Posts Tagged ‘obedience vs. compliance’
Obedience vs. Compliance: A Revisitation
I was reading the other day from the Psalms (Psalm 106:1-48 NLT) retracing the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. As I paused to reflect on this great narrative I was struck by the idea of how uncanny the similarity of our own contemporary society is to the lives of these ancient desert nomads. Hear these words as the Psalmist rings out the praises of God, reflecting a “first encounter” and “surface response” to the greatness of God.
“Praise the LORD! Who can ever praise Him enough? There is joy for those who always do what is right…” His people believed His promises. Then they sang His praise. Yet how quickly they forgot what He had done… In the wilderness their desires ran wild, testing God’s patience… So, He gave them what they asked for, but He sent a plague along with it. (Psalm 106:1-3, 12-15 NLT)
I am caught up in how similar this account mirrors our own experiences: We have an encounter with God, We are awed and proclaim His praises, We grow indifferent and even bored, We pursue our own lusts…
I don’t mean to say this is the experience of every Christian, but history as well as contemporary western society indicates that it is the experience of many Christians, at the very least there is usually some iteration of the pattern. I think this doesn’t have to be the norm; in fact, several hundred years following the Exodus of Israel the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth telling them the Exodus was to be viewed as an example and reminder not to fall into the same trap of mumbly, grumbly obedience. His words follow:
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day. Nor should we put Christ to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age (1 Cor. 10:1-11 NLT).
I was talking with a friend recently and something along the lines of this subject matter came up; paraphrasing one of his comments, he said, “Bad and difficult things happen in this life and I don’t know what God’s plan is for them. I have to obey, but I don’t have to like it.” I’m not sure I entirely agree with those sentiments and I’m fairly sure the Bible doesn’t affirm them either. Here is my reasoning.
First, let me qualify my response by saying I agree there are difficult and sometimes grievous seasons of life. There are burdensome missions that each of us is called to engage in for the Kingdom of God. Consider some of the burdens carried by the examples from Scripture; the life of Joseph, Jacob’s son, was not easy, or consider Ezekiel who lost his wife so she might be used as an object lesson for Israel. Jeremiah had no easy road and was instructed to walk it alone for the most part…and there are other examples not the least of which is Jesus who willingly and obediently humbled and emptied himself, setting aside his divine rights to come to earth in the form of a man and in the role of a servant (Philippians 2:5-7). While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gives us an incredible model of obedience in the face of one of the greatest tests in the course of humanity… (Matthew 26:39-42).
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39)
The example and words of Jesus reveal to us what an attitude of obedience looks like opposed to an attitude that results in reluctant obedience or “mumbly, grumbly compliance.” First, Jesus acknowledges his trust and surrender to the primary plan of the Father God with his words, “If it is possible…” Here Jesus concedes this path is not the one he would have chosen and seeks another “if possible…” There is no grumbling. There is no begging. Jesus completes his prayer completely surrendered and obedient to the will of the Father; “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
When we push back at God with insolent attitudes toward Him it reveals the true heart. Again, I do not want to confuse grief, sorrow, pain, and anger toward life situations with “grumbling complaints” against God. The boy David was anointed as the next King of Israel and taken into the House of Saul. He loved the King and obeyed all that he was instructed. Saul’s jealousy and rage resulted in David’s exile to the wilderness where he was hunted with orders to be killed. This was the most brutal and unfair of situations, but God had a plan. David cried out to God; he lamented his loneliness, he vented his anger, he wept bitterly over the injustice of his situation, but in the end he turned his heart and his soul to the face of God and surrendered his will to the LORD God Almighty… putting his full trust in the Sovereign God over all creation.
I think it is okay to cry out to God. I think it is okay to be angry, to lament, and to grieve over some situations. As we pray and share our hearts openly with God, our process should look similar to David as revealed in his prayers in the Psalms. In many or most of these raw and heartfelt prayers even the imprecatory psalms, David surrenders with trusting obedience to the will and plan of God and in several cases he ends his prayer with rousing exclamations of praise (consider Psalm 80:4-18 and 86:1-17 as a couple examples).
The point here and difference between grievous lamentation and “mumbly-grumbly” insolence is all attitude of heart. This isn’t always easy to see on the “outside” of a man (or woman). What looks like perfect obedience can often be bitter compliance; “I’ll do it, but I don’t have to like it” attitude. Sometimes the lamenting complainer has the true heart of obedience…
A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?” They replied, “The first.” (Matthew 21:28-31).
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
I think many of us will think we are “good to go” because we obey the perceived Laws of God: we go to church, we tithe, we volunteer for ministry “stuff,” we do this good thing or that good thing, etc., etc., fill-in-the-blank… But, truthfully our hearts are not in the right place and we inwardly are resentful or bitter about how we feel when we comply with God’s precepts, perceived or otherwise. I think again to the desert travelers as they made their way from Egypt to Canaan who obediently went into the desert and made their way to the Promised Land… kicking, complaining, and second-guessing God every.step.of.the.way.
“For everyone who has first renounced this world and then returns to his former pursuits and his erstwhile desires proclaims that in deed and intention he is the same as they were, and he says, ‘It was well with me in Egypt.’” -John Cassian; Conference 3.7.6-7
The Exodus example shows us the heart of the people who complied and did not trust God. They would say they were obedient… I can hear it now; “We’re here aren’t we? We left Egypt and we’re going to the Promised Land… what else do you want? When do we get something else to eat? We hate this manna stuff. And, we’re tired of water out here in this desert… can’t we have some wine or pomegranate juice? Oh? Now you want us to go into this land with Giants? Have you seen the size of those people? Sure, we trust God, but hey trust only goes so far… those guys in Canaan are huge… and we’re not so sure God has seen them.”
Incessant complaining and complying because we have to—not because we want to is a dangerous place to be. If we don’t recognize this place or attempt to justify our attitudes, we are in terminally dangerous territory. Either we trust God and obey Him… or we complain and comply, because we think we are actually more knowledgeable than He is. One path leads to life and the other leads to dry, barren, death… the same as our ancestors who were strewn across the desert (1 Cor. 10:5).
I will pray the Holy Spirit of God will continually convict me of the days I choose bitter compliance over trusting obedience. I want to be a cheerful, obedient, and trusting son.
“Indeed, obedience must be given with genuine good will, because God loves a cheerful giver. If obedience is given with a bad will and with murmuring not only in words but even in bitterness of heart, then even though the command may be externally fulfilled it will not be accepted by God, for he can see the resistance in the heart of a murmurer. One who behaves in such a way not only fails to receive the reward of grace but actually incurs the punishment deserved by murmurers. Only repentance and reparation can save such a one from this punishment.”
Benedict of Nursia—
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