It’s time for a confession. It’s a dark secret from my past that haunts me to this day, and I have tried to run from it but it is branded into me like the proverbial scarlet letter. It brings me great shame, but I simply cannot erase this from my history… my hope is that you do not judge me when you read these words.
I was once an achievement hunter. And no, not one of those people who tried to get all of the achievements in good games or spent extra time searching for skulls on Halo. I had it BAD, man. I bought and played ALL of the Burger King games. On PURPOSE. I played Avatar: The Burning Earth just for the easy 1000 points exploit. I played through GUN on each difficulty level to get all of the achievements. And to my shame, I have achievements in awful games such as Vampire Rain and Lost: Via Domus simply because of my addiction. I intentionally bought and played terrible games and titles I wasn’t even interested in (hello hockey) just for these “achievements”, or trophies in the vernacular of our Sony friends.
I drove through the slums of gaming to gain these arbitrary measures of accomplishment, and now these are forever etched into my gamer score for all to see. Instead of playing games I really enjoyed regardless of the reward, I spent countless hours trying to score a handful of points that at this stage of my life have absolutely no meaning or value whatsoever. I haven’t paid attention to an “achievement unlocked” notification in years. My gaming opportunities are so limited now I simply have no time for anything less than an experience that me and my family truly enjoy together.
While this is obviously being treated humorously, I have stumbled upon a much more serious truth that I believe warrants examination. When I was playing these games, I wasn’t playing them for their designed purpose of enjoyable entertainment, but instead for what they could give me in the terms of gratification in my gamerscore status. And when I consider my relationship with God a similar thought occurred to me… why do I serve God? Simply to avoid hell? For a ticket into heaven? For the benefit of easing my guilty conscience and freedom from my sin burden? Am I marrying God for His money? Do I serve Him for the benefits, the health plan, and the pension? Do I truly know Him and love Him for who He is?
This next man we will review as we ponder this is a very curious figure in the Old Testament, a prophet of God who seemed to be guided by two very different and conflicting priorities. Nowhere in Scripture is the visual of a double-minded man more clearly demonstrated than in this text. Jump with me to the book of Numbers chapter 22 as we find the prophet Balaam ready for his close-up…
King Balak, the ruler of Moab, realizes that the Israelite people who have recently escaped slavery in Egypt are now on a collision course with his nation. Aware that he is no match for them in battle, he asks for a little over-the-counter help in the form of a curse from the local prophet Balaam. But when Balaam goes to the Lord for His word on the situation, Jehovah is more than clear whose side he is on and refuses to give Balaam anything that would hinder the Israelite approach.
Balaam declined the king’s request, but Balak was not going down that easily. He sent a more substantial celebrity entourage along with the promise of a lavishly rich payment, and Balaam asked his distinguished guests to stay the night so he could “see what else the Lord will tell me”. Balaam is quite obviously torn, as he says the right thing by informing his audience that he can only say what he is given by God, but his desire for the fame and fortune that await him if he finds a way to comply with the king’s desire has him asking God if He is sure about this whole blessing Israel thing. Beware of going back to God when he has already clearly and cleanly given an answer… as Balaam is about to find out there are consequences for pushing God for a yes when he has clearly said no.
The next morning Balaam sets out on his road trip of disobedience, packing up his donkey for the journey ahead. But verse 22 captures the very concerning statement, “Then God’s anger was aroused because he went”. Balaam was trying to have his cake and eat it too, and the Lord was having none of it and sent an angel to block his path. Balaam stubbornly pressed his donkey onward despite the even more stubborn animal doing everything in its power to avoid the path that led to a sword-bearing angel and what would appear to be a fairly brutal death. The donkey, seeing more clearly than the money hungry Balaam, finally laid down in the road and the furious prophet began beating his disobedient animal in a rage. And then, as if this whole debacle wasn’t already absurd enough… the donkey spoke.
It’s a sad day for Balaam when his lust for money and success have blinded him to the point that a jackass can see his folly more clearly than he can. And when the voice within this poor animal emerges Balaam isn’t even surprised. He actually begins a conversation with the beast, as he questions the animals recent actions and the donkey replies with some fairly reasonable logic… you know, for a donkey. And when the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel that is blocking his path, he finally seems to see the light and realize his itinerary was not in keeping with what he had already being clearly instructed by God.
Balaam is permitted to continue on towards Moab, and I have a feeling there was pretty awkward silence between him and the donkey for the rest of the trip. Upon his arrival King Balak begins to light into Balaam for the delay, but Balaam is a bit ornery from this whole thing and pushes right back, telling this powerful king that he is essentially powerless in this whole equation and can do nothing more than speak what he has been given. Balak seems to sense the tension and drops his complaint, and together they proceed to their first stop with a perfect panoramic view of the people of Israel.
