I’ve always been interested in documentaries. My family, however, doesn’t share the same love for them as I do, so I typically have to wait until they make a trip to see my wife’s parents to watch one.
While I don’t get to watch them as much now, growing up I watched documentaries all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of them on Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico. It’s interesting to consider the top secret work that’s being done there, even if it seems a bit far-fetched to think our military is hiding and testing alien spacecraft on and around that base.
But what’s far-fetched to one, isn’t to another. If you have ever watched those documentaries, you know there are always a few folks the producers are able to find who truly believe aliens exist, and they and their spacecraft are being tested in Area 51. Listening to these folks talk, we would, or at least I would say they are self-deceived. They clearly believe something that’s false to be true.
While it might be easy to say alien conspiracy theorists are self-deceived, they aren’t the only ones who we might consider to be self-deceived. Saul, the first king of the nation of Israel, was self-deceived. No, he didn’t believe in aliens, but he did believe some things about himself that weren’t true. If we are honest, we like Saul can believe things about ourselves that aren’t true either. Maybe the same things Saul believed about himself. With that in mind, let’s look at the ways in which Saul was self-deceived.
In What Ways was Saul Self-Deceived?
1 Samuel 15 presents one episode in Saul’s life that sheds some light on the subject of self-deception. In the beginning of chapter 15, Samuel, who is a prophet, comes to Saul and says,
“…“The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”” (1 Sa 15:1–3)
Saul failed to follow the Lord’s command
Saul was initially obedient. He did gather 210,000 men for battle. He did besiege and ultimately chase the Amalekites all the way to Shur, in an effort to destroy them (vs 7). While he did those things, he didn’t complete the Lord’s task. Look at the text starting in verse 8,
“And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.” (1 Sa 15:8–9)
So while Saul was initially obedient, he failed to completely obey God. He spared the life of King Agag, the best sheep, oxen, and calves.
Saul’s actions didn’t please God.
In fact, God was so displeased with Saul that starting in verse 11 He says to Samuel,
““I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” (1 Sa 15:11a)
Having regretted His actions, God sends Samuel to tell Saul what He was thinking. This is where we start to get into the ways in which Saul was self-deceived.
The ways in which Saul is self-deceived
(1) He believes he is more obedient than he really is
In verse 12 we learn that:
“…Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.” And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”” (1 Sa 15:12–13)
In their initial exchange, we learn that Saul thinks he has been obedient. He really believes himself because he proudly proclaims to Samuel that he’s done what God asked. But Samuel knows Saul hasn’t obeyed. He lets Saul know he knows with a well-placed question. Look at verse 14,
“What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”” (1 Sa 15:14)
I mean talk about busting someone’s bubble. Saul, experiencing that starts to try to recover. In verse 15, “Saul said,…
“They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”” (1 Sa 15:15)
The way in which Saul tries to recover is to shift the blame to the people he is supposed to be leading. But Samuel didn’t want to hear it. In verse 16 he says,
“Stop! [basically, I don’t want to hear your excuses, Saul. Then he proceeds to tell him what the Lord had said to him the night before] … And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”” (1 Sa 15:16–19)
“…Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”” (1 Sa 15:20-21)
You see, Saul doesn’t get it. Even though he has clearly disobeyed God, he still thinks he has done what he was supposed to do, which tells us that Saul is self-deceived. He believes he has fulfilled the Lord’s commands when clearly he hasn’t.
While this was Saul’s error, it’s not uncommon today for us to be self-deceived when it comes to our own obedience. As one commentator notes:
“Christians will often declare themselves obedient to God in any number of matters — in the doctrine they espouse, their approach to financial stewardship, sexual purity, marital faithfulness, church membership, worship, evangelism, Sabbath observance, and more — when in fact their conduct does not line up with the Bible’s teaching.” 
Just like Saul didn’t listen to and obey God’s Word, we have a tendency to do the same. We hear what we want to hear. What is convenient for us at the time. But when we do that we are making and living by our own rules, not God’s.
Along with that, when we refuse to follow the Lord’s will, we aren’t pleasing Him. The only thing that truly pleases God is when we live obedient lives. Lives modeled after His Word. Then and only then are we truly worshiping God. Samuel points that out in verse 22 when he says,
““Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Sa 15:22)
Worshipping God, then, isn’t just about us gathering together on Sunday, singing songs, and listening to a sermon. Worshipping God involves us obediently following His commands. That’s what God takes delight in. Not us going through the motions of gathering each week or halfway obeying His commands. Samuel makes that even more clear in verse 23 when he says,
“Rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sa 15:23a)
You see, living in outright rebellion or slightly rebelling against God is the same thing. Halfway obeying God’s commands like Saul did makes it no better than someone who practices divination or idolatry. In each case, we are disobeying God. As those who are disobedient, we don’t deserve His praise instead we deserve His punishment. So when we make up our own set of rules and follow them, or twist God’s commands to suit our own way of life, God is not pleased. If we think He is, we are self-deceived.
You see, God wants our hearts, our desire, our entire life to be in line with His will. That’s what truly pleases Him and that’s when we truly worship Him.
(2) He believed he’s a better leader than he really is
We read this earlier, but remember when Samuel confronted him. What did Saul do? He immediately shifted the blame to the people he was supposed to be leading. But that’s not the sign of a good leader. Good leaders take responsibility for their failures. They don’t blame shift. But because Saul was self-deceived about his obedience, he wasn’t able to take responsibility for his failure to lead.
I think that is the same with us. If we aren’t willing to admit our failures, our disobedience, we aren’t going to be good leaders either. We are always going to think it’s someone else’s fault instead of our own. So unless we can get to the place where we are willing to admit our own mistakes, our own sin, we aren’t going to be good leaders. We might think we are, but we aren’t.
Consequences of a self-deceived life
As a result of Saul’s failed obedience and leadership, God not only regretted making him king, but God took his position from him. So we see that there are consequences to living a self-deceived life. Often times, those consequences affect more than just us, they affect those around us as well. The nation Saul was supposed to be leading, ended up suffering from years of Saul trying to hold onto the position God had taken from him. As well as Saul suffered himself. So living a self-deceived life doesn’t pay. It’s much better to admit your sin and failures and deal with it.
We aren’t perfect
You see, we aren’t perfect people. Instead, we are imperfect, unholy sinners who have been made holy by Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. That doesn’t mean we should strive to be perfect like Jesus, it just means that we aren’t. So there is no shame in admitting your imperfections, repenting of them, and asking God to help you follow His will.
Don’t repeat Saul’s mistakes. Instead, learn from them and do the opposite. Admit your sin, your inability to lead, and turn to God who can and will strengthen you for the task He has given you.
Question for Reflection
- Do you believe yourself to be more obedient than you really are? Or do you recognize that you aren’t perfect, that you do sin against God and others, and that you do need to repent and rely on the Holy Spirit to empower you to follow God?
- Do you believe yourself to be a better leader than you really are? Do you always blame others for failed ventures rather than yourself? Or do you recognize that you probably fail from time to time and it’s your fault that you failed?
 Richard Phillips, 1 Samuel, 237.