“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” (Read the rest of 1 John 5:1-6)
Obedience. However lovely a thing it actually is, I think it’s pretty difficult. Because I am a particularly rabble-rousing person? Because I’m a member of “Generation ___”? Nah. How about because, to start, obedience seems incredibly hard to teach. Think about the creative/redonkulous ways us humans try to teach obedience to pets and working animals: leashes and muzzles, bits, blinders and bridles, whisperers, and whips, electric-shock devices, affection, treats and carrots. Think about the fine line that some of these methods, and some people, walk between being effective and being cruel. Many of us know that so-called “obedience-teaching” can go horribly wrong and sometimes is just an occasion for control, tyranny, domination, sadism, etc.
And when it comes to the best of us, that thin line actually MOVES. Our mood at the time, the quality of our day, or how others have treated us, might all have serious effects on the level of punishment that our dog “Fluffy” receives for messing up on the carpet. It’s easy to to let other frustrations fuel a transition from obedience-training into abuse. On top of all of that, I think it’s hard to teach obedience because us humans don’t always have a crystal clear understanding of our own intentions or expectations. I wonder how many pets or beasts of burden have suffered, or been confused, or appeared “disobedient” because they received such mixed signals or inappropriate expectations from their masters.
Now, y’all, the kicker is that it seems like most of that holds true not just for animals, but also when obedience is being instilled in humans. Agreed? Maybe so. Only, when it comes to obedience in humans, there’s the added dimension of human will, rationality, and reason. Don’t we have a harder time giving in to someone else’s mastery? Don’t we have our own ideas about how things should go? In light of where God has placed us in the created order, and the image of God that we bear, that’s a good reality to me. Many of us have a healthy level of rebelliousness, the feeling that we won’t stand for tyranny, we prefer not to be controlled, and we have an idea that we were made by God to be free.
But, then again, sometimes that good sense of identity overruns itself into our being completely unteachable, or pompous and arrogant, or independent to the point of utter self-centeredness. I think disobedience comes easier to us, especially when life has taught us from a very early age that some authority is not to be trusted, some of our teachers over-step that thin line, and some of our “masters” don’t know what they’re doing, or don’t have healthy expectations, or don’t have clear intentions. There are those few magical individuals who do a great job with us, especially honoring our good mothers today, and we get a taste of what it means to trust and obey. But it’s rare. So I don’t blame us at all for preferring disobedience in general, based on life experience; it’s just that if we apply that to God, and lump God in with all those other negative images, then we’re being utterly unfair and will struggle to ever have a deep, loving relationship with our Creator.
Just think about some of the ways, even since childhood, that we’ve mastered disobedience. Take yourself back and put on your kid-shoes for a minute. Or take a look at young’uns around you in public sometime. Any of these familiar:
1. First, there’s Defiant disobedience. The kind where the little kid stares authority in the face, plants his/her feet and says, “No.” I see this one happens more often when a child is out of mom or dad’s reach. Let’s say little Suzie and the kids are up on the playground equipment while the grownups sit and watch. Well, Suzie gets perturbed and shoves Bobby, so dad calls out, “Suzie, don’t… Suzie, no shoving… Suzie, if you do that again I’ll (insert consequence here).” But Suzie’s eye gets steely, she looks right at dad and shoves Bobby again. Ohhh, snap. There are some kids at this point who realize what they’ve done (and what it will mean when dad gets hold of them), and you see remorse wash over their faces; there are others who look like they have tasted of kid-freedom and it is good. Either way, this is the disobedience that openly defies. Why? Maybe just to try it, to feel it, and test things. Maybe just to evoke a reaction in the parent. Maybe because mom/dad is actually wrong or unjust, knowingly or unknowingly, so the kid is righteously standing up for him/herself.
Then the question is, when has Defiant disobedience, the kind you learned in relationship with other people, appeared in you in relationship with God? When have you openly and blatantly snubbed God’s guidance? Consider it. Maybe you haven’t been openly defiant that often with God, because I think this kind of disobedience is about provoking a response; and many of us learn over time that God is not necessarily one to be easily-provoked by our nonsense. Still, some of us certainly know what it is to get bitter when we think God never shows up for us, or to doubt that God is there at all, and to test those waters by doing wrong after wrong as if to say, “God, you better show up and stop me, or else I’m gonna keep going.” Ever been there?
