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Hidden Weakness - The Synchole Syndrome

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Hidden Weaknesses—The Sinkhole Syndrome

King Saul... was aware of his abilities and gifts.... (They) made him think he could begin to make life's biggest decisions without waiting on God.

... When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, "This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people" (9:17).

... When Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen. Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan.... Finally Saul son of Kish was chosen. But when they looked for him, he was not to be found.... And the Lord said, "Yes, he has hidden himself among the baggage."

They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others. Samuel said to all the people, "Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people."

Then the people shouted, "Long live the king!" (10:20-24).

... The people then said to Samuel, "Who was it that asked, 'Shall Saul reign over us?' Bring these men to us and we will put them to death."

But Saul said, "No one shall be put to death today, for this day the Lord has rescued Israel" (11:12-13).

Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.

... Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba.... The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with... soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore.... When the men of Israel saw that their situation was critical and that their army was hard pressed, they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.... Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul's men began to scatter. So he said, "Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings." And Saul offered up the burnt offering. Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him.

"What have you done?" asked Samuel.... "You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord's command" (13:1, 3, 5-11, 13-14).

1 Samuel 9-13

One day a few years ago in Winter Park, Florida, Mrs. Owens heard a strange sound outside her window. When she looked out, she saw her poplar tree disappear into the earth...

There in her front lawn—where there had been solid lawn—was now a huge hole, one that was getting bigger by the second.

Before that sinkhole finished growing, it had swallowed Mrs. Owens' three-bedroom home, five neighborhood cars, the deep end of the town's municipal swimming pool, and a solid block of land. The hole was as long as a football field and eight stories deep.

Can you imagine it? If there is anything we take for granted it is the firmness of the earth under our feet. But the "terra firma" under Mrs. Owens was suddenly somewhat less than "firma." How could that happen?

Beneath that city block were limestone caverns, once filled with water but now dry. When the caverns were filled with water they were solid. But something had siphoned off the water, and when that hidden water was drained away, houses, cars, businesses, and streets sank down and out of sight.

Though we may not believe it, we can be victims of a certain sort of sinkhole ourselves. We may never have our house fall into the earth, but we might easily watch our lives fall uncontrollably into a sinkhole of their own. It makes no difference how gifted we may be personally or how much we have accomplished individually. If we are not careful, the sinkhole syndrome can swallow us up. In fact, there is a good case for believing that the more we accomplish, the more gifted we are, the easier it is to fall into the syndrome.

Searchlight on Saul

This awful possibility is no more clearly demonstrated than in the life of one distinct biblical man, a man who had perhaps more natural gifts and higher personal achievements than any individual up to his time—King Saul, the first king of Israel.

Saul was tremendously gifted. He had an outstanding home on the towering hill of Geba and a fabulous heritage as the son of the affluent Kish. He was even physically striking, being the tallest man of his generation—which would be quite an advantage during that time for a leader.

But he also had the gift of divine intervention in his life. His life seemed almost charmed.

One day he left home to look for some lost donkeys, and he wandered into Samuel who recognized him immediately as the man whom God had designated to be king. Young Saul went out to find donkeys and found his destiny instead. That would be like a farm boy from rural Britain wandering around Westminster Abbey until all of a sudden the Archbishop of Canterbury grabs him and crowns him King of England.

But then Saul also had the gift of religious experience to add to his list. He experienced a miraculous demonstration of God's activity in his life. Saul, of course, expressed disbelief at Samuel's sudden and strange announcement. So to convince the young man that he had been chosen king, Samuel told him that he would encounter two men who would tell him where his donkeys were. Then he would meet two men who would hand him two loaves of bread. And then, ready or not, when he returned home, young Saul would actually see two prophets descend from the "High Place" and the Spirit of God would come on him. Then Saul would join the prophets in ecstasy and praise to God. Samuel even told Saul that God would alter his heart.

And all of this happened exactly as Samuel described.

Add all of these prophetic advantages to Saul's character as a leader, and we have a picture of one who seemed truly ordained, chosen and set apart for very special things.

And when Saul began to lead, he did seem too good to be true. It's one thing to be crowned a king, another to act like one. And Saul took to it naturally. As a leader, he was innately strong. For instance, Israel wanted desperately to have the Ammonites' protection on the east bank of the Jordan River. The tribes there were very tempted to succumb to the pagans' demands in return for the much-needed help. But when the Ammonites' leader said his army would only give the protection if his soldiers could blind every Hebrew man's right eye, thirty-year-old Saul became so righteously angry that he tore an oxen into parts, sending them to all the twelve tribes of Israel. He threatened to do the same to their oxen if they didn't band together with him to defeat such a sadistic pagan.

