why not? Is it that you didn’t have the time? Or is it that you didn’t want to give the time? Would such a commitment require a lifestyle adjustment you don’t want to make? Would it cost you sleep, or leisure, or work you don’t want to give? Are you trying to serve God and self at the same time?

This week, did you make your faith public? Did you share the gospel with a lost friend or colleague or relative? If not, why not? Is it that you didn’t know how? Or is it that you didn’t want to take the chance? Would such a commitment require a risk you don’t want to take? Would it cost you socially? Are you trying to serve God and self?

Today, did you give the tithe, ten percent of your income, to God? If not, why not? Is it your belief that you cannot afford to do so? Is it true that you actually cannot afford to give ten percent of your income to the One who gave everything to you, or is it that such a commitment would cost you more than you want to pay? Would it require a lifestyle adjustment you don’t want to make? Are you trying to serve God and self?

A recent poll revealed that three-quarters of college students surveyed said their professors taught them there is no clear standard of right and wrong. In 2001, almost 30 million Americans said they had no religion—more than double the number from 1990. George Gallup recently reported that 20 percent of self-described born-again Christians believe in reincarnation, 26 percent in astrology, and 16 percent have visited a fortuneteller. 30 percent say that cohabitation, gay sex, and watching pornography is morally acceptable. We want to live for God, but for ourselves as well.

Dante spoke of “the dismal company whose lives knew neither praise nor infamy; who against God rebelled not, nor to Him were faithful, but to self alone were true.” Living for God but for ourselves as well, the life of the divided heart—does it tempt you today?

Choose a single heart

Now let’s contrast Saul with David. Here’s the first reference to the boy who would become Israel’s greatest king: Samuel told Saul, “…the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command” (1 Samuel 13:14). A “man after his own heart.”

What does this phrase mean? Paul explains it in our text: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22).

He will—this is not a hope or possibility, but an absolute fact.

Do—not just believe, but put his doctrinal beliefs into practical action. The word is in the present tense—a continual lifestyle, not just an occasional religious observance.

Everything—no exceptions. No matter how hard or easy, no matter the cost to him. In every area of his life—his money, time, relationships, leadership.

I want him to do—literally “everything I wish,” the divine will.

How did he know what God wanted him to do? His psalms answer our question.

He studied the Scriptures for himself: “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect” (Psalm 18:30-32).

He listened to God through his people, as when Nathan revealed to him his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah.

He prayed for divine guidance: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:1-3).

He waited for divine direction: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (Psalm 37:7). He knew that “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him” (vs. 39-40). But a “refuge” helps us only when we get inside its protection.

David summarized his “heart” this way: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). David possessed a single heart, a single passion: to know and do the will of God. He did not separate life into secular and sacred, church and state, God and himself. His only question in every situation was: What is God’s will? His only desire was to do it.

Of course there were times when he failed his heart. His catastrophic sin with Bathsheba and Uriah will be known to all of history. But his heart was made clear by his response to Nathan’s rebuke, his genuine repentance, confession, and sorrow. To have God’s heart sadly does not exempt us from our fallen natures. Rather, it means that we choose his will over ours. And that we confess our sin when we do not. Our desire, however far we fall short, is to do everything God wants us to do.

Conclusion

The single heart is the key to a life of purpose and joy. Listen to theologian Donald Baillie: “Jesus lived in his life in complete dependence upon God, as we all ought to live our lives. But such dependence does not destroy human personality. Man is never so fully and so truly personal as when he is living in complete dependence upon God. This is how personality comes into its own. This is humanity at its most personal.”

Do you think constantly about the will of God? Do you expose your mind constantly to the word of God? Do you meet him first each morning for worship, prayer, and Scripture? Do you turn to his word first with your decisions, problems, and opportunities? Do you seek his will for each moment? Or do you live in two worlds—God and yours? Do you serve God and self? Are you Saul, or are you David?

The Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen was one of the spiritual mentors of this generation. Not long before he died in 1996, he described the kind of faith we are considering today. He had become good friends with some trapeze artists, who explained to him the very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher. That’s a relationship the flyer would want to be very good, I would think.

As the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment must come when he releases the trapeze and arcs out into the air. He is suspended in nothingness. He cannot reach back for the trapeze. There is no going back. But it is too soon to be grasped by the one who will catch him. He cannot accelerate the catch. In that moment, it is his job to be as still and motionless as he can.

“The flyer must never try to catch the catcher,” the trapeze artist told Nouwen. “He must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him. But he must wait. His job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if he does, it could kill him. His job is to be still. to wait.” To trust that he will catch you.

God can only catch that which you trust to him, the life which is lived for his will alone. Is yours such a life? Do you have a single heart, God’s own heart, today? Will you tomorrow?