Recently I read of an unnerving experience that happened to a pastor and his wife flying back from a Christian conference abroad.
The conduct they witnessed teaches us a great deal about human behaviour and attitudes. They were flying from Portland back to Los Angeles and all seemed to be going well. All of a sudden, while food was being served, the plane banked sharply.
Moments later, flight attendants took back all the trays of food and could be seen quietly whispering among themselves. There was clearly something very wrong. The pilot then came on and said, ‘We have a slight mechanical difficulty. We are going to fly back to Portland’.
When the plane touched down at Portland airport, a flight attendant announced, ‘Listen carefully, everyone. As soon as we come to a stop, you’ll hear the emergency siren. At that moment, take the closest escape route you can. Some of you will need to use the slides’. Then she added, ‘There is a bomb threat. Take nothing with you, just get out!’
To the amazement of the pastor and his wife, instead of panic and people running for the doors, quite the opposite happened. Most people first started reaching for their belongings under their seats, and one person actually insisted on getting his briefcase from the overhead locker. It was clear that many people simply didn’t take the warning seriously.
In the Bible, there are many examples of people who treated divine warnings about their conduct and lifestyle with a similar, casual attitude.
Every one of them eventually discovered, however, that those warnings from God to repent were absolutely true. All these examples have much to teach us, but the story of what happened to a certain king of Judah when he rejected God’s warning is particularly worth relating.
Around 600BC, during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, there was a king of Judah called Jehoiakim. This king rejected almighty God and his commandments, and the result was moral and religious decay throughout the nation.
Interest in God and obedience to his will declined to such a degree that the Lord gave Jeremiah a divinely inspired warning, which was to be read out to the leaders and people. The warning was stark: unless the nation repented and turned back to the true God, they would be invaded by a foreign power and destroyed.
Courtiers read this prophecy to King Jehoiakim while he was staying at his winter palace. The account in Jeremiah chapter 36 relates that a fire was burning on the hearth and, as the king heard God’s Word being read out, he cut the scroll into pieces and burnt it on the fire.
He utterly refused to take the warning of God seriously and, because he didn’t like the message, he destroyed it. His contempt for God’s Word brought terrifying consequences. Shortly afterwards, the entire nation was invaded and severe judgment fell upon him personally, as well as his family.
As shocking as this behaviour was, it is sadly little different from the way many people treat the inspired Word of God today. They pick and choose the verses they like in Scripture and, just like Jehoiakim, reject the parts they find personally and morally challenging.
No wonder they don’t feel God is close to them. Salvation, intimacy and closeness to the Lord is a blessing reserved only for those who take all of his will seriously. It is not for pickers and choosers who behave like a modern-day Jehoiakim.
The writer Francois Fenelon gives a moving description of what this intimacy and closeness can mean in practice: ‘You can tell God all that is in your heart, just as one would unload one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains to a dear friend. You can tell him your troubles and he will comfort you; you can tell him your longings and he will purify them; you can tell him your dislikes and he will help you to conquer them. Talk to him of your temptations and he will shield you from them; show him the wounds of your heart and he will heal them.
‘Honestly lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil and your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere and how pride disguises you to yourself and others. When you pour out to him all your weaknesses, needs and troubles there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject and you will have no secrets from him. Blessed indeed are those who have such a familiar, unreserved and intimate relationship with God’.
Such people are easy to recognise. They have a genuine passion and thirst for the Lord, with an unquenchable enthusiasm and drive to stay close to him. It can be seen in their lives that the Spirit of God resides in their hearts. They display an inner joy and peace which radiates out for all to see. Eternal life has already begun for them and the joy of the Lord is upon their countenance.
Those who refuse to submit to the Word of God are denied this joyful intimacy and, owing to the deceitful nature of sin, may not even be aware of their true spiritual condition. Like King Jehoiakim, they may actually feel quite comfortable and confident before God. They might take some, or perhaps none, of God’s commandments and warnings seriously and feel positive about rejecting and ignoring the rest.
Scripture often makes references to such people and states that they are deceiving themselves and those around them. All of God’s commandments and warnings revealed in Scripture are to be taken seriously and acted upon; none of them can be ignored.
The Bible further adds that some of these self-deceivers will even have a certain religious persona about them, and perhaps the appearance of being ‘spiritual’. 2 Timothy 3:5 describes people who have a form of godliness about them, but deny its power. God says, ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’ (Matthew 15:8).
They feel quite comfortable about attending church services and singing God’s praises, but in their heart of hearts, they do not have a relationship with him. They refuse to fully accept his revealed will.
Jesus said: ‘Many will come to me on that day and say, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name and done many good works in your name? And I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:22-23).
There is a certain plant in South America which starving people will chew, because it gives them the enjoyable sensation of having been fed. Through its influence all desire for real food departs and the starving person is spared the painful gnawing of hunger.
The leaf contains a drug, but no nourishment. It satisfies a man’s craving, but it does not provide for his needs. It is a plant of deception. He feels he has had food, but, in reality, is dying for lack of it. So, likewise, are those who pick and mix from the Bible, choosing for themselves what teaching to take seriously and what to reject.
They take enough of it to make themselves feel good, satisfying the inner craving of their religious nature, but rejecting the challenging parts that would have fed and saved their souls, through faith in Christ.
They feel they are spiritually alive and in good standing with the Lord, but in reality they have deceived themselves. Self-deception is so easy.
St Paul urges every person to examine their heart, in order to check that they really do belong to the Lord: ‘Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves’ (2 Corinthians 13:5). Let us not be like Jehoiakim, but let us obey the Lord. May we hear him say at the last, ‘Well done good and faithful servant’, rather than, ‘Depart from me, because I never knew you’.
Jonathan Willans is Vicar of Christ Church, Brockham, in Surrey. Other life-affirming articles of his are on www.internetpulpit.co.uk