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The Subtle Steps to Spiritual Ruin
Lessons from the life and decline of King Saul
So much of what is being pushed upon us today is subtle–so subtle, I fear we may be in the same danger as the frog in the beaker. You know the experiment–the teacher put the frog in the beaker of near boiling water and the frog jumped out instantly. Then the teacher put the frog in room temperature water with a small flame underneath, to slowly raise the temperature. Since the change of temperature was so gradual, so subtle, the frog stayed in the beaker until it died. It cooked to death. Do you ever wonder if that kind of subtlety is happening to you right now?
What is subtlety? Webster says to be subtle means cunning or crafty. Its synonyms are words like mysterious, baffling, elusive, and puzzling. I first learned what it means to be subtle from my older brother, Mark–he would beat me up but leave no bruises. He would break something and make it look like I did it. He’d even write on the walls with crayon. He’d write the name Chris on the walls to blame me–but it blew up in his face, since at the time, I couldn’t write.
The Bible shows us what it means to be subtle. Look at how the serpent tempted Eve and that’s subtlety at its finest. Look at the false prophets in the media today–the ones who look like shepherds, but are actually wolves, and you’ll see shrewd words and subtle behavior. Look at the description of Satan and you’ll discover he is called an angel of light. The enemy can subtly look godly, but is actually pure evil.
Some things in our lives are subtle. Have you ever told a little lie that slowly grew bigger? Slowly, subtly, what started as white became a whopper. Have you ever missed a few times with God, a time of prayer, reading the Word–that subtly grows into a few days, then weeks, even months? Have you ever found yourself where you’ve wondered, “Lord, how did I make such a mess of my life?” Or you had a close, trusted friend that suddenly seemed to push the self-destruct button–they left their spouse, had an affair, got arrested for drunk driving or stealing at work, or abandoned their faith?
Every year there are people who ruin their lives, their testimony, their ministry, or their family. Suddenly there is an announcement of their sin, or their disqualification in ministry, or a choice to dessert their family. But in every case–even though it appears to be a sudden choice, in every single case without exception, there were many small and subtle steps that led to their fall, no matter what it was.
Initially, when you hear of a fall of a friend or the fall of a hero, all of us are shocked–but every time, those who were close look back. They’ll find some obvious steps, little choices that led to their ruin. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight, but how can you tell if you’re headed for trouble before your life is ruined, before the consequences cripple you for life? What are those steps people take when their lives are headed for disaster? The answer is found through the life of Israel’s first king, in the book of I Samuel, starting in chapter 13.
How can you keep your life from ruin? How can you recognize those subtle steps before they wreck you, your family or your ministry? How do you prevent taking the small steps that lead to a big disobedience? Learn from Saul. You know Saul, right? Head and shoulders bigger than anyone in Israel. Made monarch when Israel demanded to have a king like all the other nations. As you read 1 Samuel, you’ll discover ten choices Saul made that led to his ruin.
This is an important message for every one of you–young or old, male or female, single or married. I have seen these steps from time to time in my own life. This is crucial for all men, women, students and collegians. Before it happens to you, look at the subtle steps leading to ruin from Saul’s life, to se if you are taking the same steps on your way to ruin. Turn over to chapter 13, verse 8. After the people demand a king in chapter 8, God picks Saul in chapter 9. Right off, Saul shows us some incredible humility in chapter 10, and even defeats the wicked Ammonites in chapter 11.
But now Saul faces one of his first major battles against the Philistines–a powerful, intimidating people who had on and off dominated Israel since the time of Samson. Before they were to go to battle, the prophet Samuel commands Saul to wait for seven days before Samuel comes to sacrifice to the Lord, so that God would go before them in the battle. Look at verses 8 and following to see what Saul does.
First Samuel 13:8 to 11, “Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, ‘Bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.’ And he offered the burnt offering. And it came about as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, that behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. But Samuel said, ‘What have you done?’ And Saul said, ‘Because I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash,’ “
Stop there. It was right to sacrifice, but wrong for Saul to do it–it was not for the king to perform, but only for the High Priest, the Prophet. Saul did what was right, but the wrong way–his way, not God’s way. Plus, he did it with a wrong motive–not to sacrifice to God, but to keep the people together. The first step to ruin is . . .
1 Doing the RIGHT things the wrong way
I know a young son, who was told to put a can of oil in the family car, and not knowing where the oil should go, poured the can of oil all over the engine–doing the right thing the wrong way. Do you see any of that in your life? Is there any . . . performing service to be noticed or praised? Participating in worship but not to God–just routine? Plan to give because you have to–not because you want to? Obey your parents in what is necessary, but not honoring? Only do enough at work to get by, but not your best? Living every day in your own strength and not in the Spirit? Could you be making these choices? Then like Saul, you are beginning a process of decline.
