It's one thing to repent of idolatry. It's another thing to repent of worshiping God as if He were an idol.
When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, He told them that they must not worship Him the way other people worship their gods.
"Take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods" (Deut. 12:30–31).
Biblical history shows that the Israelites struggled with this, including Jephthah—the judge who offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice as a means of worshiping God.
Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. . . .
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes. . . . Then he sent her away for two months . . . And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made . . . and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year (Judg. 11:30–40).
Though Jephthah intended to worship the one true God, he was thinking like a Canaanite. He lived in the midst of a people who regularly offered their children as sacrifices to appease Canaanite gods and assure their favor. Because the Canaanite culture–and not God's law–was impressed upon Jephthah's heart, he thought he could appeal to God by offering a Canaanite sacrifice. But God is not One to be bargained with. Nor does He accept such sacrifices.
Jephthah's tragic mistake had devastating consequences.
Worshiping the Right Way
We can easily see the error in Jephthah's foolishness, and we grieve the unnecessary loss of his daughter's life. But let's not miss an important lesson in this story: How easily does wrong thinking creep into our own worship?
God is not like the gods of this world. He is not capricious or fickle or authoritarian. It is not our job to appease Him or strive for His favor. We can rest in the fact that God has already offered the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf—the cross of Jesus Christ completely satisfies God's desires. When we receive this gift through faith, we please God. It's that simple. And that lovely. The moment we put our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, we are rescued from a life of striving, earning, and appeasing.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:23–26).
It is in this restful context that we are called to worship God out of gratitude, obedience, and love. Through His Word, He asks us to worship Him in truly good ways–ways that will benefit us and build His kingdom. And yet, we often forget about His grace and get wrapped up in earning His favor the world's way.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8).
A Sacrifice God Hates?
Through Christ, God has saved me, and I want to worship Him wholeheartedly for the rest of my life. But I must confess that I often do the same thing that Jephthah did—I worship God the way our pagan culture worships its gods. Do you?
It's a tempting distraction. After all, we're immersed in a culture that sacrifices holiness, relationships, and God-given responsibilities in order to serve gods like Achievement, Self, Fame, and Money. It's hard not to think the same way. Even if we deny our culture's gods, unless we renew our minds every day, we tend to worship God like pagans, thinking He will love and accept our sacrifices.
It's possible that when we think we're worshiping God, we're really just giving Him a sacrifice that He hates.
The Holy Spirit convicts and warns us through Jephthah's story, "Imagine what could die if you offered that unnecessary sacrifice!"
- Do we sacrifice prayer time and Bible study in order to plan women's ministry events?
- Do we sacrifice an affectionate marriage and well-loved children in order to write convicting messages for social media?
- Do we sacrifice evangelism and servanthood in order to build bank accounts, create gorgeous homes, excel in our careers, improve our children's résumés and do the next "big thing" for God?
- Do the essential aspects of the Christian life fall to the wayside in hopes that God will be pleased by our non-stop culturally-infused striving?
What God Wants from Our Worship
Jephthah's tragic worship is a mirror to our souls.
It's a reminder that we need to renew our minds with Scripture every day. Otherwise, we will be swayed by our culture. As we study and obey God's Word, the Holy Spirit will use it to teach and remind us of what God truly wants from His worshipers.
Now that it's on your radar, you'll notice that God's definition of worship is woven throughout all of Scripture.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
As we read and meditate on Scripture day after day, these two questions will help us to worship God as God. Their answers are our soul's food and drink; our understanding of them will never reach a limit.
- What is God's character?
- What are God's laws?
Over time, the Holy Spirit will lovingly help us to adjust our thinking and behaviors to reflect what we learn about God from His Word. It's an ongoing process in the Christian's life—and usually not an easy road—but it is the best way to live.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps. 51:17).
Worshiping God in the way He wants affects everything in our lives. It determines how we interact with our husbands, how we mother our children, how we invest in our local churches, how we spend time with our friends, what we read, what we write, how we work, what we play, and how we live.
Today, whether you are studying Deuteronomy, Judges, Romans, or another Scripture passage, open up your Bible and seek God's heart there. How does He like to be worshiped? How can you present your life to Him as a pleasing sacrifice? As you seek the answers to these questions and obey Him, He will love it!
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:1–2).