Sunday School teachers love the book of Judges.
You know why? Because the judges of Israel are pretty much like The Avengers, except with God.
Samson is a cross between the smash-everything-anger-problems Hulk and the billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (maybe not the genius part, though). Gideon starts out as the mild-mannered Steve Rogers who goes from a nobody to a victorious commander of the troops. Deborah and Jael go all Black Widow on the guys (the tent peg to the temple has got to be one of the best moves in history). Ehud sneaks in and stabs a really fat king, and has plenty of time to escape because everyone else thinks the king must be taking a long time to go to the bathroom.
I’m not sure which Avenger that corresponds to. But it’s a great story anyway.
But there’s one judge who no one really likes, who no one talks about or relates to or includes in elementary school coloring books.
Maybe you don’t even know who this guy is. I only remember him because I was horrified the first time I heard about him in Sunday School. The story, to my traumatized ten-year-old mind, goes something like this: It’s an average day in the life of a judge. Overwhelming number of enemies. Not enough troops to fight them. Charging right into enemy territory. That sort of thing.
And Jephthah, who knows all of those factors as well as anyone, gets scared and makes a vow to God: “God, if you let us win, I’ll make you a sacrifice of the first thing that comes out of my house.”
They win the battle, against all odds. It’s very exciting. So Jephthah comes home to celebrate, and guess what comes out his front door first? Actually, it’s not a what. It’s a who: his only daughter.
At this point, Jephthah dramatically regrets making his vow, but he can’t go back on it, because people don’t just go back on vows to God or terrible things might happen.
Okay, kids, time to do an unrelated coloring page, eat some Cheerios, and sing some songs about Jesus!
You can see why this isn’t exactly a show-stopping Bible tale. It’s depressing. It’s frustrating. “Why’d you go and make that vow?” you want to yell. “God was going to give you the victory anyway! That’s why he raises up judges in the first place! Haven’t you seen that pattern in the past seven judges over the past few centuries?”
Application is a little hard too. So what’s the moral of the story, kids? “If you’re going to make a vow to God during a battle, make sure to be very specific.” Right. Thanks. I’ll apply that to my life this week, Sunday School teacher.
Nobody relates to the guy.
Except me. This week.
Let me back up a bit and explain. I’m a senior this year. Along with the usual rush of terror at what to do with my life, I also found myself in a frenzy of wanting to spend time with people, as if all my friends are going to disappear into an abyss, never to be seen again, the second I get handed my diploma.
So I developed a Battle Plan. Yes, I literally called it that (I can be strangely militant sometimes). This battle plan had three parts: home bases, strike zones, and a hit list. Then I came up with tactical strategies for accomplishing the goals under each category. The first one was: “This semester, in order to spend more time with people, I will do no creative writing.”
No jotting down fragments of short stories late at night. No skipping lunch with my friends to finish working on a one-act play. No frantic novel-writing binges that eat up entire evenings and weekends. I had decided, and once I decide something, it cannot be changed or repealed, like the law of the Meades and Persians. (Two obscure Biblical references in one post? Bonus points!)
There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy. It makes perfect logical sense and was motivated by an idea that is found in Scripture—the importance of loving others. It’s even pretty spiritual sounding and sacrificial. It was something good to do.
Most people recognized that, and when I mentioned it, they would say something like, “Oh, that’s really cool. Good for you!”
Only one person ever asked the question I needed to hear: “Why did you choose to do that?”
Caught off guard, I blurted out, “I just felt like I should.”
It was the perfect answer, because it could imply that I’d spent a long time in prayer considering the choice, and felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do it.
Or it could mean that I just…felt like I should. That I made a list of good-sounding things to do and went with it. Without asking God what I should be doing. Which is actually what happened.
Obviously, unlike Jepthah, I didn’t make a vow before God. The only thing making my commitment binding was my stupid, dogged determination to be the paragon of willpower. And, in my case, no one died. So that’s good. But I still made his same mistake, on a much smaller scale: deciding that I knew what God would want me to do to get the outcome I wanted…and assuming a sacrifice of something important would be necessary.
Recently, I realized that giving up writing was probably a bad decision, because it’s a good stress reliever for me. Yes, I’ve spent more time with people. But I’ve also wasted time on my computer because I know I’m not allowed to sneak in some editing work on a fiction manuscript. I’ve also been more emotional and easily frustrated for no good reason, and I think I finally figured out why.
So that is why this week, I did the unthinkable: I broke my vow. The vow I made…to Amy. Based on what Amy thought was best. Because Amy decided she needed to suffer for good things to happen.
You know, it sounded better and made a lot more sense when I first decided to do it. The need for control can be tricky that way.
There are a lot of good things you can decide to do. You can make lists of them and check them off one by one. Don’t get me wrong, I think self-improvement is great. But before you give yourself an ultimatum, add a spiritual discipline to your routine, or decide to join a particular ministry, check with God first. Maybe his plan looks different than the expectations you set on yourself.