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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Got Your Back — For What It’s Worth

“What a great idea!”
“Sure, run with it.”
“I trust your judgment.”

Some people need approval more than others. Some don’t really care one way or another. But nobody — and I mean NOBODY — is truly averse to hearing others enthuse about their ideas, even if the humbler ones among us sometimes find it a little embarrassing.

Three times in 1 Samuel 14 somebody gives positive feedback about the plans of another. In one case the approver is clearly right; in another the approvers are clearly wrong; and in the third instance it doesn’t seem to matter much either way.

It’s a good reminder that over-reliance on the encouragement of others is pretty dubious practice for the follower of God.

 “Do All That Is In Your Heart”

That’s the advice of Jonathan’s armor-bearer to his master. “Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” Jonathan has just proposed a really neat idea, if a bit counterintuitive. He’s talking about climbing up a ridge, backs fully exposed to enemy arrows, to start a skirmish at the Philistine garrison — just the two of them against twenty-plus hardened men of war.

On the face of it Jonathan’s plan seems an unlikely thing to enthuse about. A more traditional response might be something along the lines of “Are you out of your cotton-picking mind?” And yet it turns out better than anyone might have expected. Jonathan and his armor-bearer put their trust in the Lord, put themselves (and only themselves) completely at risk, and end up routing the Philistines.

What makes Jonathan’s plan a good one is that it is predicated on the character of God. He says, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” That’s his logical basis: God is both good and powerful. Not a bad place to start.

What makes the armor-bearer’s approval consequential and correct is that the man has skin in the game. He’s prepared to follow his master up the hill. He wholly trusts Jonathan’s judgment. Now of course the fact that someone is willing to risk his own life to follow you on some madcap errand is not a 100% guarantee you’re right. But the advice of someone who is themselves totally invested carries way more weight than that of the guy who says, “Sure, go on, have a good time. Let me know how it went.”

 “Do Whatever Seems Good To You”

This piece of sage advice comes from the men who fought for King Saul. After Jonathan’s victory, Saul is feeling his oats and proposes chasing after the enemy and plundering the Philistines in the dark. It’s another interesting and counterintuitive military impulse, but one that arises from a darker place than Jonathan’s.

At this point, Saul is probably eager to compensate for his earlier bad decision. He has foolishly laid a curse on any Israelite who stopped to eat until their king had been avenged on his enemies. The curse carries the death penalty. It’s a stupid and counterproductive obligation to inflict on his soldiers; possibly the result of pride, ill temper and maybe even insecurity. As a result Israel is starving and unable to achieve the sort of victory that would otherwise have been possible. They’ve won, but not conclusively.

So now it’s getting late and the men have eaten, and Saul says, “Let us not leave a man of them,” to which his soldiers reply, “Do whatever seems good to you.”

Unlike the armor-bearer’s enthusiasm for following his master, their approval of Saul’s idea appears to have all the force of a “Sure, whatever”. After all, Saul’s the king and he’s a bit of a hothead. Nobody wants to be the first one to look like a coward in front of him.

Thankfully Ahijah the priest has a wiser head on his shoulders. He proposes, “Let us draw near to God here.” When they do so, it is discovered that giving chase to the Philistines without clearing it with God first would have been a very bad plan indeed.

This time those giving their approval were all wrong. The fact that their feedback was positive meant precisely nothing. Their assent was valueless and even dangerous.

 “Do What Seems Good to You”

If this sounds like it may have come from the same crowd, it’s because it did. Saul is bound and determined to find out which of his soldiers has broken the king’s rash vow to God. (Spoilers: It was his son Jonathan. You probably knew that.) So Saul wants to cast lots to find the guilty party, and he proposes this:
“ ‘You shall be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.’ And the people said to Saul, ‘Do what seems good to you.’ ”
Once again, Saul’s army is disinclined to oppose his idea. In this case, the advice of the troops is even less helpful than in the first instance: they have no personal investment in the result, and those who fought near Jonathan already suspect the outcome of the casting of Urim and Thummim is likely to be a bad one. Really, they just want to make sure Saul remembers this whole thing was his own idea, not theirs.

Counselors like these have nothing useful to contribute. Their opinion is irrelevant.

Wisdom and Counselors

“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” So says the book of Proverbs, and it’s a solid principle by which to operate.

But like all proverbs, its sphere of application is general. The principle is only as helpful as the counselors you choose. Yes-men, people with limited investment in the question put to them, neophytes, and subordinates who are either intimidated by you or desperate to impress you are all bad choices. There are others: jealous people, suspicious people, competitors, people with agendas.

If this chapter of God’s word is any indication, the fact that feedback from others may be positive — or flattering, or reassuring — tells us exactly nothing about its spiritual value.

The question of whether any particular action is actually the appropriate one turns on different criteria altogether.

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