Turn over to 1 Samuel 14:9. In the midst of another battle/trial (a test to show one’s true character) look what Saul does in verse 19, “And it happened while Saul talked to the priest, that the commotion in the camp of the Philistines continued and increased; so Saul said to the priest, ‘Withdraw your hand.’ ” Saul was worried about the Philistines–distracted by their actions. But instead of drawing near to God, trusting the Lord, depending on Him–he canceled seeking Him and got ready for battle instead. Instead of drawing first to God, Saul jumps into action without God’s blessing. The second step to ruin is . . .
2 No longer seeking God FIRST
When is the last time you told the Lord your heart? When is the last time you shared your struggles with God? For if it was the last thing you did, or you can’t remember the last time you did, then you’re no longer seeking God first. Recall your last big panic? Did you worry, complain, remain in a bad mood, rush to try to fix it? Then when all else failed, you finally remembered to ask the Lord for help? With Saul, things were falling apart–but instead of trusting in God’s hand, he took things into his own hands.
It is so easy to become distracted–life sometimes looks like a peewee football game with a bunch of 8-year-olds. The game gets intense, until right in the middle of a play, a gopher sticks his head up out of a hole. And the play in progress freezes so all the kids can stare at the gopher. The path to ruin is when you stop to watch the gopher–you’re distracted from the Lord, His plan, His working, His Word–and get caught up in worrying about something else. Could this be you? Are you the one who is distracted? Are you the one who has forgotten who God is, and what He has done for you?
If so, then you could be on the same path as King Saul. Never forget, students and parents–spiritual maturity is proven by how quickly you respond to Christ, obey His Word and depend on His Spirit. The mature turn immediately–the immature, as a last resort. Are you like Saul? Turn to 1 Samuel 15:20 for another battle where Saul fails to completely obey the Lord.
Let’s read verses 20 to 23, “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.’ And Samuel said, ‘Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king.’ “
How did Saul respond to his partial obedience? Now caught in his failure, did Saul confess, express sorrow, remorse, or best of all repentance? No–Saul made excuses. He blamed others. The third step that leads to ruin is . . .
3 Making excuses for DISOBEDIENCE
This is the favorite past time of the human race. Ever since the Fall, where Adam blamed God saying, “The woman you gave me,” and then Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her. And the serpent said, “Thsthsths” . . .I don’t know what he said! But ever since Genesis 3, it happens at home all the time–you love to blame your brothers and sisters for your own sin—they did it! And all of us love accountability–until we are wrong and others confront our sin. Then we don’t enjoy accountability all that much.
But you say, “I don’t blame, I just have an excuse. My spouse doesn’t make me happy anymore . . . my boss is such a grump . . . my kids are out of control . . . my parents don’t deserve to be obeyed . . . “ and on and on. Some Christians will even lie to themselves and say, “I just can’t obey” But God says you can–there is nothing He asks you to do He won’t empower. Second Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of [what?] power and love and discipline.” A Christian cannot say, “I can’t obey,” because in reality if they’re born again, they can only say, “I won’t obey.”
Do you find yourself making excuses for disobedience? Like the little girl who was repeatedly told, “Lydia, no matter what, do not cross the street. So one day, she again disobeys her parents by crossing the street–but this time to give her mom some flowers. She still got a spanking, because she didn’t obey her parents. It was just another manifestation of rebellion to her parents and just another excuse for disobedience. Partial obedience is disobedience, delayed obedience is disobedience.
Just because you love someone who is not your spouse is no excuse to have intimacy with them. Just because your brothers and sisters are disobeying at home is no excuse for you to disobey. Do not be like Saul, who made excuses for disobedience. Do not follow the subtle steps to ruin of King Saul.
Now look at the same chapter, but 1 Samuel 15:30, “Then he said, ‘I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.” Saul’s main concern here is a fourth step to ruin–Saul did not want the people to know what was really going on. Saul was fearing man, not God. Saul was compromising by . . .
4 Fearing what others might THINK
Some of us are tempted to play lots of different roles in different situations. Ancient history–but some of you know Eddie Haskell on “Leave it to Beaver” was always so nice to Mrs. Cleaver and was really a creep to the Beave. Yet could you act one way at church, another way with your family, even another at school and still another way at work? If we could measure the differences in the way you act with different groups of people–the greater the difference the more compromising you are, and the lesser difference proves the more integrity you have.
The more you are the same everywhere you are, the more character you have. But like Saul, the more you strive for appearance and pleasing others, the greater the fear of man. Proverbs 29:25 states, “The fear of man is a snare.” The fear of man will trap you and could kill you. Saul’s concern about what the people thought contributed to his ruin. Are you living like Saul?
