People in the American church today tend to think of their lives in “buckets.” There is the “eternal salvation” bucket—that’s where Jesus lives—and then there is the “other stuff” bucket—security, prosperity, happiness, etc. We don’t altogether forget Jesus in Bucket #1; he just didn’t seem as relevant when we’re trying to get the contents of Bucket #2.

When we think of our lives in buckets, we tend to think of religion as a set of obligations we have to fulfill so we can have freedom, autonomy, and blessing in these other areas. Keep Jesus happy in Bucket #1, and I can get all the goodies of Bucket #2.

Those who live this way often ask questions like, How much do I have to go to church to keep God happy? or How morally do I have to live so I don’t get on his bad side? or How much of my money do I have to give to keep God off my back?

To which the Apostle Paul would say, “Wrong question. Christ owns it all! He is first in creation, he went first in salvation, and so he should come first in everything” (cf. Colossians 1:15–20).

Israel’s first king, Saul, exemplified the “buckets” approach to life.

By all accounts, Saul was an impressive guy. He was the obvious choice for king because of his good looks, his good reputation, and most important, because of his size. To be a king, you had to look like a king, and Saul literally stood head and shoulders above everyone.

At first, things went well. There were a lot of victories, and everyone was happy. But then, Samuel said to Saul,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have.’

– 1 Samuel 15:2–3a CSB

The Amalekites had been the perpetual antagonists of Israel going all the way back to the Exodus and continuing for the next 300 to 400 years. Read through the history of Israel, and you’ll see that the Amalekites were constantly raiding and pillaging Israel. They were a cruel, violent, and exploitive people, and God decided—at last—to act against them.

Now, to be clear: This was not a revenge war for Israel or a war of conquest. It was God explicitly enacting justice. So God reminded Saul, “This is not about you; it’s about me. So don’t touch a single thing that is theirs or take it for yourself. Destroy it all.”

Saul obeyed.

Sort of.

He defeated the Amalekites, just like God had said. But then he spared the best of their sheep, oxen, and fattened calves. He also kept their king, Agag, alive—not out of mercy, but as a sort of sporting trophy.

So God told Samuel, his spokesperson, to confront Saul about his disobedience. As Samuel got close to his meeting with Saul, he heard that Saul had set up a monument to himself, further proving that Saul thought the whole thing was about him. He even greeted Samuel by saying, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (v. 13).

Samuel, who is a “get right down to business” kind of guy, skips all the pleasantries and points out that he can literally hear the sheep and oxen—the spoils of war that Saul spared for himself. “But don’t worry, Samuel,” Saul assures him, “We sacrificed a lot of it to the Lord, first” (v. 15).

In other words, “We tithed on it, Samuel. God has his God-tax, so we should be okay.” After all, Saul did 98 percent of what God asked him to do.

Samuel’s response is one of the most chilling in Scripture:

“‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.'”

– 1 Samuel 15:22–23a.

Let this sink in: To take any part of what belongs to God and act like it belongs to you is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

Even if you tithe on it.

Even if you are religiously active and come to church every week.

Even if you are a really good person in every other area of your life.

God doesn’t want our religion or our moral behavior or our tithes and offerings. He wants our surrender.

He deserves first place in everything. He wants to be the one we are obeying, living for, and seeking to glorify in every dimension of our lives, the one we serve and respond to in every relationship.

As Paul said to the church in Colossae, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

The question is not if, like Saul, we are religiously active and give something back to God. The question is, have we surrendered everything to him?