When Obedience Doesn’t Make Sense

When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.

Cigarette butts

Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.

Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)

Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.

[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]

Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.

God’s Commandments Seem Odd

God’s first commandment in Scripture was, “Don’t eat from that tree.” God doesn’t explain it. He doesn’t say, “Fruit from that tree is high in cholesterol and you don’t want clogged arteries.”

It’s odd. I would think his first command would be to avoid something obviously bad: “Don’t kill,” or, “Don’t hurt each other.”

God’s first command is to forbid something that appears good. Many subsequent commands make more sense: don’t kill, lie, or steal. But his very first commandment prohibits something attractive and appealing. With no further enlightenment.

We want understanding: “Just give me an explanation!” But agreement is not obedience. Reliance on agreement means that our real master is our own understanding (and sometimes God happens to get it right). Real obedience arises from believing God knows more than we do.

Only when obedience doesn’t make sense do we begin to learn to obey. Why was God’s first command so mysterious? Because the heart of obedience is allowing God to be Lord.

Godly obedience means trusting the inexplicable commands of God no matter how strongly our hearts speak contrary, or our cultures disagree, or our feelings rebel, or our desires overwhelm.

We Need the Hard to Receive the Soft

Scripture overflows with puzzling directives that don’t make sense. They include decrees about sexuality, money, work and rest, gender, parenting, marriage, and even good deeds. Some seem sensible (because of our personality or culture) while others seem ridiculous.

Obedience means making God our Lord. The essence of worship is not the songs that begin our church service. Worship begins when we declare, “Your ways not mine.”

And it’s a two-way street. When God becomes our Lord—and only when he becomes our Lord—we can receive his equally inexplicable assurances. Agreement-based obedience trains us to trust our own feelings or understandings.  But what hope will our emotions and reason be when our hearts tell us that even God couldn’t love us?

When our hearts are dismayed (or our spirits are crushed), we need a trustworthy Lord to set things right:

“If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”

Sam

I need your help; because You are my marketing department.
  The primary reason people read these articles is because friends like you share them with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Would you please share it by pressing one of the share buttons above?
I can't thank you enough.

I reserve the right to remove offensive, off-topic, or lengthy comments (see the Comment Policy page).

34 thoughts on “When Obedience Doesn’t Make Sense

  1. wow, how good was that…first time ever, I am speechless. I always have a comment to your articles, but not this time. Let me just think a bit…..

    • Speechless is good. I’ve been thinking about this for about six months. And been silent for the same reasons.

      I’ve been SHOCKED by the thought that the very first command (and the very first temptation) was for something that just seemed good. And that led me to think: how much do I obey God vs. just approve of his ideas. And if I just “approved” … then I am lord in this relationship. YIKES!!!!

      Obedience is highly valued in Scripture. When done rightly (just because he’s Lord) it is an act of worship (“Your ways not mine”). Think of this incredible passage: “Although Jesus was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”

      In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve DIDN’T obey because the fruit looked too good; in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus DID obey (“not my will but yours”) … even thought the cross looked horrific.

      • Wow, great article, Sam. And this follow up comment: “In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve DIDN’T obey because the fruit looked too good; in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus DID obey (“not my will but yours”) … even thought the cross looked horrific.” What a great contrast to ponder.

  2. I, too, am speechless. I can see that I let myself off the hook by mistaking my need for understanding for God’s grace. This allows me to choose whether I will obey or not in some cases. This still leaves me in charge and not God. My heart is pierced and I need to evaluate some things.

  3. God and I have obedience issues about four times a week, and have had for about forty years. (I’m THAT stubborn.) How I appreciate a simple explanation of these life-long issues. I am particularly struck, this morning, that worship begins with the surrender of will in obedience: That just resonates. (As for the application of the concept to parenting, well! I can’t count how many times my husband and I each said some variation on “because I said so / I’m in charge / you’re just going to have to trust me on this.” Comparing our grown kids with those of our peers, we can see that it worked better than bribes.) I know, have proved over and over in my own life, that I am happier in the center of God’s will than in the comfort of my own, that rebellion against Him results in self-inflicted bruises and scars, and yet I still struggle with thinking I know better than God. But to think of WORSHIP beginning with “Your will, not mine” is really going to rock my world. You see, I’m the ministry-area-leader of worship at my church, and I believe this truth will help us a great deal in our current struggle. So thank you, sir.

    • Hi Jen,

      Yeah, before I wrote this, I was just thinking of “obedience” vs. “agreement” which is NOT obedience (not that it’s wrong to agree with God … it’s just not obedience).

      But that got me on the track of realizing that obedience comes from making him my Lord.

      And that got me on the track of: we can sing all the “worship” songs we want, but if we don’t make God our “Lord” then we really aren’t worshiping. And, of course, that point is scary!

