I see a lot of disconcerting things among Christians in churches today. It would be easy for me to go on a rant in this article, articulating what I think is wrong with us in the church. However, I’d like to focus on this one area that I believe is entirely detrimental to the effective witness of Christianity in our culture and entirely detrimental to the spiritual growth of believers and churches. This area is so detrimental that it may even be the underlying cause of a lot of other sin that goes unchecked in the church house. It is the area of superstition. Yes, superstition. I can hear you saying, “Superstition? We’re Christians! We’re not superstitious. Superstition is for ball players who wear the same uniform socks game after game without washing them because the first time they wore them they went 4 for 4 at the plate and drove in 7 runs.” When I was a child I remember having several superstitious items. I remember having a pet rock that I thought was a good luck charm. Who doesn’t remember having a rabbit’s foot on a key chain growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s? You might say, “Yeah, but that was child’s play. How could God’s people be superstitious?” I’m so glad you asked.
This article stems from an incident recorded in the Bible in 1 Samuel chapter 4. Samuel has become a prophet of God. God is speaking to him and in chapter 3 we learn that God speaking in that day in Israel was very rare. Israel, Samuel’s people, are at war with the Philistines. Sound familiar? Israel today is still at war with the Palestinians (i.e. Philistines). Nonetheless, in this war, Israel is getting its head handed to them by the Philistines. They’ve just come off the battle field from a long day of fighting…and losing…about 4,000 Israeli soldiers had lost their lives that day. They are disheartened and disillusioned and confused and well, desperate. In verse 3 one of the elders (elders were supposed to be the wise and experienced men among the people) asks the question, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” It seems to be a good question, depending on how it’s asked. Is the elder blaming the LORD for their defeat or is he calling on the army to do some spiritual self-examination to see if there is sin among them? Before his question can be considered he continues speaking and reveals why he believes the LORD defeated them. He goes on,
“Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
This elder reveals his heart in this suggestion. His answer to the problem of Israel’s defeat reveals that he is not in anyway calling for self-examination to see if there is sin in the camp. His answer to their defeat does reveal a religiously superstitious heart. In his thinking, it must be that the LORD has caused their defeat because the LORD wasn’t even with them. What they need is the good luck charm known as the ark of the covenant where the presence of God dwells above the cherubim. So his fellow soldiers agree with him and call for the ark to brought to them on the battlefield. The two priests in that day were Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Their evil is documented in the previous two chapters of 1 Samuel. These two sinful scoundrels carry the ark of God into the camp of the armies of Israel. Let the religious experience break forth!! The armies of Israel give out a shout that shakes the earth and the confidence of the Philistines, who have to muster the courage to go back to battle with Israel. Turns out the Philistines showed far more fear of God than the Hebrews did. Israel, with its superstitious good luck charm in toe, enters back into battle. The Philistines, mustering their courage, meet them on the battlefield….and WIN again. Wait? What just happened here? God’s presence is supposed to guarantee his people’s victory and God’s glory. Only this time, Israel loses 30,000 soldiers in the fighting!! Not only that but the ark is captured and Hophni and Phinehas die on the battlefield.
Can I suggest to us that what happened in Israel on that fateful day when they treated God like their good luck charm is actually happening today among the Church on the battlefields of life? I believe the the following is true:
- Like Israel, God’s people today often trade the glory of God for empty forms of religion. To put it simply there are professing believers, many, many professing believers, who are just going through the religious motions.
- Like Israel, God’s people today often trade the glory of God for the appearance of power instead of the substance of God’s presence. Oh, God is always with his people, it’s true. But the power of God is not always manifestly present and active. Of that we can be sure. And the reason often is because we just want the appearance of godliness and godly power rather than actually surrendering our hearts and growing in godliness in the moment-by-moment throes of our days.
