In 1 Samuel 15:22b, the prophet Samuel says to Saul, who was the King of Israel at the time, “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (NLT). Samuel expressed a fundamental distinction that was important for the Israelites then and one that is important for us now in the 21st Century. Obedience is about adhering to the word and will of God. But sacrifice is a part of that obedience as well. That is why, in some way, this may be confusing, but let me explain. The type of sacrifice that Samuel was referring to was simply ceremonial. It was performative obedience, rather than authentic heartfelt God centered obedience.
Permit me to talk about it utilizing the following analogy.
We are quickly approaching the season on the Christian Calendar known as Lent. Lent is a time of reflection leading up until Maundy Thursday, which comes before Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, respectively. This 40-day period is regularly observed by Christians who often use the time to fast. More often than not the fasting is from food of a certain kind. And, in general, fasting is often talked about in terms of refraining from eating sweets or certain food that may be fattening or unhealthy or that may just be a regular part of your diet. The problem in speaking about fasting almost exclusively in these terms is that it becomes indistinguishable from a secular diet plan used by those trying to lose weight. I would argue that too many of us fast from certain foods during lent, whether that be going on the Daniel fast or following some form of structured fasting involving week by week elimination of foods, not out of obedience to God but out of ceremonial tradition. In other words, our sacrifice of food, in this sense, is the sacrifice that Samuel is referencing in chapter 15.
The purpose of fasting is to grow in relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit by reorienting our focus and that which we prioritize to “Him.” We can become consumed with so much in our daily lives that we forget about God completely. Think about it? How many times on a week to week basis are you “too busy” to go to God in prayer, or read your word, or just turn off all distractions and meditate? For many of us, it happens far too often, and what we might discover, by actually reflecting on it, is that we are actually not as busy as we may trick ourselves into believing. And even if we are, there are things that we can give less priority to. Whatever distracts or takes away your time, attention, and focus away from God is what you should be fasting from. Social media, television, games, going out, talking on the phone, even work obligations, and so many other things can take away our attention and time from God. Even going for that morning coffee before going to work can take away time from God if it could have been spent in prayer or in reading the Bible, for example. Fasting from these things, these experiences, and even routines (whatever they are for you) is showing true obedience and not the ceremonial sacrifice that Samuel was talking about. And that is just it. When we fast, the time and the energy that we would have devoted to those other things can now be given to God! That can take the form of prayer, study of scripture, meditation, service, and other spiritual disciplines.
Moreover, eliminating things in your life that consume time and energy for a time can draw you nearer and closer to God because it ensures that you are obedient to one of the ultimate instructions that he gave – “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3, NKJV). We are in danger of creating idols or gods of so many things simply because we make our lives revolve around them or we put them at the head, so to speak. But, ultimately, God should be the head of our lives and our lives should revolve around “Him.”
I don’t say all this to say that fasting from food during Lent or at any of the time in the year is a fruitless endeavor; I am simply highlighting the fact that we must expand our scope of what fasting is so that we can better align that sacrificial act with authentic obedience to God over ceremonial tradition.