Recovering Obedience at the Heart of Discipleship

Radical, unquestioning obedience to God is not in vogue in the church today.  We’ve moved beyond that bossy God of the Old Testament, preferring the more gentle, easy-going Jesus who fits conveniently in our own hearts.  We prefer t-shirts that say “Jesus is my homeboy” over ones that say “Jesus is my master.”

Muslims approach God in fear and submission, while we Christians perhaps flaunt the fact that we “can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).  Perhaps, we should do the latter without losing a healthy dose of the former?  Instead of reorienting our lives to serve God’s interests, we prefer a God who makes it his business to serve our needs.  Just listen to the prayer requests at the next Bible Study or church service.  “Lord, heal Sue; give Jim a new job; protect our families.”

I believe there are reasons we skirt around the issue of “faithful obedience” in our culture.  Many of us have tasted the poison of the other extreme — legalism.  We fear doing things out of a sense of obligation or tradition when our hearts are not into it.  Others are reacting to the caricature of God as the drill sergeant in the sky barking commands with an angry tone.  We have left Law and discovered Grace in Jesus.

But I think at the core of this aversion to obedience in the church is a deep-seated enslavement to self, to one’s own desires, to our feelings.  It’s the perennial human weakness.  We want to call the shots, protect our life, and cling to the controls.  We resist all outside forces that would stake a claim on us — including God.

Well, while we need to guard ourselves against legalism, always let Jesus shape our image of God, and live in the grace we have in Christ, we cannot run away from the central truth that our lives are not our own.  When God calls us to himself, he calls us away from our own selves.

We buy Life Application Study Bibles that help us apply the Scripture to our lives, rather than asking God to somehow make our lives relevant to the Story of the Bible.  “How does this passage apply to my life” is one of the most self-centered questions we can possible ask of the Scriptures.  It assumes that the truth and purposes contained in God’s Word somehow revolve around us — with “me” at the center.  This me-centered approach to reading Scripture subverts a core truth the Scriptures are trying to teach us: Die to yourself, and give yourselves to some purpose beyond yourself.  Its almost as if the entire New Testament screams out, “Stop trying to apply this to your life, and instead start applying yourself to the purposes of God.”  I wish there was chapter and verse that simply said, “Get over yourself.” (Though I think many verses just about get there, e.g., Gal 2:20.)

When I read through the Bible and observe the lives of the great heroes of the faith, all characterized by radical obedience to God.  After their encounter with the living God, they all realized that they were no longer calling the shots or directing the future path of their lives.  If they once thought they were in charge, “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”, that life was now over.

Paul puts it bluntly: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).  This same apostle liked to introduce himself as “a slave of Christ.”  His life was not his own.  His life was bought at a great price by Jesus.  He now knew that God was calling the shots.

Paul was not the only one whose life was characterized by radical obedience, or a gracious compulsion.  Consider some others:

  • Noah was commanded to build an ark.  It wasn’t his crazy idea.  God commanded and Noah obeyed. His life was not his own.
  • Abraham was told to leave his native land and go elsewhere to be the father of God’s new people. God commanded and he obeyed.  His life was not his own.
  • Moses encountered God in a burning bush, and was told to go to Pharoah.  Moses didn’t want this commission.  God commanded and he obeyed.  His life was not his own.
  • David the young shepherd boy never dreamed of being king of Israel.  God anointed him and he obeyed. He didn’t seek the desires of his own heart, but rather “was a man after God’s own heart.” His life was not his own.
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah and the rest of the prophets were commissioned by God to speak hard truths at great personal cost.  God said “Go”, and they obeyed. Their lives were not their own.
  • The disciples did not choose to follow Jesus.  Jesus chose them, saying, “Follow me.”  They dropped their nets and and obeyed. Their lives were no longer their own.
  • Paul was killing Christians when Christ met him on the road, blinding him and giving him a new identity and commission.  Jesus called, he listened and obeyed.  His life was no longer his own.  He would forever be a slave of Christ.

When Peter was given his commission to “Take care of my sheep”, Jesus added a sober truth, saying: “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not wan to go.”  While Jesus was referring to the Roman guards who would drag him off to his execution later in life, in another sense Jesus’ words were true from the day he called him to drop his nets and follow.

When were younger (before we knew Christ), we did what we wanted how we wanted.  We chased money, women, success and fame.  We desired big houses, fancy cars, 3 weeks of paid vacation, a summer cabin and every kind of modern comforts included in the American Dream package.

But ever since we met Jesus, he’s been dragging us places we don’t want to go: soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, mission trips to third world countries, across the street to befriend our annoying neighbors, volunteering in a Sunday School class, praying with teens is crisis, confronting family members we need to be reconciled with, and so on.

We have divorced “love” of Christ from “obedience to Christ.” Yet, remarkably, Jesus himself made the latter the evidence of the former. “Anyone who loves me will obey my commandments.” Wow.

When Peter wrote his letter to the new Christians scattered across the empire, he summed up their core identity as those “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 1:2). Yes, we have been redeemed for the purpose of living lives of obedience to Christ our Lord.

All four gospels seem to be shouting as loudly as possible that discipleship demands costly obedience and sacrifice as our loving response to our Savior.  If we’re not be challenged as radically as the original 12 disciples who gave up homes, jobs and even family to follow Jesus in his Kingdom mission, then perhaps we are not truly his disciples.

What has following Jesus cost you personally?  What personal command or commission from God have you needed to obey?

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