Growing up in church as a scrawny kid, I was captured by stories of David slaying Goliath, Gideon defeating the Midianites, and especially Samson taking out 1,000 Philistines practically barehanded. While I loved the daring of those figures, I was also taught to be careful about the temptations of great champions: David’s moral failure and desperate attempts to cover it up, Gideon’s late-in-life slip into creating an idol and snare for his family, and the dramatic and colorful life of Samson and his sensational self-destruction.
All of these stories served as lessons to us that great strength demands responsibility, and there is danger of misusing those gifts. The consecrated life demands constant self-examination and moral integrity.
When I re-read the account of Samson recently, in Judges 13–16, I was looking for that lesson I had been taught as a young man. But it wasn’t there. Instead, what I discovered was a new way of looking at what it might mean to live a consecrated—but empty—life.
Can a fool with no redeeming qualities still be consecrated? The conclusion I came to after re-reading the tale of Samson surprised me.
The hero Israel deserved
Samson was a miracle child announced by the angel to his mother and father—like Samuel, John the Baptist, or Jesus—so it’s easy to expect great things from the beginning. Why else would there be so much preparation for his arrival? Fully a quarter of his entire story is spent on the buildup to his birth, so it makes sense to assume after his miraculous birth announcement that he will have a life and calling to match. Anxious to believe he will be the one to deliver the people from their oppression and rebellion against God, we soon realize not every miracle has a happy ending. The birth of Samson is the flare before the star collapses.
For hundreds of years, the people of Israel had gone their own way, reneged on their promises, worshiped idols, practiced injustice, and followed empty gods. We expect it to turn around with Samson, but there is nothing godly or worth emulating in the life of Samson. He is consecrated and without character.
In fact, the whole story of Samson forces us outside our categories about how God operates. While we are expecting a designated hero who slays the giants and whose character inspires Israel to turn from their wicked ways, what we get is a fatally flawed and remarkably unattractive person. How do we resign ourselves to such an obvious fool as the hero?
Our first clue that all is not right is the angel’s response to the question of how to raise this special child. There is no answer. They are on their own with what proves to be a parent’s nightmare. What could the angel have said when you consider what Samson became? Had they been told what was in store for them they would have been crushed.
From the start he is impulsive, spoiled, demanding, arrogant, and lacking judgment. He shows no hint of kindness or love or what we would call the evidence of a life stirred by the Spirit. He is cruel and vindictive. Incapable of discernment and immune to advice, he twice marries into the families of the Philistines—the very people who are the enemies of Israel. Disregarding every warning and all counsel, he creates conflicts of interest that prove fatal. Betrayal and disappointment are constant themes in his life.
His own people don’t know what to do with him and the chaos he has created. He is a rogue killing machine, yet no one can touch him. His anger and pride control him, isolating him from everyone around him. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “His whole life is a scene of miracles and follies.” There is nothing in the life of Samson that proves his being motivated by the Spirit of God as we understand it. Nevertheless, he is consecrated by God.
Set apart for a purpose
It is, for me, one of the most challenging passages in the Bible. What does it mean to be consecrated if it does not include piety or even maturity? I recall the verse from the hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” “Consecrate me now to thy service Lord, by the power of grace divine; Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope, and my will be lost in thine.” How do we square that with the life of Samson?
Samson may be the first total narcissist in Scripture. He is a textbook case. Narcissists misjudge their own importance and consider themselves to be indispensable and worthy of special rights and privileges. When opposed, they are furious and blame everyone around them. They infuriate other people, and their excessive pride causes others to work even harder just to cut them down and see them humiliated. While thinking themselves sophisticated and shrewd, they are actually more gullible than the average person. They are betrayed by the very people they think they can trust. Finally, they believe they are destined for greatness and, when crossed, they react with revenge and violence—even at the risk of their own lives.
But Samson was a guided missile with one purpose—to defeat an enemy and bring down an entire government. His epitaph reads, “He killed many more when he died than while he lived.” Isn’t that what he was set apart to do?
But just because his life had a purpose does not mean it was well spent. He had no wisdom, no maturity, no relationships of any value. We equate consecrated with spiritual maturity, piety, godliness, and a longing to be more Christlike. That was not Samson. Perhaps he was raised up in the same way as Pharaoh: to display God’s power but then be destroyed.
Yes, Samson was consecrated in that he was singled out and set apart to accomplish one mission. It turns out character is not necessary for being consecrated, which can simply mean “designed and set apart for a purpose.” To be consecrated means to be set apart by God, not to be chosen by a popular vote or based on character qualifications.
It turned out there was little that could govern or rule Samson except his own unpredictable nature and ego. There was nothing else of value he accomplished in his life. He was a weapon—not a leader. He never led the people to battle or to victory. He betrayed himself and everyone around him. But he accomplished his mission. For me, this is the crux of the story. He didn’t achieve his purpose with an army like Gideon or Joshua or personal heroism like David, but with one self-destructive act he took down the whole government and leadership of Israel’s enemies. The end of Samson’s life was the fulfillment of his creation.
There is power in consecrated people—even if they are fools. They have an almost supernatural strength to overcome obstacles and persevere. It is not just an interest but an absolute dedication. They give up part of their lives for it. They are people who overcome by sheer will.
But there are three main temptations that wait for consecrated people. As members of the body of Christ, Samson is in our family tree and we, too, are consecrated people. These temptations are ours as well.
The first is pride. We believe we have done this in our own strength. We congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments and what we have done with our own hand. We compare ourselves to others and find they don’t meet our standards and discover subtle ways to glorify ourselves. We want admirers and fans.
The second is self-sufficiency. “I am a self-made man.” In Richard Nixon’s infamous interviews with David Frost, President Nixon admitted that something he did was illegal but then he said, “If the president does it, then it is not illegal.” I will have no other gods or authorities before me.
The third is because we are consecrated, we are immune to failure. “I am chosen by God. These gifts are mine to do with as I please. I cannot fall.”
But, always at the end, there is the disgrace. The beginning of every disaster movie is an unnoticed failure—a crack in a dam wall or an airplane wing, a dial not working, a screw that has vibrated loose. It is always something small and unnoticed. It is an oversight undetected by everyone but us. That was Samson’s life and the life of everyone following his example. It was a symbol of the history of the Book of Judges: one bad decision after another, everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.
Slowly, by degrees, a person misuses their gifts and ends up as sport for the world and a disgrace to their family, their friends, and themselves. It is never sudden but comes from hundreds of small choices and hidden failures. But it always ends in collapse.
Is there anything redemptive in the life of Samson? Samson was bad to the bone. Still, we have to think there is some redemption for him—and for us—because in Hebrews we read:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets. . . . These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Heb. 11:32, 39–40)
Perhaps God really means it when he says “only together with us would they be made perfect.” We know so much about their imperfections and flaws. Samson was no hero or model for young people. The writer of Judges doesn’t hide any of that or even attempt to justify or condemn his behavior. It is not a tale with a moral. It is not a warning. It is simply a puzzling illustration of how God’s ways are not ours.
But if there is hope for Samson, there is hope for us when we have misused our strengths, wasted our gifts, not lived up to God’s calling, and even harmed our friends and family. God can redeem and he does. It is not our merits, character, or achievements that make us consecrated, it is that God has set us apart for a purpose, and his power working through us—no matter our flaws—will accomplish that purpose.
Fred Smith is president of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families, and foundations giving to Christian ministries. He blogs at thegathering.com.
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