March 15, 2006
Obedience to
Does It Mean?

Sometimes the Answer
Is Surprising
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What comes to mind when you hear the word?

Knuckling under and doing your homework? Sitting quietly in class, when you badly want to punch the guy next to you? Standing rigidly at attention till the ROTC commander yells “at ease”? Dutifully filing a tax report and paying every penny? Boarding an airplane with fear and trembling to keep a professional commitment? Punching the clock faithfully to keep your job? Following your dentist’s order and getting a root canal?

I’ll take this bet. Whatever thoughts or images “obedience” conjures up for you are negative. It means doing what’s necessary, but not fun.

From the earliest age, when we first begin to understand the most rudimentary language, “obey” quickly becomes an unwelcome term. It always means putting our instincts on hold to do someone else’s bidding.

Obey your parents. Obey your sitter. Obey your older sister. Obey your teachers. Obey your scoutmaster. Obey the crossing guard. Obey your coach. Obey your boss.

By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve been heavily programmed to think of obedience as unpleasant. That obeying is required in any situation means our natural inclinations are wrong, and that following the rules is what matters.

Enter now the Christian life and our relationship with Christ. Following Christ, by definition, means obeying him. The importance of obedience is central to much preaching, teaching and discussion that we hear.

Most Christians, like ourselves, bring a cold-shower concept of obedience into their Christian walk. The result is that most teaching and discussion we hear about obedience is heavy on self-denial. To obey Christ means, by default, to deny our desires; often it means doing the precise opposite of what we’re inclined to do.

Scripture has plenty to say about the hard side of obedience. Jesus spoke of the need to “enter by the narrow gate,” and taught that picking up our cross is at least a daily necessity (Lk 9:23). Obeying Christ often does require us to act against our desires.

Yet another level of obedience is stressed in Scripture which is far less appreciated by Christians, and seldom explained meaningfully in talks on the subject. Obedience to Christ--to say it simply--can require us to take action that we desire to take, even to do what we most dearly wish. While it may seem strange to say that such action could require obedience, the truth is we are complex psychological creatures. We may long to take a certain step with our life, yet refrain for various reasons that are less than healthy.

Scripture, for instance, exhorts us frequently to use our gifts and talents. The implication always is that we’ll experience joy and creative satisfaction in doing so. Yet Paul had to tell Timothy on one occasion to “stir up” the gift God had given him (2 Tim 1:6 KJV), and on another not to neglect his gift (1 Tim 4:14). While Timothy undoubtedly took great pleasure in his pastoral role, he was holding back for some reason. Obedience for him involved recapturing the thrill of using his special gift for ministry.

The Bible also stresses the importance of courting pleasure in the marriage relationship--as an act of obedience--and of stirring up affection for one’s spouse.  “Rejoice in the wife of your youth. . . . be infatuated always with her love,” the Proverb declares (Prov 5:18-19 RSV). Paul also instructs married couples to give significant attention to their sexual relationship (1 Cor 7:5). We find the strength to stay faithful in marriage, both writers stress, not through rigid self-denial, but by enjoying physical intimacy with our spouse. That relationship is an antidote to immorality, removing the temptation to seek an affair.

Then, speaking broadly about extending help to those in need, the writer of Hebrews urges, “let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works” (Heb 10:24 RSV). We should make every effort to encourage compassion in each other, he is saying--so that acts of kindness will spring naturally from heartfelt concern for others’ welfare and a desire to be helpful, rather than from grim obligation. Paul notes that this same eagerness should also govern financial giving, stressing that “God loves a cheerful giver” (II Cor 9:7).

Scripture, in short, highlights three areas where stirring up enjoyment is at the heart of obeying Christ most effectively: in using our gifts, in staying loyal in marriage, and in performing acts of mercy. The point is not that we can reach a stage where obedience is always fun and we are to obey only if we feel like it. Still, the highest level of obedience in the biblical view is that which springs not merely from a sense of duty, but is joy-inspired.

Joy and Obedience

One reason this is true is that we are most productive when we’re engaged in activity we deeply enjoy. We focus better on the task at hand, apply ourselves more energetically, and are more alert to others’ needs. Others are drawn to us more readily as well, and we have greater opportunity to help them.

We are also less susceptible to immorality when we’re taking pleasure in the roles Christ wants us to assume. This is most obvious in the way our satisfaction in a good marriage reduces our temptation to seek an illicit relationship. Yet concentrating on work we love brings a similar benefit. When we’re creatively stimulated, or delighting in helping others, our emotional energy is focused constructively, and wandering fancies have less room to develop.

