At the outset I highly recommend you read or reread the article entitled, Avoiding Balaam’s Sin. This article sets the stage for what I am about to discuss here. In Sunday School class I realized that I am guilty, in more ways than one, of Balaam’s sin. This was a terrifying thought. I had assumed his sin was not in the realm of possibility for me.
Assuming you have read the article I linked to in the previous paragraph, I propose that many of us are guilty at times of Balaam’s sin. Balaam received God’s word about how to behave, and gave lip service to doing what God wanted him to do. Balak, a local king, wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites so he could stand a chance against them in battle. Everyone knew how powerful they were as a people. They always won when it came to a fight. He was desperate to hold onto his kingdom.
It was for this reason of survival Balak went to Balaam to seek a curse against his enemies the Israelites. He wanted Israel to be weak so his armies stood a chance of defeating them. Two forces were at play in Balaam’s life. On the one hand he knew what God wanted him to do, and that was to bless Israel. Balaam did not dare openly defy God by cursing those whom God had so expressively and decisively blessed. This infuriated Balak.
The other force in Balaam’s life was his apparent desire for recognition and reward. Because Balaam was divided within himself, he didn’t stand strong against the entreaties of Balak. So Balak didn’t just take no for an answer. Balaam never could just declare God’s word and hold to the Lord’s line. No, he waffled. He capitulated. Balaam made it clear to king Balak that he, Balaam, wasn’t really convinced that he couldn’t be swayed if the offer was right.
Because Balaam didn’t draw the line and stand his ground, Balak kept pushing to get what he wanted. He sent more and more important people to Balaam’s house to plead with him. His offer of reward kept getting sweeter and sweeter. All Balaam had to say was “Begone!” and that would have been the end of it, but he couldn’t bring himself to be firm in his resistance, so the king kept at it.
Eventually, Balak even convinced Balaam to come to him so he could ply him personally with offers. Balaam still couldn’t bring himself to outright deny him, but he eventually did the next best thing. Balaam, instead of cursing Israel, taught Balak Israel’s weaknesses. By exploiting Israel’s weaknesses, Balak was able to remove God’s protective hand on them, leaving them as weak as they would have been had Balaam cursed them to begin with.
This technicality allowed Balaam to not “curse” Israel, but still get the recognition and reward he was so hungry for. Thus Balaam brought upon himself the condemnation of God. It allowed Balak a way to damage Israel by stripping Israel of God’s blessing. Balak got what he wanted. Balaam got what he wanted. It was a win for everyone, right?
Evidently it wasn’t the win Balaam hoped it would be, for when Moses sent in his armies and killed everyone, he also had Balaam killed. Balaam had become the enemy of the children of Israel. He had betrayed them in a most intimate way. He played the role of a Delilah, the betrayer, to her Sampson (God’s messenger, Moses).
How does this work?
The lesson of Balaam is that when the Lord commands us we are to obey, not technically, not with hidden agendas or with specific reservations, but obey, completely and wholly. This was a lesson well understood in the days of the Apostles of the New Testament. When Jesus taught the people he warned them that they could not serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).
24 ¶ No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Mammon refers to idolatry, wealth, or the love of the world. In short, mammon refers to our love of anything that is not from God.
Most of us are guilty
There are very few who are not guilty of this particular sin. We profess our love or devotion to our God, but we secretly cling to our desire for riches, recognition, possessions, position, or power. We don’t have to be guilty in grand ways of our double-mindedness. Usually we are guilty in small ways that make our betrayal of our covenants with God almost completely invisible. At least they are to us. They are glaring incompatibilities and inconsistencies to God.
Let me give you a recent example from my own experience. I have a friend (I’ll call him Joe) who is a good man. He has spent years as a devoted father to his new family. He married a friend of mine who already had several children. They were happily married. He was a good provider, and conscientious companion to his wife, an ever present father figure in the home, and a good citizen in the community. Everyone liked him.