Yet he also had compassion on those Israelites who opposed his leadership, sparing their lives. Over and over, we can see his gracious statesmanship, outstanding creativity, and leadership abilities—all innate gifts. Saul was even humble. He actually hid "among the baggage" when lots were cast for his kingship. He had to be literally carried out to be crowned king. In other words, Saul was the type of man every dad dreams his daughter will marry—a man of heritage, achievement, gifts, statesmanship, and leadership.

Yet we know the end of his story.

Saul's Sinkhole

Saul fell deep into his own personal sinkhole. He had every advantage and he still fell into ruin. How and why did it happen? And most importantly, can it happen to us?

The sad answer to the last question is yes. Saul's life shows us that we may have remarkable religious experiences, and we may encounter demonstrations of God's power that propel us ahead. We may be born with every conceivable advantage, and yet none of these can insulate us from the danger of the sinkhole. We often have the mistaken idea that such gifts and such religious experiences make the person who receives them "better" or at least different in a spiritual way than the rest of us. But it just isn't true, as the reality of the sinkhole signifies. No one is immune to life becoming a sudden spiritual sinkhole. How does it happen?

Remember what we said earlier about the nature of sinkholes? Everything looks firm and solid until the hidden strength, the waters, drain away from the underground, hollow caverns. No one can see it happening or know when those hidden resources are gone, but when they are dry, everything quickly collapses.

That was Saul's dilemma. He was relying on all those gifts, those advantages—on his own inner resources—to get by, and everything was fine for many, many years. Then, Saul's attitude began to make a difference.

We see that change in attitude when Jonathan, Saul's son, impetuously attacked the Philistines, and the Philistines retaliated. But the bulk of the Hebrew army ran, totally disappeared, vanishing deep into the limestone caves of the hills of Judea. Samuel had told Saul that before he did anything he should wait seven days until Samuel could join him. As a priest, Samuel would make an offering to God concerning the situation.

Here is the turning point in Saul's life. Saul waited, and on the seventh day when Samuel did not arrive, the remaining army began to scatter.

At that moment, Saul must have begun to feel fear. Because of his impatience, he lost his trust in the way that God had been handling his life so far. And he must have allowed his own pride, his own feelings of self-confidence to color his thinking. At that point Saul took matters into his own hands—he offered the burnt offering himself, taking on the role of priest without the counsel of God. And just as he finished, Samuel arrived.

When Saul went to greet him, Samuel said, "What have you done?!"

Saul had made an important decision without waiting for God's direction through Samuel, God's chosen messenger. So Samuel said, "You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. If you had, you would have established your kingdom. But now He has sought out another man."

Does that sound harsh? Yet Saul's downfall wasn't due to this one incident. There was something in the heart of Saul all the days of his reign that was slowly, surely draining the limestone caverns of his sinkhole. And it had taken this long to become apparent.

You see, Saul was an impetuous man. He was aware of his abilities and gifts. And all his gifts and achievements and advantages made him think he could begin making life's biggest decisions without waiting on God.

Our Modern Sinkhole Problem

Today, we often stand in awe of people who have such gifts and advantages, and we often envy them. As Americans we tend to believe that such brash, self-confident power is immensely attractive. Yet isn't it interesting to think that being so talented, so self-sufficient, so seemingly powerful can be the very cause of our spiritual sinkholes? Sometimes our very advantages can be a hindrance to spiritual guidance and long-term excellence.

Most of us have certain talents and advantages on which we rely heavily. We may even survive on them for a while. We may even go so far as to choose our educational and career goals on the strength of our talents—without truly seeking God's direction. Impetuously we may lurch forward in life without actually waiting for God's insight. Using our own innate intelligence and experience, we blindly move ahead toward an unknown future.

But Saul's story gives us a different perspective. Tragically, Saul demonstrates how the sinkhole syndrome can swallow any person's life if he or she makes a habit of not waiting on God for direction in absolute obedience.

As we know, God allowed Saul to remain in power, but the disobedient king made more and more headstrong mistakes. And his real finale, when he was swallowed fully by his own sinkhole, was his direct disobedience to God in dealing with the Amalekites told about in 1 Samuel 15.