Turn to 1 Samuel 17:32 to 33 to discover step 5, from Saul’s dealings with Goliath. Look at verse 32, “And David said to Saul, ‘Let no man’s heart fail on account of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ Then Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth while he has been a warrior from his youth.’ “ Who was the biggest man in Israel at this time? Saul. He was head and shoulders above all in Israel, plus the leader of his people. So who should have battled Goliath? Saul. Step five leading to ruin is . . .
5 Hiding from your RESPONSIBILITIES
This is the one who no longer ministers, no longer works at relationships ignores the Bible, stops praying, hides from their Christian friends, avoids sharing the Gospel with their non-Christian friends, and covers up their own sins instead of confessing them. If they could go to church, they’d choose to stay home. If they could serve, they will let someone else do it. If they could love someone in need, they ignore them.
They don’t overtly sin, they just avoid responsibilities. They don’t commit sins of commission, but they are saturated with the sins of omission. They are not committing and big sins, but they have stopped dealing with the little ones, hidden ones–like lustful thoughts, or lack of joy. Or sins of heart like gossip, or complaining, or justifying a bad attitude. This is the husband who stops saying thank you at home. It’s the wife who fails to encourage her man. It’s the parents who don’t try to stop yelling at their kids. It’s the kids who forget the sacrifices of their folks. It’s the one who waits to obey-delayed obedience is disobedience. Do not hide from your responsibilities to obey.
How many here have ever run out of gas when you knew you were really low? You keep going, you keep driving, you keep pushing–“I can make it!” you say. Empty means another gallon, or “I wonder how far I can go until I run out?” If you do the same thing with your life, eventually you will run out of gas. You keep thinking, “I can keep going this way, I can run on empty.” Or you say, “I wonder how far I can go until I get spanked or lose my joy?”
If you need a fill-up, you’d better stop, get your heart refueled–otherwise you may get spiritually stranded. Are there any commands you are avoiding? Giving thanks always, rejoicing, giving financially, encouraging others, praying for others? Saul should have fulfilled His responsibilities. Turn to 1 Samuel 18:8 for Step six leading to ruination. After hearing the hit tune in Israel, Saul reacted in verse 8, “Then Saul became very angry, for this saying displeased him; and he said, ‘They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?’ ” Saul was jealous, but didn’t see it at all—exposing . . .
6 Not recognizing your own SIN
You sin, but you no longer see it. You don’t catch it. This is serious–your conscience might be so deadened you don’t even know you’ve sinned. As if you are blinded, you don’t see your error–even when others show you. Then what happens is we choose to hide from those who might tell us our sin, like family. Next we begin to hate those who walk with Christ and follow His Word. Next, like Saul we start attacking those who live godly.
We may not chase them around the wilderness, but we’ll make fun of them, undermine them, or seek to hurt them. This is where mature saints fall. Not the flesh, money, material things, sleep, or sex—but with jealousy, pride, a critical spirit, indifference to sin, sharing the Gospel to the lost, or caring for believers in need. Saul stopped recognizing His own sin, which led to ruin. Could that be you?
Turn over to chapter 19 verse one, “Now Saul told Jonathan his son and all his servants to put David to death. But Jonathan, Saul’s son, greatly delighted in David.” Saul took the law into his own hands and basically said, “Kill that man for me,” leading to . . .
7 Becoming your own AUTHORITY
This step looks like stubbornness, but it’s more. This is when your heart says, “No one tells me what to do.” I’ve seen this in the hearts of those rebelling from Christ–in make-believers who have turned away from the faith. And sadly, I have seen this in my own heart. Have you? You and I do not always love and obey authority. Whatever your leaders say, you have another idea. You can do it a better way. You have an alternative. When confronted, its someone else’s problem.
This is the American way, but it is not God’s way. This is the person who says, “God wants me to be happy, so I can leave my spouse, have an affair, steal from work, or remarry–even when God says no in my specific case.” Who really is your authority—God? Or is it you? Saul was king, but he was still under God’s law. But He took the law into His own hands and sought to actually command others to murder David. He became his own authority–have you?
Turn over to chapter 24 to see how far Saul will go. Twice David had the opportunity to kill Saul and twice he didn’t–even though at the same time Saul was trying to kill David. So read what happens in 1 Samuel 24:16-22.
“Now it came about when David had finished speaking these words to Saul, that Saul said, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ Then Saul lifted up his voice and wept. And he said to David, ‘You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you. And you have declared today that you have done good to me, that the Lord delivered me into your hand and yet you did not kill me. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safely? May the Lord therefore reward you with good in return for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. So now swear to me by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants after me, and that you will not destroy my name from my father’s household.’ And David swore to Saul, and Saul went to his home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.”
Yet look what happened just two chapters later in 26:2, “So Saul arose and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, having with him three thousand chosen men of Israel, to search for David in the wilderness of Ziph.” Why? To kill David. This exposes the eighth step to ruination.
