Self-deception and Service to God

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.  While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them.  So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.  Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.  The king watched the hand as it wrote.  His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.  Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale.  This is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.  Tekel means, ‘You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’  

What relevance does this story of a pagan king have for you or I as a Christian?  Simply this.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone utter the words, ‘I am a good person.’  Raise your hand again if you would apply that statement to yourself.  Despite the fact that even our Lord, who was without sin, acknowledged that ‘No one is good but One, that is, God.’ — I say despite this, it is natural for men to hold such an opinion about themselves.  And given that the tendency to think of oneself in this light is so pervasive, it’s reasonable to conclude that King Belshazzar also imagined that he was a “good” person.  But regardless of how the king perceived himself, God’s assessment — which is the only one that truly matters — is that his character was lacking in redeemable qualities.  So return with me to his reaction to the materialization of the ethereal hand.  Although he knew not what it wrote, he was shook to the very foundation of his being by its appearance, because at some tenuous level of his awareness, he perceived that it was not sent as an omen of good tidings.  That is an understatement.  Reading further into the account, we’re informed that his time in this world ended that very evening.  Try to imagine what it would feel like going to your grave with such a testimonial of your life and its value being recorded by the finger of God.  Does it make you shudder, as it did the king?

So how is it that he could be so blind to the reality of his condition, until it was too late?  Daniel, the servant who God used to read and translate the inscription to Belshazzar, pointed out that the king’s ignorance was without excuse, because he had full knowledge of how God had humbled his father, Nebuchadnezzar.  He chastises the king, “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.  You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them.  You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand.  But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.  Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” (Dan. 5:22-24) So I ask again, how could he have failed to see “the handwriting on the wall”?  What prevented him from seeing himself as God saw him?  I believe the answer is he was blinded by human nature.

Human nature is self-oriented.  The love of self, woven into every fiber of our being so deeply as to be inoperable, instills us with a desire to be esteemed by others, and frequently causes us to view ourselves through the most flattering of lenses.  Love of self skews and distorts our judgement.  It makes us over-valuate our “good” actions, and shields our sins from our view.  We are, so often, our own greatest apologists.  Since rationalizing and justifying whatever it is we want to do comes so naturally, it is not difficult to picture Belshazzar consoling himself after Daniel’s rebuke with the thought, ‘I was just celebrating with my family and loyal supporters.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It doesn’t make me a bad person.’  Whether he did so or not is not something Scripture concerned itself with, and so neither shall I.  However, we should be concerned with the harvest this condition of the heart yielded in Belshazzar’s life — and yet as tragic as it proved to be for him, for professed Christians the ultimate danger of the deceitfulness of our nature is made evident in the Lord’s warning delivered at the close of the Sermon on the Mount.

The entire sermon is recorded in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the book of Matthew, but in 7:21-23, Jesus states, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”.  So what connection is there between the Lord’s admonition and Belshazzar’s demise?  As Christians, we are called to serve God.  It should be our highest purpose, and the number one priority of our lives.  But if we were to look through the microscope, and assess honestly, how closely does the reality of how we live align with the demands of our calling?  What if, right now, it doesn’t measure up?  What actions would we be willing to take?  If we are unconcerned, and do nothing, will there be anything more terrible for the supposed Christian than to have the Lord say, on the Day of Judgement, “I never knew you”?  Lest we feel secure that this pronouncement will apply as the exception, rather than the rule, bear in mind that Jesus said it will be directed to many.

Warnings such as this are intended to give us pause, and to cause us to take personal inventory of our spiritual life.  The bible is full of many such exhortations.  But God’s word also tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  The heart, that which blinded Belshazzar and represents who and what we are in our central-most being — our very nature —  can blind us as well. So if the heart is so deceitful, how do we proceed to take an honest inventory of it?  We have to begin by asking God to show us our faults — to teach us what we cannot see — because it is only the working of the Holy Spirit, which gives access to God’s perspective, that enables a person to see themself as they truly are. 

I’ll share a personal example to show how God’s spirit works in us to direct our focus toward the corrections He would have us make in our lives.  A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him, “What service would you have me do at this present time?”  I wanted my life to have a meaningful impact on others and, at the time, I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  In retrospect, I suppose I was looking to serve God through a particular career path, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But service to God always starts with an internal process of refining.  I believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God must start with humbling oneself (which was the very thing Belshazzar was disinclined to do), and I see now that even if I occupied myself with nothing other than this single labor of service, the task is such that I would never be faced with a shortage of work to do.    

Why is it that service to God should start with humility?  One important aspect to understand regarding humility is that it correlates proportionally to the degree of faith a person has in God.  How so?  The more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.  The humble person however, recognizing their own inadequacy, depends upon God; and their faith is built as they receive the answers to their petitions for aid, which they directed to Him.  Humility is also the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less, so if an individual were to trust in God to provide for ALL of their needs with all of their heart, mind, soul and being, less thought and energy would be unnecessarily spent on self-considerations and could be re-allocated towards service to others.  And in the process, faith would grow and flourish: so we can see a link between humility, faith, and service to God (which is a reflection of our love, both for Him and our fellow man).

Another component of humility is being willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with God’s.    When the Lord’s half-brother wrote about submission to God in James 4:1-10, he was speaking of a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives over to God.  That entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  For indeed, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”   Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The Kingdom of God is spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it, and it knows no scarcity — so when obtaining it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  In order to promote God’s Way, we need to first forsake our own.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.   And when we set our sights on the heavenly abode and allow God to direct our path to it, we acknowledge that we cannot serve Him in the way of our own choosing — that which suits us best.  At least not if our Christianity is to be something other than a nominal one.  