The Amalekites were a blood-thirsty group, a sensual, insidious people who were like a cancer on the country and God's people. God told Saul to exterminate them, to obliterate them. God did not want one of the Amalekites to survive, not even their animals. As if He were a surgeon excising all of the cancer, He wanted not one malignant cell left to multiply and fester again.

What did Saul do? He went to the city, set up an ambush, and then, contradicting the call of God, he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive. He also spared the best sheep, cattle, and fatted calves and lambs. In his own wisdom Saul decided what was good and worthy and then spared it. He then decided what was despised and weak and destroyed those animals.

When Samuel arrived on the scene, he could not find Saul. And then he heard a sound, a sound he should not have heard—the sound of sheep bleating. The men standing nearby denied hearing anything, but Samuel soon found the Amalekite sheep, plump and choice, tied close by. And Samuel knew Saul had gone too far. Saul's sinkhole had not only made him lurch forward in life without direction from God, but now, finally, it had pushed him into arrogantly deciding he could disobey God's specific command.

Then to that heresy he added hypocrisy. When Samuel confronted Saul, the king explained that the soldiers had brought the finest sheep and cattle back to the camp to sacrifice to the Lord God as soon as Samuel had arrived. All the rest they had destroyed as they were told, Saul explained piously.

Saul stands at the bottom of his sinkhole—a hypocrite lying to Samuel, the man of God. And at that moment Samuel turned on him.

Samuel said, "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of God? To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed better than the fat of rams." All God wanted from you, Samuel is saying to Saul, is simple obedience, not gifts or excuses.

How does the sinkhole syndrome cause the collapse of a gifted life of achievement? When does it begin to crumble the terra firma of our spiritual lives?

When we decide we are above simple obedience... that is the blunt answer.

How often do we rationalize, saying such things as, "I know that God wants me to commune with Him in prayer, but I've got a busy schedule. My day is full"?

Or, "I know that God wants me to be an obedient believer, committed to His church and its service. You don't understand the pressure in my life."

Or, "I know that God wants me to keep myself morally pure. I know I should avoid lustful and adulterous thoughts. But you don't understand the kind of world we live in."

One by one we begin to excuse ourselves for. disobeying the commands of God. And we disobey them in arrogance and in pride and then in hypocrisy, as if we are serving God as we go.

This is the point at which our personal sinkhole caves in.

We may not even be aware that our sinkhole is growing bigger and bigger and we're sinking deeper and deeper into it. Making a habit of ignoring both our small and large disobediences, we rely more and more on our own resources. Thus we sink slowly, surely into our own holes, never noticing until we hit bottom. None of us are immune. That is why I call these subtle failures "hidden weaknesses."

One of the saddest contrasts in the Old Testament is the beginning words of the life of Saul and the last words we read about him. After such a wonderful beginning, Saul ended his days paranoid, afraid of life and afraid of himself. Finally, Saul tells his own armor bearer to draw his sword and kill him. When the soldier refuses to do it, Saul falls on his own sword, a suicide on the field of battle.

Lessons from Saul

How often do we see such defeat happen to seemingly fine, upstanding Christians? The more well-known they are, the more shocked we are when they succumb to a sinkhole experience.

Yet I think Saul's story makes it abundantly clear that sinkholes may happen especially to those of us with inner strengths and abilities and outward gifts and advantages. We are given such gifts for a purpose, a purpose that should continually keep us in tune with God's direction for us.

A very wise woman once said that she didn't worry so much about the devil working on her weaknesses—those she was well aware of and watched closely. Instead, she had learned that Satan worked more on her strengths, because in her strengths was the possibility of smugness, of self-assurance and rebellion against God.

Saul's story makes it clear that sinkholes are everywhere. They can happen to anyone. The multi-talented or the one-talented, the rich or the famous, the shy as well as the reticent. What, we should ask, is filling up the hidden caverns that lace our foundation? How much are we relying on our wit, our charm, our knowledge, our piety, our righteous standing in the church and community. How much do we depend on our power and privilege to get us through life?

Reliance on ourselves at the sacrifice of reliance on God can slowly yet surely crumble away our seemingly strong foundations. Saul's story tells us we are only as strong and firm as our commitment to God's leading—every single day of our lives.

Growing Pains of the Soul.

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