Obedience

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Mark 12:28-34

A paradox is a truth that sounds like a contradiction. Let me tell you about a very important one.

One of the most remarkable verses in the New Testament is Hebrews 5:7-8. It says this about Jesus Christ: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions . . . and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7-8). Even for Jesus – especially for Jesus – learning to obey God and submit to God’s will was the most important thing in his life. Practicing obedience to God was item number one on Jesus’ agenda. “I have come to do your will, O God,” he quoted from the Psalms (Hebrews 10:7). Once when his disciples urged Jesus to have something to eat, he replied that he had his own secret source of food. What was this, they wondered, had someone been feeding Jesus while they were gone? No, said Jesus, you misunderstand me. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Later, he put it even more plainly, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus’ habitual prayer was, “Not my will but yours be done.” For Jesus, the secret of a life well-lived was found in obedience to the will of God.

OUR WILL OR GOD’S WILL?

A very different spirit runs through the modern world. For the majority of people in our society, life is about freedom from constraints and social conventions. We emphasize individuality and personal autonomy. The ultimate life goal in many people’s minds would be to have enough money, time and freedom so that they could do whatever they wanted. Obedience to the word and will of God is an alien concept in our society. It seems quaint and old-fashioned, like something out of the Middle Ages. People today want personal freedom and their “rights.” Obedience to a higher authority is seen as restrictive and burdensome. To order one’s life according to the commandments of God strikes modern men and women as intolerably stifling.

We’re terribly confused today about freedom and obedience. Outside my office window I can see a billboard advertising a particular restaurant. Its slogan says: “No rules. Just right.” Think about that. If there aren’t any rules, how do you know that you’re right? How can there even be such a thing as right, if you don’t have a definition of wrong? That statement, like so much that is being said nowadays, is just nonsense. It’s like saying, “Mathematics. No answers, just right.” The truth is, we cannot begin to know how to live apart from the knowledge of God and his will – his rules!

SELF LOVE OR LOVING GOD?

In the preface to his book Loving God, Charles Colson prints two contrasting quotations which illustrate two very different ideas about obedience and the self. The first is from the actress and New Age writer Shirley MacLaine, who outlined her philosophy of life this way in a newspaper interview:

The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself . . . the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself . . . When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you’ve been and where you’re going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness – when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself . . . The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life.

The second quotation is from the brilliant seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, a fervent Christian:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.

Pascal’s point is the exact opposite of MacLaine’s. The key to being authentically human is not to be found within ourselves. Our ultimate identity and meaning can only be discovered in a relationship with God. Our deepest need is to know him and be known by him, to be loved by and to love the God of the universe. We were made by God, in his own image, and we cannot even understand ourselves, let alone find happiness or fulfilment, outside of a deeply personal relationship of knowing and serving God.

If that is so, then it follows that our true humanity will not be discovered by absorption in ourselves, but in knowing and doing God’s will. The “most pleasurable journey we take” will not be through ourselves; it will be the journey into loving and obedient fellowship with God. Here’s one of life’s paradoxes. You rarely find happiness by pursuing it as your goal. Happiness usually comes as a bye-product of living for something bigger and more important than yourself. Similarly, if you choose to make yourself the ultimate authority, if you decide to make up your own rules and obey only your own feelings, you become less free, not more. You end up addicted to your own weaknesses and appetites, or a prisoner to your own ego. By contrast, God’s service, says the Bible, is perfect freedom.

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT

There is a paradox. Only when we obey God are we set free from slavery to our own sinful nature. We can only be fully human by submitting to the will of God. If Jesus is the best model of what it means to be human, then at the center of our life as human beings is the need to be actively obeying the will of God.

But what does that mean in practice? How do we sort out all the multiple commands and directives of the Bible, to say nothing of other religious traditions and customs? Is there some framework for ordering our lives, assuming that we want to begin practicing obedience to God? Where do we start?

Fortunately, Jesus addressed that very issue. One day when Jesus was engaged in a series of theological debates with his enemies a man approached him with a question.

