In our ongoing discussion of Christian spirituality, I would like to go back to the basics and turn to what might seem like an unlikely topic: Obedience.
Obedience seems to be a confusing topic in our modern age. In fact, for many of us, it doesn’t exist.
When I was a young Christian believer, I wanted to understand the obedience that God required. I wanted to know what a life spent for Jesus, surrendered to Jesus, radically lived for Jesus if you will, actually looked like, that I might live that life.
But when I sought guidance, I was often greeted with the same answer: “You are being too hard on yourself! Jesus loves you and has died for your sins.” Or “Jesus has paid it all! We are now free!” I quickly got the impression that now I was a Christian, obedience no longer mattered.
So it is to this very day. The topic of obedience in the modern-day church, at least the churches I attend, is rarely mentioned, as though it is an outmoded way of thinking. We are often encouraged to love God, or to know how much He loves us, or perhaps believe and trust God. But we are rarely encouraged to obey God. Which from my perspective is somewhat strange. By logical deduction, it would appear God is no longer interested in our will; He is only interested in our thoughts and affection.
And when the topic of obedience is raised (as I am now doing), we tend to grow suspicious. We are ready to denounce such talk as legalistic, and in response claim our freedom in Christ.* It is as if we see obedience and legalism hopelessly intertwined, even the same thing. As if to obey is to destroy the very freedom Jesus purchased for us at the Cross.
But if this is so, then it says something about our ideas about freedom. It means that when Jesus went to the Cross, He purchased for us essentially not freedom from the power of sin, nor freedom from the law**, but from God Himself. It means that Jesus died on the Cross to purchase for us the inalienable right to do as we please.
A Strange Kind of Freedom
I am all for a lifestyle that requires no obedience. Obedience after all is somewhat terrifying. I should know: My introduction to what an obedient Christian life looks like was so oppressive it almost killed me.
The problem, however, is that none of us really believes we are that free. We really do not believe that before God, we can do anything we want. For example, I know that a life of drug use, illicit sexual adventure and moral depravity is not what Jesus had in mind when He declared me free. Nor even a less sinful but equally self-centered life devoted exclusively to personal happiness. I just cannot live life however I want; something is expected of me.
“Of course it is,” someone might say at this point. “The Bible says we are called to offer our lives as living sacrifices.” Exactly. So, far from believing that Jesus has purchased for us the right to do as we please, we believe quite the opposite: Namely, that it is our job to surrender our very lives to Him. It is my duty to devote myself to a life of self-sacrifice.
And herein lies the strange state of affairs in the modern Christian soul: On one hand, we are quick to claim our independence from God in the name of “freedom in Christ.” On the other, we are adamant about our need to obey, and not only to obey but to surrender our very lives in obedience to Him.
So which is it? Am I free to do as I please, or am I obligated before God to lay down my very life? Our freedom is a strange kind of freedom, indeed.
The Cost of Freedom
It may seem strange to say, but I would like to suggest our freedom — and our rejection of the whole notion of obedience — is costing us our freedom. Far from liberating us, it has created a sort of cognitive dissonance in our souls in which we believe we owe God nothing in particular but everything in general. Here are just a few of its consequences:
1. It Leaves Us without Purpose
The idea that “Jesus paid it all” and that we are now free to do as we please sounds great on the surface but carries with it an insidious price tag: It also means whatever Christian service we do engage in is, in retrospect, somewhat pointless.
The reason for this is simple: If God is not demanding anything of us, then by definition whatever we do is unimportant to Him. If a father says to us, “It makes little difference to me what you do with your life,” we will be hard-pressed to believe that He will be proud of us no matter what we do.
A life founded on the idea that God ultimately requires nothing of us means our lives are ultimately without purpose. And this what we see in many areas of the church today. The purpose-driven life is appealing to us expressly because we have lost our sense of purpose. But only a life of obedience to God Himself can restore it.
2. It Leaves Us without Direction
The idea that God requires nothing in particular of us does not mesh well with the idea that God both leads and guides us. Nor, by extension, that God has a personal plan for our lives.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine a life where God leads me, but does not demand that I follow. It is equally difficult for me to imagine that God has a plan for my life but does not require that I fulfill it. This is somewhat obvious. But a life in which the concept of obedience no longer exists is such a life. Likewise, a life governed by my God-given right to make decisions as I see fit has no destiny but the destiny I created for myself — which is to say, it has no destiny at all.
