The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Reaves is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and serves as Vice President of Mission and Ministries for the Adventist Health System in Orlando, Florida. Ben has been a campus pastor, a professor of religion and a college president, but is best known by our “30 Good Minutes” audience for his annual appearances, starting in 1989. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted.]
The Deadly Difference
First air date March 31, 1996
[Transcribed from tape and edited for clarity.]
A tale of two kings... At so many points and in so many ways they were alike, and yet they were profoundly different. The intriguing attraction, bound up in their similarities and differences, is that we may see a mirror reflection, a troubling reflection of ourselves.
I Samuel 9:17; 10:1 (T.L.B.) reads, "When Samuel saw Saul the Lord said, 'That's the man I told you about. He will rule my people.' Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it over Saul's head."
And now I Samuel 16:1,13 (T.L.B.), "Finally the Lord said to Samuel,'Now take a vial of olive oil and go to Bethlehem and find a man named Jesse, for I have selected one of his sons to be the new king.' So, as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the olive oil he had brought and poured it upon David's head."
A tale of two kings with extraordinarily similar beginnings. They were both called to royal responsibility in a time of extreme peril and deep need.
One was called at a time when, through sin and compromise with the sinful nations around them, God's people were weakened and divided. The other was called at a time when internal dissension and envy had so weakened the nation that they trembled before the armed onslaught of the Philistines.
Not only were these two called to positions of grave responsibility, more importantly they were both called in their youth -- and most importantly, they were both called by God. Two kings, so similar in their beginnings. Two kings, so different in their endings.
David, his lifework over and years of leadership and service about to end, gathered the princes of Israel. And although weakened by illness and age, with power and fervor he delivered his dying charge. First to his people, "Keep and seek for all the commandments of the Lord your God." Second, to his son Solomon he directed, "Know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind ....if thou seek him, he will be found of thee." (I Chron. 28:8, 9) Thus ended the life of one called a man "after God's own heart."
But Saul's last moments were tragically different. On the plains of Shunem, conscious the Spirit of God has left him, frantically, desperately fighting for his life. Sadly, his sons are cut down in front of him. Severely wounded, as a last resort he falls on his own sword. The end of a life -- in despair and dishonor.
We have noted the beginnings so similar. Looked at the endings so different, which leaves the haunting question: Why the difference? Why?
Perhaps W. Lloyd Warner said it best: "The best of all possible moments to achieve insight into the life of a human being is during a fundamental crisis, when one is faced with grave decisions which can mean ruin and despair or success and happiness for him. In such crises men reveal what they are and often betray their innermost secrets in a way they never do and can, when life moves placidly and easily."
For David, his revealing crisis centered on the matter of Uriah the Hittite -- Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, who carried the child of the adulterous David. Uriah, sent to his death as David, in hot blood, committed adultery and in cold blood committed murder.
When confronted by the prophet Nathan, with the parable recounting how the rich man had taken the only lamb of his poor brother, followed by the charged "Thou art the man," (2 Sam. 12:7) it is in this moment of fundamental crisis that we see the real David, the repentant David, who with trembling lips says, "I have sinned against the Lord." (verse 13)
However, for Saul the revealing crisis finds him returning victoriously from battle against the Amalekites. But his sparing Agag, king of the Amalekites, and the people taking for themselves the finest flocks and cattle, were directly disobedient to the revealed command of God.
Yet Saul greeted the prophet Samuel with a lie. I Samuel 15:13: "Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord." No sooner had the lie left his lips than the proof of his deceit became obvious, as in verse 14, "Samuel said, 'What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears?' "
Most revealing is the response of Saul to the damning indictment. First is the outright denial that he had done wrong. However, second, when pressed by the prophet, he magnanimously confessed the guilt of the people but steadfastly maintained his own innocence. Finally, when he is confronted with the chilling word of God's rejection while acknowledging some guilt, while confessing some wrong, he still places the responsibility on others: "I feared the people, and obeyed their voice." (verse 24)
Through this tale of two kings can be seen a winding thread that spins from Eden lost, through judgement at Nuremberg, to the tragic consequences of a Watergate, and the shameful Packwood matter. The wholehearted blaming of someone else for personal failings, weaknesses, and mistakes. There it is, the deadly difference. Call it excuse, alibi, evasion, scapegoating -- call it what you will -- but recognize it as the winding thread that binds and cripples, chokes, and ultimately destroys all men and women who live a lie.
The difference -- the deadly difference between these two kings -- the difference between triumph on one hand and tragedy on the other, was the inability of Saul to accept and face the responsibility for his own actions.
Dr. Frederick Sampson tells of his young son receiving a "D" on his report card. When questioned about it, the son complained, "That old teacher, she gave me that 'D'. Yes she did. See, that's her handwriting -- she gave me that 'D'."
Dr. Sampson responded, "No, no, she recorded your 'D', that's your 'D'. You earned it, she recorded it."