Now the sense of humor of God is clearly demonstrated. After going through all of the motions of altars and burnt sacrifices to get the Lord’s attention, Balaam returns with an oracle to share. To King Balak’s utter dismay, Balaam issues a four verse blessing on the very people Balak was paying Balaam to curse. Talk about a bait and switch! Furious, Balak takes Balaam to a new location where he can only see a small portion of the Jewish nation. It seems his logic was that if he can’t get them all, maybe he can get just the weak ones on the outer perimeter. But this time Balaam returns with a SEVEN verse blessing even more substantial than the last. That seems to be counter-productive to say the least. But Balak is not a man to stop while he is behind… no, he is going to double down until he loses the house.
Balak’s online course in real estate continues to pay off as he decides the issue must be location, location, location. This time he takes Balaam to a wilderness outlook, where he won’t be able to see the Israelite people at all. I suppose he figured out of sight, out of mind, out of blessing range? Considering we have had everything from angels of death, talking donkeys, and now three different changes of venue I suppose we can’t be surprised that he is following his foolish thought process to its inevitable conclusion. He’s in too deep now. Balaam on the other hand, he is harder to figure out. He knows the score here, yet he continues to play along hoping that at some point something will work out and he will be able to get that elusive forbidden payday.
Attempt number three nets an additional seven verse blessing for the Jews and later in the chapter nine more verses spelling disaster for the remaining enemies they faced in the land. Balak has reached his boiling point and informs the prophet that he has had enough, and the deal was off. Balaam seems to have come to his senses and explains to the king one final time that he is a servant of the Lord and can only speak what he is told, and they prepare to go their separate ways. Time to wrap this one up and head to morale of the story, right? Balaam and the donkey leap in the air and share a high-five as the scene freezes and their theme music hits? If only we had such a happy ending.
Immediately in the next chapter, just as we see Balaam riding off into the sunset after unloading days of blessings in the people of Israel we find the Jewish people begin to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. Yes, King Balak’s Moab, for those of you keeping track of such things. And as they fell into sinful debauchery they began worshipping false gods as well, giving God no choice but to punish them. Twenty-four THOUSAND were killed in a plague sent by God for their sin. What Balak couldn’t pay Balaam enough for, namely to curse the children of God, sin would accomplish for free. The question is, where did this come from? And to find that answer we have to turn all the way to Revelation 2:14 for the final twist to be revealed.
Let’s let this verse stand on its own in full quotation. “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” Whoa. While this is clearly being written to a church in the New Testament, a light is shown on the mystery of how Balaam found a way to curse the Jews after all. Balaam could not curse them personally, but he knew that their sin would bring a curse that would far exceed anything he could generate. He TAUGHT Balak what they were susceptible to, Balak sent some people to lead them astray, and Balak got the curse he wanted after all. It doesn’t say if Balaam got his payday, but I highly doubt he did any of this for free after all he went through.
So now back to us. As I question the nature of my commitment to God, I have to genuinely ask myself if I am headed towards the path of Balaam. Do I serve Him regardless of His blessings, or is what I gain from this relationship the primary motivation in my heart of hearts? He is not merely a “get out of hell free card”, nor is He our Sugar Daddy to give us a mansion just over the hilltop. He is our Creator, and He yearns for a personal, one-on-one, daily relationship with each of His children. As we grow, endure, and overcome the challenges of our lives He desires to be our friend, our Father, and our primary source of comfort and sustenance. And the only way to avoid the epic fail that is Balaam is to allow Him to redirect us when we start to drift the wrong direction and to serve Him for the RIGHT reasons in the first place.
Yes, He is rich beyond our wildest dreams, more powerful than we can comprehend, and He is serious about what is recorded in His word. But we are invited as the bride at the marriage supper of the Lamb because we have fallen in love with Him over the course of our lives here on earth. This is not one of those “arranged marriages” where we will meet Him for the first time when we get there. He is available NOW, and He is asking us to truly get to know Him and follow Him because of love, not for gain. As Balaam shows us, following God for the benefit package and trying to use our relationship with Him for selfish gain never ends well.
As we close, a few parting thoughts. When the Lord redirects us from something that appears to be a highly lucrative opportunity, it is not because He is issues with blessing us. But if those blessings for us will result in potentially damaging others, in this case His chosen people, He will do everything in His power to turn you away from that path. It is at these forks in the road that we make it clear where our loyalty lies… do we follow Him even as it leads away from fame and fortune, or do we use the gifts He has given us for selfish benefit to appease the desires of the world? Can we cling to Him when a life of luxury is waved in our face?
The health of our relationship with God is revealed by how easily our head can be turned towards sin, and as I am left to consider if I am truly serving Him fully and for the right reasons I have to look deep into these questions for myself. I do want to go to heaven, and in comparison hell seems like a highly undesirable plan B. But not because of streets of gold or an excellent dental plan. I want to spend eternity with the Creator who listens to me when I am driving in my car and need His comfort, or when I am struggling with anger or depression and need His peace. And each day I want to build on that relationship. I don’t want a surprise when I meet Him… I want to embrace the One who I have been having a long-distance relationship with all along.