Obedience Baggage

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I am learning that, frequently, when the scripture is reading like it is commanding something (and it may be — I’ll come back to that idea shortly), if you watch that obedience experience play out organically in the way God designed, you see it is closer to being a description of an inevitability. “When you fall in love with the greatest lover, it changes you in these ways . . .” I want to explore our relationship with Love and Law for a few minutes.

First, let’s get back to God issuing commands. We need to look at what it is we are being commanded to do, or better yet, experience. Perhaps at the beginning, when we’re still loitering around the spiritual milk bar, or maybe we haven’t even noticed it yet, we need an impetus to engage our free will to try something different, or when we’re getting discouraged, we need a stronger voice to say, “keep going.” What do we need to “get started” or “keep going” at?

Let’s look at a few quotes that offer clues.

“The law of love being the foundation of the government of God, the happiness of all intelligent beings depends upon their perfect accord with its great principles of righteousness. God desires . . . service [of love] that springs from an appreciation of His character. He takes no pleasure in a forced obedience; and to all He grants freedom of will, that they may render Him voluntary service.” [Ellen White PP 34.3]

This is 1890’s language, and I am rankled by the invisible legalist voice in my head fixating on the words, “perfect” and “obedience.” I am a prideful and stubborn sort who feels quick resistance to being told what to do before I understand what’s going on and subsequently “buy in” to the idea.

I recently saw a video of a man demonstrating communication techniques at a company seminar. He had a volunteer come up front and, with very little dialogue, had the guy beside him, pacing off the width of the “stage” area. When they returned to center, the lecturer then faced the volunteer and, again, with almost no dialogue, pointed his fists at the volunteer, who then placed his own fists against the speaker’s. Within seconds, they were pushing at each other, and leaning into it, as if one was supposed to overpower the other. Demonstration over. The speaker explained the significance of posture in communication. With very few words spoken, people can get a sense when someone is “with” or “against” them.

It’s very easy for Biblical language to sound like it is coming “against” us, and our response is either to resist against it, or to put our chin down and submit to what feels like rightful spiritual domination — No fun, but, hey, we deserve this, right? We’re sinners. To keep our sanity, we’re often able to convince ourselves that this dynamic is good and this is love. Reward and punishment. Good and bad. Yes, this all makes sense. I got check marks by my name at school, too. Let’s look at another quote.

“God is the one being for whom self-exaltation is the most loving act, because he is exalting for us what alone can satisfy us fully and forever….God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.” – John Piper

The language here is more modern, and through the wording, I seem to be sensing more of a side-by-side dynamic from God. I hear God asking that I look at him, love him, listen to him, not because he’s a miffed parent and I just made a big inconvenience of myself again. And it’s not because God is quite enamored with himself. No, it seems to be because my happiness and contentment is a factor that God is interested in. Here is a final quote.

“You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalms 16:11

Wow. I can’t help but notice the contrast between what my innards do to the sound of “obedience” and “perfection” versus how they respond to “life,” “joy,” and “pleasures.” Yet. . . God cannot be at odds with himself. These have to be interconnected somehow. And look at the posture: “In Your presence . . . At Your right hand.” Beside. Emmanuel: God with us. God is for us.

What if God is trying to say, “Get on with being truly, deeply, eternally happy?” What if, when he insists that we love him with all our heart and soul and strength, it means that when we make the effort to know him fully (not to be mistaken for knowing of him, or knowing about him), we’ll discover the greatest lover we’ve ever known, and we will be more satisfied than we could’ve imagined. Consequently, being someone so bursting full of this magnitude of love, we will mingle about with the sort of divine newlywed energy that is so fundamentally affected by our holy experience that we can’t stand for others to not experience it, too.

“Aghhh! That’s too idealistic!” you say. Maybe for us. But this is the vision straight from God’s imagination and he casts it for us to aim at. He has the power to get us there, with our cooperation. He has the eagerness to repeatedly stand us back on our feet and point our eyes back at the vision. Loving him, no, experiencing being loved by him, changes our desires bit by bit. It changes our regard for others, bit by bit.

We know love isn’t just a feeling. It’s a choice. Have you seen the cartoon of an elderly couple sitting at odds with each other on a bench. It’s raining, so the husband holds an umbrella over his wife, even as his face says he’s mad at her? Love insists upon the well-being of others, even if it doesn’t like “them” at the moment.

