Have you heard the story of the kindergarten teacher who was having trouble getting a little boy to sit down in his chair? After a long battle, the boy finally plopped down into the chair with his arms crossed, glaring at his teacher. After a moment, he said, "I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m still standing on the inside!"
Such an elementary (if you’ll pardon the pun) story, but it’s a very good example of the ultimate problem God is facing when it comes to sin: the problem of defiance. He addresses this in Numbers 15:
"Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the Lord gave Moses... the priest is to make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven, for it was not intentional... But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel." (vs 22, 25, 30)
This really intrigued me, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with behavior. It has to do with the attitude and motive of the person who has done wrong. In theory, two people could commit the same sin — but it could have very different consequences, depending on whether the act was committed intentionally or not.
In the first scenario (unintentional sin), the community or the individual was to bring an offering to God. The very act of bringing the offering was an indication that there was still a relationship between God and that person. However, in the second scenario (defiant sin), the offender was cut off from the community. This was designed to be an indication of the consequences of defiance — it ends relationships. It cuts us off from God.
This doesn’t mean that our actions don’t matter at all. Bad acts done unintentionally still hurt people. However, for God, a defiant heart is the real problem, for God can do very little with a person who is defiant.
In verse 30, the Hebrew word translated "defiantly" is ruwm, which means "to rise up, to be lofty, to exalt oneself." Interestingly, it is the same word used in Isaiah 14:13 when God, speaking about Lucifer, said, "But you said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.'" So, inherent in this defiant attitude is the motivation to "get out from under God’s thumb" or to not be beholden to anyone or anything. It’s not just a matter of accidentally doing something wrong... or even acting out of bad habits when our desire is to do better. Defiance is about telling God to "shove it."
God is more concerned with our motives and attitudes than with our behavior. This is another nail in the coffin of the idea that God is some kind of exacting Deity who watches us like a hawk, just waiting for us to slip up so He can pounce. On the contrary, our God is the kind of God who could call David — a deeply flawed human being who made great mistakes — a man after His own heart. How could He do that? Because David’s heart wasn’t defiant against God. He may have done a lot of bad things — including committing adultery and murder! — but God is primarily concerned with what's on the inside.
To return to the story I used at the beginning, if the whole idea of salvation could be compared to "sitting down in a chair," the fact is that God won’t ultimately force us to sit down. In the process of trying to get through to us and save us, He may get us to "sit down" for a time. (He may even temporarily strong-arm us into the chair in order to shock us, get our attention, and win the opportunity to get through to us.) But if we stubbornly continue to think I’m still standing on the inside, we will eventually destroy our relationship with God — the only avenue through which He can reason with us.
God doesn’t want that to happen. As long as we’re willing to listen, changing our behavior is no problem for Him. That’s why He cares most about our motives!