This intriguing relationship of joy and obedience lays two priorities on us. We need on the one hand to do whatever is possible to stoke our enthusiasm for the responsibilities to which Christ calls us. Praying frequently that God will give us pleasure in using our talents, compassion for those in need, and joy in responding to their needs can help us stay exuberant in all the roles where we exercise our gifts or help others. We should also seek the encouragement of supportive people who see our life positively; books, music, and leisure activities help to recharge our batteries as well. It’s equally important, if we’re married, to pray often that God will keep love and romantic chemistry substantial between us.

In addition to doing such things to keep our motivation strong, we need to make choices that allow our life to best reflect the gifts and aspirations that God has put within us. It’s here that obedience becomes most interesting. Picking up our cross at times can involve nothing less than committing ourselves to do what, underneath, we most earnestly want to do. I chose my language carefully, for while our underlying eagerness may be significant, certain psychological factors can work against us--keeping us from appreciating what we most desire, or robbing us of the courage to go forward. Obedience comes in overriding these tendencies. We need to do our best to understand and overcome them, and, if necessary, to move ahead in spite of them.

Some of the most common inhibitions that can keep us stuck in place, even when golden opportunities present themselves, include:

The fear of failure. The possibility we might not succeed disturbs us so greatly that we don’t even try (this is the most common fear that keeps us grounded).

The fear of change. The thought of leaving our familiar comfort zone is too unsettling, even if our prospects for success are good.

The fear of success. We fear that God won’t like it if we achieve a cherished goal, and will punish us if we do.

The “impostor phenomenon.”  We worry that we’re not as gifted or worthy of accomplishment as others think; if we do succeed, some horrible event will expose us to the world as a fake.

The fear of commitment. We dread the thought of being locked in, of losing freedom (the most common fear keeping some from good opportunities for marriage).

Loss aversion. Choosing any option, no matter how welcome, means putting other good ones aside; we focus so strongly on what we’ll lose, that the opportunity before us loses its luster.

Fantasy is more appealing than reality. A good opportunity loses its appeal simply because it’s available.

Too much focus on future possibilities. Speculating that future opportunities, no matter how remote, might be more attractive than present ones, keeps us from choosing.

Futility. We assume that our accomplishment won’t be notable enough to merit the effort (the peril of the servant in Jesus’ parable who hid his one talent).

There are, in short, many reasons we may resist doing what we want to do, and even sabotage our prospects for success. We may experience more than one of these inhibitions, too. And, with so many possibilities, chances are good we’ll feel at least some resistance to seizing the good opportunities life presents us.

There is much we can do to better understand our psychological makeup, and to overcome fears and doubts that hinder our potential. We ought to take every practical step toward healing that we can. However, we always reach the point in the process where it’s necessary to do what unsettles us in order to put our anxieties to rest. If we wait until all misgiving is gone, we’ll wait forever, and important opportunities will pass us by.

It’s here that obedience takes on its most therapeutic role. The fact that Christ requires me to take a certain step in the face of apprehension--especially when it’s something I otherwise want to do--can give me exactly the incentive I need to go ahead. Knowing that “it’s an order” breaks me beyond endless analysis of the “what-ifs,” and simplifies the decision process incredibly.

Such was the case with Vicky. She longed to marry her long-time boyfriend, Immanuel, yet chronic commitment anxiety kept her vacillating. Counseling helped her considerably. Still, some fear persisted, and she couldn’t bring herself to say yes and stick with it. She grew convinced, though, that Christ wanted her to marry Immanuel, as an act of obedience, and that conviction gave her the strength of heart to make a firm commitment.

Finding the Heart for Steps of Faith

Such thinking about obedience isn’t natural for most of us. We should remind ourselves often that obeying Christ may call us to two different types of response. It may mean doing something difficult that is unpleasant, and not on the short list of our most relished activities. It may also mean following our heart’s desire, in spite of all the fears and excuses that stand in our way.

If an opportunity fits our gifts and personality well, and would improve our prospects for helping others, the possibility is good that Christ wants us to accept it. Through prayer, counsel, and careful consideration, we can reach a clearer conviction. When such an option is God’s will for us, obedience then requires us to do what we desire, perhaps even to follow a dream.

We ought to embrace this concept of obedience, and strive to appreciate it as fully as we can. It holds a crucial key to realizing our potential for Christ, and to experiencing the abundant life he promised.

It’s an immensely liberating concept as well, for it can enable us to break the tortuous grip of mood swings and make sound decisions.

Which alone can give obedience a whole new meaning.

Such as, “How do you spell relief?”

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