- Like Israel, God’s people today often trade the glory of God for an emotional worship experience that only lasts for a moment and then it’s gone. Queue the fog machines, summons the worship band, call the preacher in skinny jeans out of the back room sipping on his latte (okay maybe that’s a bit much) and let the experience commence. In a couple of hours when the spotlights are turned off and the microphones have been laid down and the fog has cleared, those who had the experience walk back out into the battlefields of life with their good luck charm worship experience and……yep……you guessed it…….continue to lose spiritual ground in their battle against sin. They’ve settled for style over substance. They sought God’s presence, but all they got was choked up lungs from a fog machine. Now they’re back on the battlefield and they feel like 7 times the loser they were before they rubbed their lamp and called forth their magic genie who seemed to appear in the midst of the fog.
With this being true, we ought not be surprised when we go into battle with a form of godliness rather than the substance of God and his glory and God doesn’t show up to give us victory. God is not mocked. He will not share his glory with another. I believe that local churches today and the Universal Church as a whole seem anemic and weak, because maybe, just maybe, we treat God more like a good luck charm than like the actual God he is: Almighty, Sovereign, Powerful, Glorious, Holy!
So, what’s the Church to do? By Church, I mean individual Christians and entire bodies of believers, known as local churches.
- Recognize – This may be the hardest step because we’re so blind to our religious forms and customs and to recognize our ways it actually does require us to do some self-examination. It actually does require us to identify our own sinful ways, our own misplace priorities, our own religious superstitions. I get the feeling that so many Christians go to church on Sunday mornings in order to check the “I had a religious experience this week” box on their “I’m going to heaven card.” Yeah, God will recognize that. They check the box and go back into life living Sunday afternoon through Saturday night barely, if ever, acknowledging the existence or presence of God, never seeking a relationship with him, and come back the next week looking 7 times more defeated than they looked the week before: disheartened, disillusioned, confused, and desperate. “Let me try this again and see if it works this time!” At some point we have to recognize the error of our way, right!? As a pastor, I’m hoping so, but I’m not so sure! We Christians do, after all, love our idols!!
- Repent – Yep, good ole’ fashioned repentance. When was the last time you heard your preacher call you and your entire church to get on your faces and repent of your sin? “Wait!!?? Repentance is for Christians?” Yep, repentance is for idolatrous Christians who aren’t taking our spiritual growth in Christ seriously, who have traded the substance of a real relationship with God for the styles and forms of religion, who treat church attendance like a good luck charm (whether you come every time the doors are open because God will bless my perfect attendance or you come only when you’re losing in life because I need to call for my religious experience for good luck). The call of scripture in the face of vain religion is repentance and a heartfelt return to the worship of the Lord.
- Refocus – refocus your heart back on Christ. In the sincerity of your heart submit to his Lordship and seek to follow him because he’s worthy to be followed and you genuinely love him, not because he’s some good luck charm hanging around your neck. Unseat the sinful desires that have ascended the throne of your heart and overthrown the Lordship of Jesus.
- Replace – replace sinful behavior with godly behavior. Ask God to help you change from the inside out. That means God changing your desires to want him for the right reasons. We don’t have to read very far into the Bible to figure out that God cares about what’s motivating us. Ask God to transform your motives from superstition to substantive relationship and heartfelt joy in following Jesus, because he is God and he is worthy of our genuine worship.
Man, this sounds painful and hard! Yeah, following Jesus is not a “let go and let God” endeavor. It requires intentional surrender of our hearts every day. It requires that we intentionally position ourselves under his authority, under the authority of the Word of God, under the authority of the local church and your fellow believers. Why? So you will be positioned to grow and you will have soldiers fighting alongside of you in the battle and most of all so you will have the actual powerful presence of Almighty God going with you into battle.
So, what happened in Israel? If you go and read 1 Samuel 4 you’ll see that Phinehas was about to be a daddy. His wife gives birth to a son and names him Ichabod, which means “The glory has departed from Israel.” Christian friends, if we aren’t willing to do the hard work of self-examination and to recognize, repent, refocus, and replace then we, the Church, should not be surprised when we too look into our empty church houses and realize that the glory of God has departed and all that’s left is some vain form of empty, shallow, powerless religion. May it never be!