3. It Mistakes Activity for True Spirituality
A belief we owe God nothing in particular but everything in general leads to the idea that any activity will do, so long as we are doing it “for Him.” As a result, we are inclined to engage in a life of much activity but little substance, as we have discussed in previous posts.
A visiting pastor to the America is said to have remarked on his experience, “It is amazing what the American church is able to accomplish without God.” But our rejection of the concept of obedience makes us unable to make this distinction. Unless God is able to command us to follow Him — specifically in our daily affairs — then the best we can hope to do is do things for Him, not with Him.
The real damage caused by a spirituality based on activity however is within the Christian soul. When activity becomes our answer to Christian spirituality, peace is supplanted by unrest. We, like Martha, are obligated to be always at work, always trying harder, always doing. It reminds me of the words from the comedy movie Johnny English: “Jesus is Coming Soon: Look Busy.”
4. It Creates Anxiety
The other problem with defining our spirituality by activity is that we can never be sure our level of activity, or the type of activity we have chosen to engage in, is enough. Martha, though doing much more than Mary, did not achieve contentment in her life of achievement.
In the same way, I might be a faithful attendee of Sunday service. But as a fully-committed follower of Jesus, should I not be going to midweek Bible study, also? I might also be giving regularly, but shouldn’t I be giving more? Shouldn’t I be involved in Children’s ministry, or church leadership?
Or maybe I should be selling all my possessions and giving to the poor and becoming a missionary? Or a martyr for the gospel? When our spirituality is defined by activity, no amount of activity is ever enough.
Granted, we may not feel this anxiety on a daily basis, because when we compare ourselves to others, we seem to be doing all right. But the anxiety I am describing usually manifests itself when we turn to the person who matters most: God Himself. It is within the heart of belief about God, and about ourselves before God, that Christian spirituality is cultivated.
5. It Leads to Legalism
One of the unexpected consequences of our ardent declaration of freedom is that we become enslaved by the very legalism we hope to escape.
As mentioned in the footnote, legalism is the belief we are made acceptable — good — by our effort. But legalism is also the simple belief that God requires our effort in order to remain in good graces with Him.
It is common to assert our freedom in Christ to avoid such legalism. The problem, however, is that without another form of obedience before God to take its place, we have no choice but to embrace it. The reason for this is simple: Short of obeying God Himself, obeying some form of law is all we have left.
The form this often takes in the modern Christian life is by taking cues from the local church body. Implicitly or explicitly, the local church presents to us an ideal of what the “committed” or “successful” Christian life should look like, and it often becomes the standard by which we measure whether we are “doing enough.” Whether to invoke God’s blessings or ensure God’s happiness, we strive for that standard.
And we cannot really do otherwise. Having rejected the idea of obeying God directly, no other form of obedience is available to us.
6. It Leaves Us on Our Own
A life that rejects the idea of obedience on the grounds of freedom ultimately cuts us off from life and intimacy with God. This is because, contrary to our ideas about freedom, God did not abolish obedience at the Cross. He transformed it.
Obedience is Our Freedom
In this article, we have sort of taken a machete to the idea that freedom in Christ is freedom to do as we please, or do what we think is best, or any other definition that would suggest the goal of the Cross was to grant us freedom from God. It has been perhaps an unpleasant task — but a necessary one.
For without eliminating our insistence upon our independence from God, we cannot properly enter into the sacred place of true Christian spirituality. The Christian life is founded on an intimate connection with — and obedience to — God Himself.
When Jesus went to the Cross, He never had in mind a life for us lived independently from God. On the contrary, His prayed to the Father that we “may be one,” just as the Father is in Him, and He in the Father.” He had in mind a life where we too could say, “I only do what I see my Father doing.” The Cross has liberated us from a life of lifeless activities done for God to a life lived in God.
But we face a new obstacle in coming into this reality. One of the reasons we have been persuaded obedience does not exist is because we have also been persuaded, practically speaking, that God does not exist. That is, we do not believe God is real enough in our daily affairs that it is actually possible to obey Him. We have chosen a flurry of activity and any form of law over the ever present reality of God in our lives.
In our next post, we shall take time to examine this idea, specifically what the Bible has to say about how close and real God is, and also what it has to say about the nature of obedience in the Christian life. Leave a comment in the meantime!
*For the uninitiated, legalism is the belief that we must earn our acceptance before God based on what we do.
** that is, God’s commandments, which according to Scripture do not have the power to make us better. In other words, we cannot be be good by trying to be good. We can only be good through the Spirit that dwells within us.
photo by Andrew Neel