The Bible has a great deal to say about obedience but knowing what to do or not to do is not enough. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing to do what is right and yet another thing to get your heart online with what is right. As pastors you are all familiar with the problem of trying to get people to do things they really do not want to do. You may have wrestled with this personally as well. You act nice to people you would like to scream at and may have trouble forgiving someone who is making your life difficult.
There are a few commands that don’t seem to cause much trouble, a few you follow sporadically, a few you have to really force yourselves and others you ignore. There are a few things that are relatively easy to incorporate into your life if you put your mind to it. But some of God’s laws that are a little hard to follow. Look at this list:
Do not be contemptuous
Turn the other cheek
Love your enemy
Bless those who curse you
Pray for those who mistreat you.
Jesus commands address the heart. He wants you to care about people who are awful to you. If you could not keep the old Testament Law there is no way you are going to be able to keep the New Testament principles…which poses a very important question: What does it mean to be obedient if you can’t really do what Jesus says to do?
Rationales: “God knows we can’t do all those things so we should just do the best we can.” But trying hard and failing is not really obedience. Why did God tell us to do these things? If He simply gave us new laws to live by, how is that any different than living under the Old Covenant?
“If we try hard God will give us the strength to do it.” But, if that is actually true, how do you explain burnout?
Maybe we just need to repent every time we fail. Feeling really bad about not being obedient and confessing that to God still does not enable you to do what you can’t do. If you can’t do it, repenting won’t help. You still won’t be able to do it.
You should try hard whether you feel like it or not. For example, if you can’t forgive your family from your heart, you should at least say the words, “I forgive you.” Override your feelings and do it. That is exactly what Jesus called cleaning the outside of the cup! Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees; you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
All those feelings you override are the inside of the cup screaming out, “I am not on board with this—no way am I forgiving that horrible person! In an effort to be obedient, you can actually do the opposite of what Jesus said to do which is to clean the inside of the cup so that the outside would follow. But cleaning the inside of the cup is something you cannot do.
“Try it long enough and your heart will catch up.” “Fake it until you make it.” There is a problem here too. In the first place, you have not actually forgiven anyone; you are practicing an imitation of forgiveness. You might learn to imitate forgiveness really well and do it well enough to fool yourself into thinking you had actually mastered the process, but not learn forgiveness. The popular “fake it till you make it” can actually be a dangerous course of action. Again, if that worked, the Pharisees would have been really good people. So what does it mean when Jesus says, “keep my commandments?” What does it mean to be obedient?
Problem–No matter what you have been told about repentance, you cannot change your heart by an act of the will. Spiritually it is impossible because changing your heart is God job, not yours. Neurologically it is not possible because your brain is not wired that way. Iif there was a way to change the heart by an act of the will the Pharisees probably would have found it.
Understanding Obedience — Let’s look at what it meant under the old covenant and what changed when Jesus came. There is a great verse in Jeremiah that foreshadows this.
“Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Not like the covenant I made with their fathers. This is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel, I will put my law within them and on their heart will I write it. And I shall be their God and they shall be my people.”
This is one of the biggest differences between the Old Covenant law and New Covenant life. The reason for this change is because they were never able to be obedient by trying hard. Under the New Covenant, God is supposed to write these laws on our hearts.
When you approach the Christian life as if obedience to external principles is how to proceed, you are trying to live the way they did under the old covenant. The Holy Spirit is not very interested in helping you do that. His plan is to write His laws on your heart which is a polite way of saying that he is going to change you from the inside out. When God changes your heart, you live differently because of your nature, not because you read a command. Clearly this is not automatic. If it happened automatically, everyone would be perfect. Writing God’s laws on your heart is a process. As those principles are written on your heart and mind you do those things by virtue of who you are, not because of external rules.
Solution: What if when you go to forgive someone, instead of just mouthing the words, if you took some time with God and said, “How do You see that person? How do You stand that person? Why do You care about them? Why do I hold a double standard about forgiveness? I want to be forgiven but I don’t want to forgive! Help me out with this. What is going on?”
If God could do a work on your heart and change that then you could forgive them out of a changed heart. What about people you hate? What if instead of trying to override feelings and trying to act as if you loved them, what if you asked God, “How do you love them? What would loving that person look like? Why won’t my heart go there? Show me what I need to see.”
You need to clean the inside of the cup so the outside can become clean. The problem we have with obedience is because most of us have been taught to try to do what is right without first being changed. That is why obedience to God’s laws in so many areas is so impossible. But when you learn how to participate with God in transformation then He can rewrite the way your heart works. In our efforts to do all these things God has told us we also gloss over some of the most basic commands that have to do with coming to Him for the work we need in our heart.
Look at these: Come to Me, Abide in Me, Believe, Listen, Be filled, Be transformed.
The Hebrew word that is translated “obey” is actually “shama”—Listen, Listen! These are all commands to be teachable. We are to come to Jesus for what we need. This is the obedience of faith that Paul was talking about in Romans l:5:
“Through Him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for His name’s sake.”
Instead of following principles we need to focus more on learning to follow a person. In the words of John 15 obedience does not mean “go crank out some fruit” Obedience means being connected to the vine so fruit happens. We need to learn how to engage with God for a change so that He can write these “aha”s on our hearts.
As pastors we have to be careful how we teach obedience. If we keep telling people that they need to keep cranking out all these things, try hard to do all the things God said, we are running them into the ground, driving them relentlessly. We need to learn how to engage with God for the change we need so He can write His laws on our heart and then teach that kind of obedience to our people.
Most of us have been taught obedience like a row boat…it is a very direct effort and if you try hard you are supposed to get somewhere. You all know how hard that is. Whereas sailing is when you learn how to align your heart with God so that the wind can move the boat and take you places you could never get to through direct effort.
Action Step: This week let’s ask God to see one or two difficult people the way He sees them. And let’s encourage each other by sharing what we see and the effect that has on us.
P.S. David Tackle’s testimony, Author of The Truth About Lies and the Lies about Truth, David tried for about 30 years to get over hating his family. He did everything everybody told him to do—he took all the counselors suggestions about meeting with family and trying to reconcile with them. He wrote letters, made phone calls—he did everything! After 30 years of trying he still hated his family. David doesn’t think God is interested in helping us try hard. If doing your best is not obedience and God doesn’t seem to be interested in helping you try hard…where does that leave you?
He finally sat down with God and said, “I am out of ideas here, I need something from You that I can’t seem to accomplish. All of the advice I am getting is not changing what I learned as a child from my own experience of how mean these people are and I still hate them!”
God gave him a little short video clip in his head. He saw his family out in about 12 ft. of water, struggling to stay afloat. Each person could grab the person next to them and shove them under and stand on their head so they could get a few breaths of air before someone else grabbed them and shoved them under so they could breathe. As he saw this little video clip it hit like a thunderbolt—they were not being mean, they were desperate! And it broke his heart. In that instant he stopped hating his family. God wrote something on his heart that he could never accomplish through his own effort.
This blog was based on a talk by David Tackle for Pastor’s Weekly.