Obedience to God is Not the Greatest Good

It is so easy to sort through the Christian faith and only find morality isn’t it? We focus on things like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other parts of the Bible and make lists and lists of rules. Some of which are directly connected to the Bible and others that are of a more supplemental nature.

I remember being a young Christian trying to sort through all of the rules. I had run into many rules that some Christians called being obedient to God, that I didn’t understand the foundation of. Where did God forbid dancing, alcohol, gambling, and Harry Potter? While I understood some of the reasons behind such ideas, it was one thing to give a reasoned account of why something could be dangerous and another to say that God absolutely forbids it and would be angry with us for doing it. In this kind of framework obedience to God is the most important thing.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that obedience to God is the greatest hallmark of our faith, and I’m not sure I believe it. This thought process started mainly because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. A lot of people praise Abraham for obeying God, even for such a difficult request. At times though this looks to others like blind obedience that isn’t nearly as appealing. In fact, some people who praise Abraham are also looking for blind obedience to the words they speak, because they claim they are also directly from God.

While I would not want to jettison obedience from the Christian faith, I wonder if the emphasis should be placed somewhere else. Did Abraham obey out of blind submission to God or was there something more going on here? I would say that ultimately Abraham’s ability to obey was more connected to his knowledge of God and a trust, faith, respect, and even love for God. It is this trust, respect, and love for God that is our ultimate calling in my opinion.

Obedience to someone doesn’t mean that we trust them, respect them, or love them. We can obey bosses that we don’t respect, because we want to keep our job. Sometimes we obeyed our parents not out of love or respect, but because we wanted them to leave us alone. For those who now have kids I’m sure that we can see times when our own kids do the same.

It is not hard to obey God out of that same motivation. We can easily come to view God as the one servant in the parable of the talents did in Matthew 25:14-30. God becomes “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,” and causes us to “become afraid” and we do little so we don’t get him angry.

Being obedient can also be used to get our way on things. This reminded me of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God where he talks about obedience as a way to have God owe us. “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior. ”

Again here we have an obedience that isn’t out of a trust, respect, or love for God. In this case it isn’t out of a fear of God, but rather trying to earn good things through our obedience. We obey out of a desire to get a reward and think that more obedience will equal more rewards.

It is this train of thought that leads me to conclude that obedience is not the end we are seeking to achieve as Christians. Obedience will be part of the Christian life, but if it becomes the end it can be done to avoid punishment or get reward. This kind of obedience can be disconnected from trust, respect, or love. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus views love of God as the great and first commandment, not obedience. Again, I do think that the love of God will lead us to concrete ways of expressing that love. This will probably even look a lot like obedience. However, obedience is not the final destination. The destination is love of God. It is being able to love, trust, and respect God. This is greater than both our obedience and our sins.

Book: The Prodigal God

A fairly well known story in the Bible is the story we call the Prodigal Son. It is found in Luke 15:11-32 and tells the story of a wasteful son who rudely asks his father for his share of the inheritance, and goes off to spend in on wine, women and song. This story or parable is the focus of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God:Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Despite the subtitle’s reliance upon using the fairly cliched idea recovering of the heart of Christianity, this book will most likely challenge and change the way you read the parable of the Prodigal Son.

I’ll try not to give too much away, but the premise of the book is that Keller believes the title of the parable would be better titled, the Prodigal God, hence the name of his book. This seems to be for two reasons. The first is that God is recklessly extravagant (which is the meaning of the word prodigal) with his love and possessions. The second reason is that this parable is not just about one son, but both of them.

What follows is a look at how both sons in the parable may be disconnected from the father. Most of my experience with this parable was focusing on how lost and wayward the son who wasted all his money was and how God’s love is so great that he forgave him, but most of the time the older son was either ignored or glossed over. Keller doesn’t necessarily change this view of the younger son, but adds a focus on the older son that I had not really thought about and had never really heard articulated before this.