2. Second, have you ever mastered the art of Devious disobedience? So, like, on long road trips when I was little the family sported one of those station wagons with the waaay-back seat, the kind that faced the rear window. It was no-parent land. So if me, the older brother, wanted to get one of my siblings in trouble back there, it was simply a matter of quietly prodding and agitating them until they exploded in outburst. Then, guess who got in trouble? Right, the loud one, not the devious one. Muah-hah-hahhh. Don’t act like you haven’t done the like. Devious disobedience is just as committed to not doing the right thing as the defiant, but this one doesn’t want to be caught at it, or known by it. This kid wants to preserve the appearance of propriety, or reputation, but still get what he/she wants; or he/she wants to enjoy disobedience without being hindered by consequences.
And this kind is way more familiar/common between people and God. Believe in God’s omniscience/omnipresence all you want, but we still think God can be hood-winked, or that God will somehow fail to see the depth and breadth of our hearts, words, or deeds. We fool ourselves into thinking that if no other person knows the corrupt things we do, then we made it away clean. We get into living double-lives, masked lives. We pour MUCH energy into not being “found out.”
3. Then there’s Distracted disobedience. The kid that is suckered by the “shiny objects.” The dog in the Disney film, “Up,” who keeps seeing his “Squirrel!” I’m not holding anybody’s ADD or ADHD against them (I’m also not a fan of the over-diagnoses), but there’s a kind of disobedience that seems to think we’re somehow innocent if all we did was zone out for a second and run after our own rabbit-holes. In kids a certain level of distractedness is encouraged, and rightly so — children have to be curious and adventurous and be drawn to new things in order to learn or survive. Avoiding monotony/boredom can spawn creativity. But at some point, sometime, running after the new things or distractions or side-tracks of life can be dangerous, unhealthy, and far from our best. Like, humanity would only be better off if no one had ever perfected the production of heroin, or if no one had ever “just tried it.” Agreed? And, for a more innocuous example, us procrastinators know what it is that when we have a task before us, even one that perfectly exciting and wholesome to us, we are incredibly creative at avoiding it. All of a sudden we remember all those other thing we have to do first. Okay.
Before God, this kind of obedience maybe is the cause for so much terrible prioritizing by people of faith? Maybe this is where any kind of spiritual disciplines, or regular practices, or other means of grace, get crumpled up and thrown by the way-side? We all KNOW how to distract ourselves from things before us that are uncertain, or scary, or less-than-comfortable, or otherwise seemingly prodigious. And sometimes, rather than choose God, we choose foolish and harmful and absurd distractions.
4. Last one. Let’s call it “Drop-dead” disobedience. It’s the kind that the prodigal son shows us. With his father still living, he asks for his inheritance as if to say, “drop dead and gimme the loot.” His dad does, and he sets out to create a world of his own, apart from his father’s. It’s open and blatant, but I wouldn’t call this defiant disobedience. Because the son doesn’t even seem engaged enough to be called defiant; he’s not there to stand up to his dad, or really to interact in any way. We don’t get any reasoning or explanation, the boy just wants to be on his own, with his own. So there are the children who run away from home, over and over until they’re old enough to stay gone. The ones who get outta town and never look back, cutting all ties. Now, in human situations, there are usually solid causes behind such behavior. People run away because of abuse, shame, injustice or pain and grief, and just tons of other reasons.
But it is not so in the story of the prodigal, nor is it with God. This is the big one we struggle with in faith, I think; I think that’s why this is one of Jesus’ most potent parables. In different ways, and for different reasons, we all look God in the face and say we’ve had enough. We’re willing to head off in our own direction to carve out our own spot, if God will just give us the seed money and call it done. That part of our Culture, Americans, that demands that every individual has the right to shape God as he/she sees fit (if at all), that part is so prodigal. As if we have the power to escape God, or rival God, or remake God. This is also where Culture and so many of us are mistaken if we think that by remaining on spiritually “neutral” ground we will somehow be found righteous by God when the time comes.