8 Showing a false REPENTANCE
Over and over, Saul admitted he did wrong, but did not change. In 1 Samuel 26:21 Saul even says, “I have played the fool.” This is the one who feels bad, makes statements of, “I will change, I will turn from this sin”–but they don’t change at all. This is the one with the explanation for every error. The one who beats his wife when drunk, weeps an apology and then goes out drinking again. This is the one who marries a non-Christian, even though God says, “NO,” claiming God wants me to do this. This is the child who immediately goes back to the very sin he or she was just disciplined for–false repentance.
True biblical repentance is not merely feeling bad–not according to God. Turn to the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 7:11. This is a key verse where God defines true repentance. “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow has produced in you, what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong, in everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent of the matter.” True repentance is not in word only, it is demonstrated by a life change. Repentance means to change your mind. And theologically, changing your mind means you change your behavior.
This is scary stuff–do you repent of your sin or do you continue in sin? All of us have bents of pride, speech, lusts, anger which will be constant battles, and crop back up from time to time. But true repentance will show progress in holiness, with some victory. Saul said he repented of trying to kill David, but then went right back out to kill David. Some of us say we have repented of sin, and go right back out and sin again. Thank the Lord for His grace, but don’t ever act like Saul and excuse your lack of repentance.
Read with me 1 Samuel 28: 5 to 7, “When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly. When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, ‘Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him, ‘Behold, there is woman who is a medium at Endor.’ ” Earlier in Saul’s reign, Saul had actually ordered the death of all mediums, but now he seeks one out. Saul begins . . .
9 Following a false RELIGION
It doesn’t have to be a cult–you can fill the void with drink, drugs, sex, rebellion, games, fun, money, friends, horoscopes, counseling and more. It can be living for pleasure, prestige, or power. You could buy into some modern religions like the environment movement where nature is god, the feminist movement where women are god, the animal rights movement where animals are god, the homosexual movement where immorality is god.
Or it could be you have your own god–a self-designed faith not found in the Bible, but founded by your own logic, thinking and imagination. Like God accepts everyone, God never sends people to Hell, under grace God doesn’t care how people live, or God doesn’t care about me (is this you?). Are you like Saul who didn’t verbally reject the Lord–but in his heart, he turned to another religion and it led to his ruin.
Finally, read chapter 31:4 for the final step of ruination, “Then Saul said to his armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make sport of me.’ But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it.” The final step to ruin is . . .
10 Choosing to self-DESTRUCT
After taking all these steps, there really isn’t much left–no hope, no love, no purpose, and no vision. This is when people think about suicide, feel totally helpless and have no hope in sight. All they feel is hurt and depression, and they often are the ones who take drugs, start drinking, become a workaholic, with bad health practices. Most who have felt this way or have lived these steps to some degree do not kill themselves. But what you do see is a lot of compromise in time usage and money.
You know you are walking this path when you’re filled with prejudices, delusions, anxiety, in a state of unrest and dissatisfaction with yourself and others. When you become hard to get along with, and are rarely filled with sweet peace, love or joy from the Holy Spirit–fruit is missing! Is this you? Even though Saul is not the model for the believer, there is much we can learn from his life.
Do you see yourself on the way to ruin? If so, what do you do if you are on the way down the steps that lead to ruin? No matter who you are today, no matter how strong or weak you are–you can take steps back to wholeness, to an abundant life, to intimacy with Christ. What are they? Here are four 1 Samuel challenges.
A Discover and DECLARE when a step is you
Don’t point out when someone else in your home does something or says something that is like a step Saul took–but when you do it, declare it, own it, state it out loud. When you catch yourself . . .
1 Doing the right things the wrong way
2 No longer seeking God first
3 Making excuses for disobedience
4 Fearing what others might think
5 Hiding from responsibilities
6 Not recognizing your own sin
7 Becoming your own authority
8 Showing a false repentance
9 Following a false religion
Make it fun–hold yourself accountable to not be like Saul. Admit it. The one who catches himself or herself the most in your family needs a special treat or reward. First John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God loves confession–let’s see if you can cultivate a confessing household.
Joshua 7:19, “Then Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, I implore you, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me.’ ” God loves confession–lets practice it this week.
B Family or friends–lovingly determine which step each person in the family is most PRONE to
Go through Saul’s nine steps to ruining his life and try to determine which step is each family member’s weakness and which one each family member would never do–a strength. You are prone to do this step, but you would never do this step–subtle steps.
C The only sure way of preventing the steps which lead to ruin is to turn to CHRIST and be held SECURE by Him
Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” You must be in Christ in order to be secure in Christ. You must admit that you’re a sinner by nature and action. You must believe that Christ is God in the flesh, who died for your sins and rose from the dead. And when He saves you, you will follow Him as your Lord, since He is the one who will keep you safe until Heaven. Don’t be a Saul–let’s be like the Savior. Let’s pray.