Without giving more away, I’ll end with saying that I highly recommend this book. It is an easy read with everyday language that any level of Christian and most non-Christians would probably be able to understand. It also is not a long book clocking in at a deceptive 133 pages (it is deceptive because the book is a smaller sized book). I also doubt that this will be the last Timothy Keller book that you’ll see recommended by me.

Liberty, Morality, and Moderation: Part 3 – Somewhere in Between

This part has been a long time coming, mainly due to the fact that I’ve recently become a parent and that’s taken a lot of time to get used to. However, since the only person I know who is a regular reader is my wife… she’s had the same problem. If there are others out there than here is the last part of this three-part look at Liberty, Morality, and Moderation.

The reason I decided to do this three-part post was because it is pretty reflective of who I am. I do not think the extremes of doing whatever I please in Christian liberty or fencing my life away in an effort to be moral to please God or protect myself from the evil world is really what we’re called by God to do. Is there both Christian liberty and a need for morality? Yes, I think there is. However does it necessarily have to result in no rules living or rigid morality? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

I think Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God sums up my feelings about both of these types of living. He says, “There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.” At the end of the day both of these paths can lead us to or dangerously close to being our own savior. Our focus becomes doing what we desire or by following all the rules of the community and protecting ourselves from the world. In these endeavors we can miss that God may be calling us to a greater focus than either of these.

I think it is easier to see the danger of breaking all the rules than it is to see the danger of keeping all the moral laws. However, if we really read the Gospels, the Pharisees thought they were keeping all the moral laws of the Bible and even ones that went above and beyond the Bible. These were the ones who are recorded in conflict with Jesus more than any other group. Can we not see how it could be dangerous for us to get to a place where we act and think like we are the moral ones who are truly pleasing God? Those subtle sins of pride and self-righteous are just as sinful as wild debauchery, if not more so because they’ve subtle.

Do I have an answer to what we should do? Not entirely. I do believe we’re called to something much deeper than a life of self-fulfillment or a life of rules. We are called into a relationship with God. A relationship the requires us to remember who we are and what He has done for us. A relationship that we did not start, and had no desire to start. When we forget that we can forget to show love and grace to those around us and foster the sins of pride and self-righteousness in our own hearts. A relationship with God also requires us to realize that we are not the only person in this relationship. It is not all about us. It is not about being able to do whatever I want. There is morality in the Bible there is no doubt about that. However, the Bible is equally as clear that none of us are or will ever be perfect in this life. Our “perfection” comes only from Jesus Christ who lived that perfect live and paid for our sins so we didn’t have to. God’s mercy is the only way we are ever able to enter into a relationship with God is because he enabled it.

So often we get into battles over what to do with aspects of our culture. Do we watch movies/TV or not? If so, what ratings/shows are acceptable to watch? Is it okay to drink alcohol? Both the sides of morality and liberty love these issues and make a huge deal out of them. At the end of the day though it comes down to why or why aren’t we doing something? Is it for us or is it for others? Are we trying to feel moral and Godly in order to receive what we want from God? Is it because we don’t care and we’re the only one who is important? Or do we do the activities we do to engage people while engaging ourselves and God in the whole process?

At the end of the day our morality and our liberty is like dust in the wind. They are only vanity. We can be looked up to and be moral and care less about God. We can also have evident sin in our lives and be seeking and struggling to follow after God. This was revolutionary when Jesus was teaching it and it still is today. It doesn’t mean that there is no liberty or morality in the Christian faith, but it does mean that they may be less important than we’re led to believe. That our life and faith is often found somewhere in between the two extremes that Christians can take. There is morality in the Bible, but we need to be careful not to add our own rules to that no matter how good the intention. There is also liberty in the Bible, but it is not to come at the expense of those around us. Where one ends and the other begins will be something that I know I’ll wrestle with probably all my life, but I’ll be struggling and seeking what God wants from it all.