Sometimes obedience begins where agreement ends. I’ve heard something similar to this over the years from different pastors I’ve had. This idea that what we think we want, what we should do, how we should live, everything we desire, all of it sometimes has a dead end when it comes to working out our faith. And to a world that has hinged all of its happiness on “Do what makes you happy,” this is terrifying news. To a heart that has placed all of its stock in trusting itself, this is bad news.
Yet, as I was writing out my most recent teaching for the women at my church, my head and heart kept returning to this. So I squeezed it in the last few paragraphs and rattled it off to the group of women who gathered at our church for a women’s breakfast. We didn’t gather to drink tea out of fancy cups or to fawn over one another tell each other how amazing women are. We gathered in the middle of winter, on a cold Saturday morning for one reason — how do we do this well? And I reminded them — obedience is better than whatever you think is better. It’s genuinely better. It’s not just duty; it’s the key to joy.
As I prepared for the day, I kept hearing the bell of obedience ringing in my heart. I thought of Peter, walking with Jesus after he was restored in John 21, after Jesus has just told him about how he will die, and he asks “What about John?” Jesus doesn’t answer with, “Oh, he’ll be fine. How kind of you to ask about him!” Jesus replies with a gentle but direct rebuke. “What’s it to you?” he said. “Follow me.”
Obey. Don’t worry about the rest.
If I’m being honest, I hear the word obedience and I have some kind of internal, visceral reaction. I think of old-timey, overweight, red-faced men spitting words from a southern pulpit, telling the women to obey their husbands and get in line. I think of every moment in my life when I’ve been told to “obey” and not question authority and to just fall in line, only to later feel that I was swindled and tricked. I think of every woman who I know who’s been abused, mistreated, used, and walked over all in the name of “obedience.” I think of myself years ago, taking my first baby steps in the world of reformed theology and how obedience seemed to be invisible, unnecessary, and loaded down with legalism.
I think we tend to say “Convince me to agree with you and then I’ll do the thing you ask of me.” But if someone says “Obey me,” we’re ready to fight and throw down.
So mind you, when I’m sitting down to write a teaching for women at my church, the last word I expected to scroll through my heart was obedience. And yet, isn’t that the action that stems out of a heart that believes? Eventually, if we actually believe what we believe, obedience will be the tell-tale sign that follows us. Obedience and submission to Christ is not “I agree with you therefore I obey.” Obedience isn’t “I’ve been convinced and I’ll do it because you’ve convinced me.” Obedience is that leap from understanding to action, the action of telling our hearts “Move this way” instead of waiting for our hearts to tell us where to go.
In a culture where people are praised for their non-compliance to any kind of moral or societal expectations, the church looks pretty archaic for suggesting that people ought to obey. So we’ve done a poor job at trying to repackage it. Church people have tried to rewrite the story so that it doesn’t sound like obedience is a step. If we can get people from unsure to convinced, then obedience is the easy part.
But you know what does make obedience easier? What makes it joyful and abundant and gives the feeling a little bit like flying and a whole lot like freedom?
Trust that God is good. His word is good. His promises are good. Even if I can’t see it. We can know this because Christ was obedient, 100-percent, in every action, step, word, and deed. His obedience led to a single sentence that changed everything about my obedience. “It is finished,” he proclaimed on a splintered cross and in that secured my freedom in obedience.
Because I will get it wrong. I will not obey when I should and I will leap when I should stay put. I will run into the street into traffic and I will zip my lips when he says speak. And yet, Christ’s enduring sprint in perfect obedience gives me the freedom to obey, imperfectly, with a little bit of trepidation, and a whole lot of “God, you better be on the other side of this” chutzpah.
And when I’m not convinced, when those doubts and fears and questions seem to wrap themselves around my feet, I can trust in that which I don’t understand and still obey. Even when the call to obey isn’t always met with enthusiasm in my heart, I can trust that what He said, what scriptures teach, is good and can be relied on when my heart doesn’t give me the ease I seek.
And maybe it’s implicit in the call to obey that we can trust him. We know that obedience will only and always lead us toward Christ and looking more and more like him. We can trust that saying a faithful “Yes” to what God asks of us will not lead us to destruction, hatred, or phariseeism. If it does, then we’ve said yes to the wrong god. We’ve obeyed a false idol. We’ve worshipped something other than what is true, faithful, and steady.
But we need the steady drum of “grace-driven effort” (as D.A. Carson calls it) beating in our hearts and souls and steps.
“People do not drift toward Holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.” — D.A. Carson
Obedience is not tedium. Obedience is the gate into the fields of joy. Obedience is not slavery. Obedience is protection. The obedient grace-driven striving, the understanding that I will try 100 times to do it right and still mess it up somehow, and yet by the grace of Christ, the Spirit brushes me off and tells me to keep going — that’s a freedom that cannot be measured. Obedience is the child learning how to walk, falling down, and getting back up to try again. The parents do not wag a finger and say what a failure. The parents cheer and applaud like with every bumbling step toward two-footed freedom. That’s a joy that cannot be bottled.