As I was reading this morning and I was reminded of the often heard phrase “practice what you preach.” The saying basically has to do with maintaining integrity. One’s life should be lived in step with one’s convictions.
I came across this idea again while reading through 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Samuel 28. Near the end of chapter 9, Paul in discussing the need for self-discipline in the Christian life makes the statement, “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (9:27, emphasis added). Paul knows it is necessary for him to continually discipline himself in his walk with Christ, lest he stumble along the way and ultimately disqualify himself from the prize, which in this context refers to the receiving of heavenly rewards. What struck me was the phrase “after I have preached to others.” Throughout his letters Paul encourages his audience to live consistent with their standing in Christ. Here in 1 Corinthians he calls the members of the Corinthian church “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). He goes on to quickly note that this same group is “called to be his holy people,” or as the ESV puts it, “called to be saints” (1:2). They have been set apart in Christ. They are holy. Because of that they are to live consistent with who they are in Christ. That means they are to be holy in their Christian walk, which refers to following God’s word, including the ethics for Christian living the apostle lays out in his many letters. Failure to do so results in loss of reward and loss of one’s integrity before a watching world.
King Saul serves as an excellent foil to Paul’s instruction. Saul was called to be king of Israel and set apart to lead God’s people in faithfully serving the Lord. But Saul fails to do this. He allows his own arrogance and pride to lead him away from serving the Lord. When one gets to 1 Samuel 28 one finds Saul a very different man. At one time he had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land of Israel (28:3), but now he is willing to consult one as he seeks direction over whether or not to engage the enemy in battle (28:4–7). Saul was certainly not practicing what he preached.
Now I don’t bring this up to throw stones at Saul and point the finger of judgmentalism at him. I am reminded that all of us have blind spots in our character. We may think we know our own hearts well or that our familiarity with ourselves allows us to be objective. But we fool ourselves. Our understanding of who we are, warts and all, is limited. Only God knows us better than ourselves (Psalm 139:1–6). What we need is to daily expose our hearts and minds to God’s word and to allow his Spirit to enable it to illumine those dark places, so that once exposed to the light of his word, we may deal with them by his grace and power.
I’m also reminded of all of the times I have failed to practice what I preach. It seems that not a week goes by without being reminded of this. I tell my kids to do one thing and then I end up doing the very thing I corrected them about. I don’t know how many times I have gone to the Lord (and my girls) for forgiveness, not only for sinning in the particular way I admonished them not to, but also for being a hypocrite. Thankfully we can turn to the Lord in repentance. We can ask him to forgive us and he does so and will not stop doing so as long as we come to him with contrite and broken hearts.
The failure of Saul and words of Paul also help me to recall how much I am dependent on the Lord. I cannot follow his precepts on my own. I need him daily. I need to be filled with his Spirit. I need to rely on his strength in my weakness. Sadly, Saul thought he could do it on his own. But he couldn’t. When the Lord’s Spirit departed from him he was exposed as a weak and fearful person. And so are any of us apart from Christ. Apart from him we truly can do nothing (John 15:5). But thankfully we are not required to go it alone. Those whom God has called and made part of his family through the shed blood of Christ have the very presence of God dwelling inside of them, the Holy Spirit to empower them and direct them.