My good friend Dallas Willard wrote, “Obedience is the only sound objective of a Christian spirituality.” Whatever one believes about God and the spiritual life, if it doesn’t lead to obedience, then it is useless. Jesus explains this to his followers the night of his arrest.
Jesus and his followers were having dinner together in the upper room. He employed the metaphor from the vineyard, the relationship of the main vine to its branches. He told them that their future relationship would be something like they saw in the vineyard. That they would remain close and intimate through the help of the Holy Spirit. He had already told them that the first characteristic of a disciple was interaction with God through his revealed word and the vehicle of prayer. The second characteristic of a disciple was that the bearing of much fruit. It would be part of their common life.
The third characteristic of a disciple, according to Christ’s command, is obedience. He wants this for everyone. But he linked obedience to its motive.
“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”
People have the propensity to go to extremes. A guy likes ties, so he owns 300. A woman loves dolls, so her house is stuffed with them. I know a man who revels in his minimalist approach to life. He doesn’t want a TV, mobile phone, car, or more than one set of clothes. I’ve encouraged him to acquire more clothes. Extremists can be entertaining, but when it comes to following Christ, extremists can do great damage to themselves and those they influence. There are some who say, you only obey God when you are inspired by his love. Then there are those who think of obedience as mechanical, just do it, you don’t have to feel it. The first group is just as dangerous as the last.
Those who must be inspired, “Just feel it”
Something strange happens to normal thinking people when they go spiritual. A switch is thrown in the brain and a different set of rules takes over that everyone in the regular world knows do not work. It goes something like this: “If I were to act loving to a person I dislike, that would make me a phony, a schizophrenic. For my obedience to God to be authentic, the desire of the heart and the act of the will must be a match. That is how you know the Holy Spirit is working.”
My answer to such nonsense is one word, Gethsemane. Jesus didn’t desire death, you might remember he asked three times to get out of it and only relented under great duress. What overpowered his resistance to obey was love, the love the father had for him and he for his father. He didn’t feel that love; it wasn’t that kind of experience. It was love at its most powerful. It was love as an act to benefit others; it was love as sacrifice, as submission. Jesus was a man for others. Jesus didn’t feel like it, but his commitment to his father caused him to submit. We celebrate this as the greatest act of love in human history. We sing about it, preach it, talk it, write it, paint it, sculpt it. It is the centerpiece of human history. Obedience is based on love, loving as Christ loved, even when we don’t feel like. In that moment the Holy Spirit is fully flowing, and we are expressing our love for out Lord, every step of obedience a chorus of, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
The mechanics, “Don’t feel, just do”
If you didn’t notice in the previous paragraph, Jesus was emotional in Gethsemane. He didn’t feel like dying, but he did feel. In fact, he was at the breaking point emotionally and physically. There has been a school of spirituality that has advocated not getting too emotional about one’s sin, to deal with it in a detached manner. It goes something like this: “When you sin, don’t wallow in the regret, or the agony of disappointing your God, just confess it and move on.” Some have even gone on to say that the enemy wins when we allow our emotions to enter into the process. The thought behind this is that valuable time is lost in the service of Christ because one might want to linger with God on a deep level.
Jesus seemed emotionally invested in his sacrifice. It would make sense then that we who are intimate with Christ would lament and feel shame and regret when we sin. When a man cheats on his wife and confesses, there is deep emotion and it takes time together to rebuild trust. Whenever there is a breach of trust or mistakes made, our emotions are very strong and sometimes over powering. God is different than any human; therefore, God is not going to throw a lamp across the room at us or lose control of himself. He can be trusted to forgive when true repentance is present. He may discipline us because he cares about our character. But there is a precedent for taking some time with God and to feel our sin and also his forgiveness deeply. Otherwise, why call it a personal relationship? King David’s confession in Psalm 51 expresses this balance.
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.
For I recognize my rebellion; It haunts me day and night
Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Restore to me the joy of my salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
He runs the gamut: honest confession, acknowledgement of his rebellious heart, the shame of sin, his willingness to change and a desire to have joy again. That looks very emotional to me, but at the same time it doesn’t wait for just the right emotion to obey. David’s emotions are damaged and powerfully negative when he prayed this prayer.That night Jesus taught his disciples that they were to follow him, to obey on the same basis that he obeyed his father. It is a tough persistent obedience wrapped in love. It is deeply felt and is reinforced with the rebar of commitment, humility, and inner strength. This is the kind of loving obedience that Jesus commands us to practice and is characteristic of his followers.