This is how we understand the whole package of God’s identity, revealed in the law as a shadow of God’s nature, and revealed fully in Jesus and in the mercy of God’s grace saying he chooses us as we are. We were made in his likeness, and he’s going to restore to us what we lost. In fact, he already sees us as we will be, so our ineptitude is no hurdle for him. He has no hesitance toward us. It is we who have hesitance toward him and toward each other.

Another way of looking at Ellen White’s and John Piper’s quotes is that we foolishly choose to minimize our own happiness and maximize our negative consequences by living apart from what God says will make us more whole and happy together. We choose to not experience the best lover, but to have miserable affairs with lesser lovers, when he “commands” we all be happy together here and now. Why do we do that? Perhaps it’s hard to believe what he says is true. Maybe it seems too simple. Possibly, we’re afraid to give our whole hearts to it, because it could be the last remaining hope to hold, and as long as that hope is out there, untested, we aren’t ultimately and completely disappointed.

Circling back, when we bristle at words like “obey,” or are not sure what precisely it is we’re intended to do, I believe there is a more “God with us” perspective. It means we are to start looking at God with the interest, curiosity, and delight with which we would approach a first love. We get to search out his qualities that make our infatuation grow into a deep longing. We get to realize that when we “marry” him, we’re “marrying” his family (of other people). We grow to be more than okay with that, because now we see his family through his eyes and we see why he loves them like he does. We recognize that when we commit to developing this relationship (or at any time in which he chooses to speak to us), the Holy Spirit is in our hearts teaching us to recognize when what we are doing, thinking, and saying doesn’t feel good for the relationship with him or someone else, and choosing to listen to that voice, especially when it’s extra hard to.

We make this harder than it is. We all have the sense of, “If you want to be in my life and in good standing with me, don’t come at my friends. Don’t come at my kids.” But the key is, this applies to a new relationship two people are actively receptive to. People who know each other well and admire each other don’t need to be told, “Don’t come at my kids.” The friend loves (or at least treats well) their friend’s kids as an outgrowth of their love for the friend. The law is still there to protect the kids, and it applies rather redundantly and unnecessarily to the friends, but mainly, it’s for strangers.

We mostly navigate earthly relationships with a natural ease. We innately recognize the values and personalities of others, and are drawn to some, neutral to others, and avoidant of some. When we feel invited in, it is only the first few interactions that feel like work to get to know them. Then we come to enjoy the dialogue, adapt to each other’s favorite things and strong dislikes, we navigate conflicts, and we accumulate shared experiences. While there ought to be some healthy boundary-setting, there is little tendency to draw up contracts or consult lists of rules, and we certainly shouldn’t feel intimidated or controlled. Those would be huge red flags and a cue to find the exit. Yet, it has been common for Christians to use language that implies this is how God relates to us. God designed us to be people who have friends, spouses, and children precisely so we could begin to comprehend His depth of love and tenderness for us. Boy, the adversary has done a work.

I would argue that we have a discomfort relating to God as a best friend or doting lover or attentive parent because we perceive that our lives are on the line. We’ve fallen for the sentiment that if we don’t get it right, we’re dead. Never mind that Jesus already took care of the matter of our deadness. Rules make us feel like we have something to do about ourselves. While rules define our guilt, they also trick us into feeling better about our guilt. I messed up this time, but don’t look, because I’m going to fix it. I’ll do better next time. You’ll be proud of me. You’ll see.

Grace leaves us with nothing to do but stand exposed in the open, with our basest desires and impulses in hand, having to realize that’s actually how we are, even if our innocent Jesus dies by it. It’s a dreadful feeling having no currency with which to buy our consciences free of our guilt. But if we can stay in that moment with Jesus, until we can look away from ourselves to see the acceptance in his eyes and feel the healing of his embrace, we can’t help but be deeply and wonderfully affected.

God is the kind of person we can have our healthiest relationship with, because our own hearts are the only variable. He is the constant. If we define sin as those actions which injure a relationship, we will realize that sin is not a thing we want. It doesn’t fit right. Like a bad shot at the hoop, it feels off the moment we’ve released it. It is a thing that arises from the impulsivity of our corrupted nature and which brings us misery. We then turn back to our biblical obedience, realizing we prefer to aim at God’s high vision for us, trusting God to use our connection with him to help restore our impulses to ones that want not merely to resist doing harm, but to actively increase our interpersonal happiness and well-being. The call to obedience is the call to being our truest self, deeply in love with Christ.

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