We say, “God can’t expect us to just believe this story without more rational evidence; God gave me reason, so God wouldn’t have me live like a superstitious fool,” or “There are a thousand religious expressions of God so God can’t desire that I pursue a confined idea of God or faith practice” or “It’s all confusing and ridiculous, the ‘God’ stuff, so I’ll be about being a fair and moral person and leave it to God to judge me well.” That would all be well and good if God wasn’t already moving heaven and earth, over the entire course of universal history, so that we CAN know God, and know God pretty specifically. And what if God did it not to make us mindless drones or blindly devout fools, but to invite us to be lovers and friends and family with God, and only if we so choose?! How bonkers must it be for God to have come to earth in Jesus, in order to save us out of disaster of our own making, at great personal cost, only to have someone say, “Ehhhh, you know, I’m down with some of that Jesus-y stuff… but I dunno, who knows….” Wherever you stand, let’s at least all admit that if the gospel is true, and Jesus is the person that orthodox Christianity teaches, then it this must be an amazing affront, insult, and grieving pain to God; it’s like God stands there with outstretched arms and we say, “No thanks… give me what I need and I’ll just be around the corner setting up my own shop.” We tell the living God to not be so alive and involved. It is “Drop-dead” disobedience, even if some of us act like it’s just a conscientious objection. And, frankly, it’s something that is impossible for God to do.
But to bring this all back together, I want to emphasize in closing that disobedience of any kind is all the more tragic and fruitless because obedience is actually, truly just that good. For those of you who like little memory devices, not only is there alliteration in here for you (4 “D”s) but also this: I’m glad that Obedience starts with a big capital letter “O.” Because in it’s true form it is wiiiide OOOpen.
Biblical obedience is the farthest thing on earth from strictly structured, constrained, or rule-by-rule. I know Leviticus is in there, but so is Song of Solomon for pete’s sake. Genesis starts with obedience pretty well defined as enjoying the earth, and enjoying one another; obedience is sex (be fruitful and multiply), naming animals, and walking/talking with God! A little bit later, for Abraham obedience is leaving home and starting brand new (how about that, prodigals) — not alone, but by God’s step-by-step leading. A little later, obedience for Joseph is enduring slavery well, saving those who meant him wrongful harm, then leading the earth’s most civilized nation. I was on a fishing trip this weekend, and thinking about the sea in Scripture, so consider some of the different obedience accounts that relate to water. Once, obedience meant building a boat in the desert; another time obedience meant being eaten by a sea creature and letting it throw you up on shore; another time it meant catching a ridiculous catch of fish; another time obedience was walking on top of the waves. For Paul, at one point obedience meant traveling by ship to foreign lands with the gospel; the next moment it meant dramatically serving as sole survivor of a shipwreck; and then it meant traveling by the same kind of vessel to Rome to share the gospel, to be imprisoned, and then murdered.
Let no one ever tell the tale, the lie, that Biblical obedience is monotonous, merely rule-driven, cookie-cutter, or about being “a good little boy or girl.” Rather, because we believe God is alive, and so long as we stop trying to tell God to drop dead, obedience is a living and moment-by-moment creative force. What it means right now may seem very different in an hour. But all of that also means that obedience must be tied to an ongoing and living relationship with God, particularly through Christ Jesus. Since the cross and the tomb, the only thing left before us all is obedience. From the time one first believes, until death, that whole chunk of life is our obedience time. Who knows how it will shape up if we entrust that time to the Lord Almighty?
I do know that it is impossible for any of us to simultaneously enjoy obedience and disobedience. The world sells us the line that a life of obedience to God is unnecessarily limited, superstitious, archaic, unenlightened, and more. And that’s why it’s claimed that obedient people are “missing out” on the freedom of playing outside the lines or experiencing a wider world. Well, the person who is obedient to nothing but him/herself is equally limited; as long as any of us insists to be our own masters, we cannot live a moment where Jesus is master. And what if it turns out that we are at our most free, and most true, and best, when Jesus is master? When it comes to obedience versus non-obedience, we can’t all be right. 1 John claims which one of those is tied directly to the love of God. 1 John claims it conquers the world. So, then, there’s nothing left this moment, and every moment, but to choose between masters.