Somewhere, some time, we have to stand up to the responsibility. "I made that 'D'." For the cumulative effect of blaming circumstance or others is that it blinds one to one's own actual weaknesses. He has no faults...she is never wrong...he is without sin. Thus unrepentance is assured.
Just follow Saul in his evasive actions of self-justification. See how it leads to the point where he rejects all contact with God, where in the darkness of the night he seeks out the sinister secrets of the occult, begging the witch of Endor, "bring me up Samuel." In the midnight of his soul, looking for a ghost of a chance.
Saul sinned, but there were others who sinned in uglier ways. The tragedy that engulfed Saul was not that he sinned, but that he could never accept responsibility for his sin, face it, and by God's grace confess it, hate it, and put it away -- that made the difference. For David, his recognition and admission of his guilt was the saving of his soul.
Is it a tale of the past or a tale of today, a tale of two kings or a tale of your life and mine? It is a tale that is more than the ebb and flow of human frailty; it is the story of the deep, steady, constant assurance of God's love.
Our God, who waits to forgive our mistakes and sins. Our God, who is eager to accept us as we are and to restore us to his full fellowship, the fellowship that accepts us as if we had never sinned. With a God like that we don't have to experience the Deadly Difference. Instead we can turn to a loving God who will in no wise cast us out, but invites us to come boldly to the throne of grace for the Divine Difference.
Conversation with Benjamin Reaves
Lydia Talbot: Dr. Reaves, your earlier message was a provocative lesson in character -- the test of real character in the midst of crisis. Help us understand the Biblical "Tale of two kings," as you put it; Saul and David; the relevance, today on the campus at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama where you are president.
Benjamin Reaves: Well, it's very clear to me whether it's at Oakwood or any campus anywhere in this country. The matter of personal accountability, the willingness to accept responsibility for what one decides and for the consequences that follow is something that needs to be underscored with young people and with older ones as well, but especially with young people. They need to understand that, you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other end as well. And so consequences follow choices, and while you may choose, you can't choose consequences. And that's something that needs to be driven home.
Talbot: Now, we live in a secular culture, Dr. Reaves, where there are so many messages bombarding young people, especially today, that are centered in a less than genuine authentic value system. Drive it home for us. You have three children. You see and are with students every day on campus. What makes the difference for them?
Reaves: I think, and I can only refer back, I guess, to my own experiences in growing up, that for me, the experience of growing up in a family that was surrounded by a church family, that had influence in terms of its values on my family and my family's values on me, that they accompanied me throughout life. Even though I grew up in Harlem, in New York City, they accompanied me throughout the streets of the concrete jungle. And I think that with young people today, families are even more important and more sorely needed now than ever before. The tragedy is, of course, that families are suffering devastating effects from our modern life.
Talbot: Now, it's a long way from Harlem, New York City, to Huntsville, Alabama. And of course the distance goes beyond geographical distance. How do you measure it in terms of race relations these days? Opportunity for young people?
Reaves: One of the interesting things - when I was going to attend Oakwood College, and I did and graduated from Oakwood, many of my friends said, "Why are you leaving New York to go to Alabama?" And they thought that perhaps I was not the sharpest of people to do that. I found that in Huntsville, even back then - I started to say the date and I will - that back in 1951, there was a difference about Huntsville because it was a government town.
The Marshall Spaceflight Center is there now, Redstone arsenal was there then. And there was a difference in relationships that was unfortunately supported not so much by the milk of human kindness but by government influence and money. However, that difference persists today and now it has become more of a way of life in the Huntsville area.
Talbot: You travel widely lecturing, preaching. You'll be in South Africa again in a few months. What message now, almost ten years after your earlier visit, would you have for the pulpits there, near Capetown?
Reaves: Well, I'm very reluctant to carry any message other than the Biblical one. However, there is a time to celebrate and then there's a time to work together, to give and take. And clearly, from my perspective, South Africa now is at the point where the celebration must give way to the center stage priority of cooperative effort to build for the future. This is their opportunity and they need to take full advantage of it.
Talbot: Now, change wears many faces. How do you measure the change that is taking place there in South Africa?
Reaves: I think I would see it most clearly in the opportunity to work together. Before, that opportunity was not even present. And it wasn't even considered. Now, it is not only present, but it has desirable aspects for all concerned.
Talbot: Dr. Reaves, you are an educator. What is your greatest challenge at connecting your religious faith with the duties of a college president?
Reaves: Perhaps the real issue is not so much connecting: the issue is that it is a part of me and whatever I bring to whatever I do. So that whether I'm dealing with young people on campus, whether I'm dealing with my Rotary colleagues, whether I'm approaching a foundation or moving anywhere in public circles, the religion is not an add-on. It's an integral part of what Benjamin Reaves is.
Talbot: There must have been one individual that comes to mind who inspired you most in that direction.
Reaves: Yes, my father.
Talbot: What was his name?
Reaves: Ernest McKinley Reaves, who named me Benjamin Franklin Reaves.
Talbot: What a wonderful legacy. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Reaves: Thank you, Lydia.