If one desires proof of this, they need look no further than Luke 16:13.   It states, “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  Mammon is commonly translated as money, or material wealth.  I believe this misses the mark; the meaning is too narrowly defined.  Money is only a resource — one that provides a means to pursue and obtain one’s own self-interests.  I believe the true intent of the passage is to convey the reality that it is impossible to serve God and the self-interests of the natural man at the same time.  Our time, energy, and resources are going to be spent doing one, or the other.  There exists no third alternative.    

With that in mind, I’d like to ask a different question now, but in order to frame it properly, allow me to draw the discussion of humility to a close with one more observation.  Humility is an essential safeguard to protect us from the danger of self-deception; a critical ingredient in equipping us to overcome it.  It requires that we be willing to embrace the truth about ourselves, so here is an honest question to reflect upon: What percentage of our time is expended upon laboring in our chosen careers, simply to obtain the necessities of life?  How much do we then further exhaust ourselves to ensure our ability to procure all the additional luxuries we might desire?  Extend the examination a bit further.  What percentage of our “free” time is used in the pursuit of enjoying these comforts?  How much is required for the passive activity of simply “decompressing” from the stresses of the day?  I’m not saying these things are bad, or wrong, in and of themselves, brethren.  We are not machines.  Life needs to have its enjoyments, even for the most dedicated servant of God.  But when we add it all up, what is left for God?  Go a step further: in our labor for Him, are the efforts we do make truly the best we could give?  Even if they are, who can rightfully claim to be offering their all?  If we take an honest inventory of how we have stewarded the spiritual wealth and truth given to us by our Father, and the amount of time we have spent using those resources in His employment, how true does our claim to be His servants still ring?

Food is good, drink is good, owning homes and cars is fine — but if they cost me entrance into God’s Kingdom because I worked harder to have them than I did for God, I would curse the day that I ever enjoyed them.  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)  If we find that our focus has drifted towards seeking our own pleasure, and our desire is to relax and enjoy “the good life”, does that awareness cause us any concern?  It should, my brothers and sisters, it should.  If it does, James once again supplies the counsel we ought to follow.  He says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”   

Grieving, mourning and wailing isn’t a fun list of things to do, and denying ourselves isn’t easy — it’s contrary to our nature.  But if we want to serve God, it is what’s required of us. If we feel it’s too difficult, bear in mind that we have not resisted sin unto the shedding of our blood.  If we are tempted to walk our own path, because it’s the path of least resistance, we should remember the example of Esau: who despised his birthright because of the responsibilities that came with it, and valued so little the blessings he would have received that he sold it for a single meal.  Because of this the scriptures testify that he was a godless man, and that he could find no place for repentance (Heb. 12:16-17).  

So then, how genuine is our desire to serve God?  How diligently have we sought out His service?   Our lives are a mirror that will always reflect back what we are really living for.  What are we willing to sacrifice to further God’s Kingdom?  It’s easy for men to praise God when all their needs and wants are satisfied; to serve others from a position of overflowing personal abundance, like the rich young man from Matt. 19:16-30, and to feel good for having done so.  But suppose all the blessings were taken away.  Would deprivation diminish your enthusiasm for the Lord’s service, or is our mentality like Job’s, who viewed the loss of all he possessed within the following context: “Shall we accept good from God, and be unwilling to accept adversity?”  Sacrificing the tangible enjoyments of the present life for celestial reward in a future age is a trade too many are unwilling to make.  The choice between living for this life or for the Kingdom of Heaven is presented to each of us, as it was to the rich young man.  Are we willing to forego our own aspirations whenever they fail to align with God’s purpose?  Have we drawn any unconscious lines we are unwilling to cross to serve Him — things we refuse to give up?  Jesus told the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”  (Luke 10:2)  His statement has not lost any relevance in our present day.  Why are the workers few?  Because few are willing to forego the pursuit of their own interests in order to take up a new life of sacrifice and service to others.

How eager are we to suffer to serve the Lord?   Would we be willing to go through what Ezekiel did?  Take the time to read the fourth chapter of Ezekiel.  He had to lie in the streets for 430 days, and was told Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself.  …Weigh out about [8 ounces] of food to eat each day and eat it at set times.  Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement[!] for fuel.”  He replied, “Not so, Sovereign Lord!  I have never defiled myself.  No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.”  The Lord answers, “Very well, I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.”  

… Oh!  Well then … Awesome!  Thank you!  Thank you!  … Seriously, who wouldn’t fight to be first in line to be selected for such an opportunity?  Of all the various ways one might while away fifteen months, surely in all the history of man a more pleasant time has never been had, or even imagined!  Now, obviously, I’m having a little fun here, but in reality, it wasn’t a laughing matter.  Such are the lengths God’s servants are called to go to at times — and it is but one example.  

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb. 11:35-38)  

So how are we doing, individually and collectively?  I am here to ask the questions, not to supply the answers.  But I ask because I am convinced that there will be a Day when the Lord himself asks them of all who would seek to be identified by His name.  Far better to reflect upon the matter now, while we still have the opportunity to make any necessary course corrections, than to find that, in the final Judgement, our service was mere self-deception, and that, being weighed in the balances, we have been found wanting.  I can imagine no delusion more dreadful or tragic.