One of the teachers of the law came and . . . asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

How do you please God? What is the most important thing to do to obey God? It’s simple: love him. That’s all; just love God with all your being.

In this answer Jesus of Nazareth teaches the essence of the law. The law of God is not primarily about rules and rituals and regulations. It’s not a matter merely of commands and prohibitions: do this, don’t do that. God’s law is really about love. All the law’s individual rules (such as the Ten Commandments) are, in essence, guidelines that define love on a practical level. But the key is just to love – God first, and also, as Jesus added immediately, people too.

HOW TO LOVE GOD

Jesus proceeds to explain how we are to love God in his famous summary of the great commandment. We must love with all our heart. The heart in biblical thought is not so much the seat of our desires and emotions, but the center of one’s whole life and personality. To love God with all our heart (or literally, “with a whole heart”) means to have an integrated and exclusive love for God. Jesus is warning about the danger of divided affection. We tend to love so many things, conflicting things even. We love God, but also money and what it can buy. We love God, but we also desire success or happiness or importance, as the world defines those things. Loving God with all our heart means wanting just one thing: God himself.

We are to love God with all our soul. The term “soul” has a wide range of meanings in scripture. It can mean one’s true life, the part of you that survives physical death. Here it may mean something like one’s inner life or will. The problem of having a divided soul is a divided allegiance. Divided allegiance makes us try to commit ourselves to more than one goal in life. For example, we might want to serve God, but we might also want to become famous or powerful. That sort of divided commitment leads to inconsistent obedience. So loving God with our whole soul means willing just one thing, having one purpose – namely, that God’s glory would be enhanced in and through our lives.

And then we are told to love God with all our mind. Here Jesus points to the danger of a divided belief, a dualistic world-view. It’s hard to be a Christian in a culture that trains you constantly to think like a secularist. The secular world-view that dominates our society and especially its educational institutions holds that everything in the world has a purely materialistic explanation and that faith in God is only for the ignorant and unintelligent. It thinks that religion is a private concern which polite people shouldn’t mention in public. It holds that human beings are the ultimate authority. It is convinced that politics and technology are our only real hope for the future. The secular world-view believes that what matters most is to have a happy and comfortable life that is prolonged as far as possible by medical science. By contrast, the challenge of loving God with all our minds involves learning to replace all of this with the Christian world-view, which sees God as in control of all things, which understands all truth as God’s truth, and which seeks to know and do his will in every part of life, public as well as private.

Loving God that way is not easy; it demands all our resources expended over a lifetime of effort – in other words, it means loving him with all our strength. Loving God is not some spontaneous burst of emotion that just happens. To love God with all that we are and all that we have means integrating heart, soul and mind; desire, will and thought. Jesus never said it wasn’t difficult, only that it was supremely important.

AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF”

Jesus was asked that day for just one commandment, the most important one. But he answered by offering two. This suggests that his two great commandments are closely linked, as indeed they are. In fact, they’re really one in essence. Both commands together make up the Great Commandment. We can no more get by with just one of them than an airplane can fly with just one wing. We must love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

That second part of Jesus’ command has two major effects on our thinking. First, it radically expands our understanding of what it means to love God. My love for God isn’t just measured by what I say or do for him. It’s more than the words I speak about God, the prayers I offer him, the hymns and songs I sing. It’s more than the sermons I preach and the testimony I offer. My love for God will also be measured by what I am willing to do for others in his name. “We love because he first loved us,” the Bible says. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:19f).

Second, Jesus’ command about the neighbor alters the way we view ourselves. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of us automatically tend to think of ourselves first. We can’t help it; we are by nature “self-ish.” But Jesus’ commands put other people in the place we naturally reserve for ourselves. His direction is that we begin serving others with the same passion we tend to devote to our own advancement.

Here’s the ultimate paradox. If we forget about ourselves completely and start to live simply by obeying God, we will discover self-fulfillment. We will become whole, healthy, even happy. We will learn what it is to be truly human.