After years of marriage, something happened and an invisible wedge came between him and his wife. He knew what he could have done to repair the breach, and if he had been true to his commitments to his family he would have been more patient while his wife worked on her issues. But he let his mind wander. His oldest step daughter looked up to him, and as she entered into her maturing years, she became increasingly more physically close to him. Instead of drawing the line and being the responsible father he had always been, he fed his own loneliness through the interest of his step daughter. It was all “innocent.” It was, until it was no longer.
At some point he allowed himself to extend his behavior beyond the bounds of social propriety, and he behaved with her in ways that eventually landed him in prison. I watched that day as the judge sentence this good man to years in prison for acts done that should never have even entered his mind. Joe is still a good man, but because he did not devote himself to his role as father completely, because he was not strict with himself, he allowed himself to be dragged across that line of propriety that caused him to tear his family apart and destroy the innocence of those whom he genuinely loved. He wasn’t careful. He didn’t set boundaries on his own behavior. He thought he could serve two masters, to be a loving husband, and still get what he felt his marital relationship was missing.
My heart broke as I watched him, handcuffed and head down, standing by the elevator that would take him away to prison. He was standing right next to the ladies restroom. From inside the bathroom door I could hear the sobs of his wife as she lay in fetal position on the floor, devastated by his actions.
I thought of all the times in my life when I realized that I knew what I was supposed to do, but somewhere in my thinking two words kept coming into the internal conversation, “yeah … but.” Yeah, I know I shouldn’t watch this movie. I know what kind of things it contains, but it won’t be that bad …” Yeah, I know I should attend this meeting, but it will be so boring.” Yeah, I know I should be leading my family in FHE tonight, but all the kids do is fight.”
The number of times I have said to myself, “Yeah … but” are endless. A few weeks ago an inspired Sunday School teacher talked about the sin of Balaam and challenged me, personally, to go home and write down on a calendar every time I caught myself saying “Yeah … but.” I didn’t write down each of the experiences, but I recognized that I was continually making excuses for not doing what I knew I should do. I also noticed that I was making excuses for not doing what would have been better for me to do. So it wasn’t just doing bad things I caught myself at, but doing things that were substandard.
Instead of actually ministering to others in a way that would have truly blessed their lives, I did less. Why? Because it was easier for me. It required less of me. This made me think of Balaam’s sin and how his example affects my life. How do I think the Lord will behave towards me when I behave in my own life like Balaam did in his? When I know I should do thus and such, but make excuses and do something else, am I truly guiltless of sin because I didn’t come out in open rebellion to God? Am I less culpable or responsible for mild rebellion? Will only mild rebellion against what I know to be right still earn for me the reward of the righteous?
If I really care about the reward of the righteous, why do I make excuses for not doing what will bring those rewards? Why do I make a mockery of obedience by saying “Yeah … but” all the time. I know that excusing myself from the requirements of strict obedience will only bring the rewards of disobedience in the end. When the Lord says he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, what makes me think that excusing myself in even the smallest acts of dishonesty will bring me the eternal reward I so often loudly claim I want?
Think in this way. If you ever find yourself acknowledging that you are supposed to do such and such, but the word “but” enters into the silent conversation of your heart then know that you are in danger of Balaam’s sin. You are dangerously close to excusing yourself and giving yourself reasons for doing something other than that which you know you should do.
The concept of strict obedience is simple to define, but far more difficult to implement in our lives. Strict obedience means to not just do what we know we should, but to cut ourselves no slack for doing less than what we know we should do. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we do more than we reasonably can or that we are unwise with our often-times limited resources in life. I am only saying that I, for one, need to be more keenly aware of the number of times I catch myself acknowledging what I should be doing, then following that acknowledgement with an excuse or a reason for either not doing it or not doing it in a way that shows I am not fully committed to the covenants I have made or the desires I have proclaimed to everyone are the real desires of my heart.
If I truly want eternal life, life with God, life with my spouse and family, then what excuse can I give for not living up to my covenants that will justify that reward? There is none. If I truly love my God, my spouse, my family, then at some point I must be willing to stop making excuses for myself. Excuses only bring trouble and sorrow. Strict obedience is the only thing that brings liberty and peace.