      We can be sitting quietly in our chair and be worshiping simply by obeying the Father.

      (Of course, an alternative to “obedience” is complying with God in order to earn his favor. But that’s not obedience either. We’re not doing something because he’s Lord, we’re doing it to manipulate him rather than just accepting his love. And … accepting his love rather than earning it is also making him Lord!)

      Sam

  4. “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” .. so God had explained to Adam why he didn’t want him to eat from the tree He said Adam would die..

    • …then enters the tempter. God also allowed this! God also allowed Satan to talk to Eve and lie to her, perhaps the first lie she had ever heard. Adam alone may have resisted, but him seeing that she had partaken, revealed his vulnerability, which was a wily calculation of the enemy. It is as though the Lord had set-him-up to fail. Adam learned a great lesson through his failure, as did we–death comes by sin.

    • Hi Marie,

      Yes, God predicted consequence would happen, but he didn’t “explain” the fruit in a way that we would “agree” (like it is bitter, or non-organic, or there is death-juice in it).

      And it is God’s reliability (his Lordship) that Satan attacks in the next chapter. Satan says, “You shall not surely die.” Satan directly chooses to undermine our belief that God knows better (i.e. he is Lord).

      Scripture then says: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit …” (Gen. 3:6). Humans trusted their own interpretation (she saw it was “good for food, etc.”) instead of God’s interpretation.

      She didn’t “agree” with God and so she didn’t obey.

      Sam

  5. Wow. Good one Sam. I’m currently on my two week Annual Training for the Marine Corps Reserves so the concept of obedience hits home even more.

    It’s funny when I first joined if a Sergeant told us to do something we just did it (mostly out of fear). This new generation of Marines likes to “know the why” behind every order. As Neitchze said, “If you know the why, you can live any how.”

    So now that I’m a senior leader I try to explain the why every time. What I’ve learned is that when I explain the why it builds trust. Then when I don’t have time to explain the why, the Marines carry out the order rapidly without question because they’ve learned to trust my leadership.

    That’s what is so fun (and challenging at times) about serving, loving, and obeying God. We have to learn to obey without the why. If we are honest with ourselves He has built our trust through experience and scripture, but so often we want a why every single time. I’m so glad He is faithful and patient with us.

    This reminds me to think back and write down the times He has been faithful so that I can look to those times when I don’t see a why in the present. This also reminds me to bring those times to mind during worship so I can soak in His faithfulness.

    “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on our own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; He’s the one who will keep you on track. Don’t assume that you know it all.” Prov. 3:5-7 MSG

    “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
    Proverbs 25:2 ESV

    Keep sharing Sam. Your voice is needed in this world.

    Much Respect,
    Bill

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for serving!!

      I like how you DO give “why’s” on occasion so that there is trust built for the times you can’t explain. Just as I like your approach to remember when God has been faithful so that it’s easier during the times that make no sense.

      Thanks for serving and thanks for your great common sense. I agree!

      Sam

    • I very much appreciate your comments, Bill. These words especially resonated with me: “This reminds me to think back and write down the times He has been
      faithful so that I can look to those times when I don’t see a why in the
      present. This also reminds me to bring those times to mind during
      worship so I can soak in His faithfulness.”

  6. Yes, the placating parent. I’ve seen it time and again, and grieved each time. Not to disagree in the slightest, but I can see a juxtiposing view where the child or person is “forced” into obedience by a controlling parent, boss or minister without an explanation as to what God is attempting to teach us through said discipline. I’m just trying to see the balance. The child definately needs to see/understand God’s motivation behind His commands; the love, as well as the danger; that sin comes with it’s own punishment–“surely you shall die.” There is both amazing grace and punitive sin; both kindness and severity; rewards and liability. Out of it all, the Lord wants us to understand His heart…as well as our own. If we truly know His love, we will certainly know to fear Him…but even with Adam & Eve, it would seem that ‘experience is the best teacher,’ so God had to exact punishment.

    • Hi RJ,

      Yeah, there are two extremes (with infinite variety between them): the extreme of no discipline and the extreme of control.

      God offers us the choice of obedience, although he also warns us of the consequences of not-obeying. But he still allowed us to make that HUGE mistake (plus all the mistakes we make every day).

      In the end, worship (calling him “Lord”) is something we choose to do. Especially when we don’t understand. If he really is God (let’s grant him that), then there is the tiniest chance that he knows things we just can’t understand today. So we have to trust him.

      Sam

  7. The first command was ALL about obedience. God not only knew this fruit he forbid them to eat would bring them enlightenment, but he also knew that without the fruit from the tree of life they would not live forever, either. Thus, the threat of death was used as a means to ensure obedience (Adam had surely seen death from animals not able to eat of fruit from the tree of life)…and the way God ensured Man would die is by denying access to the tree of life….

    • Hi Jim,

      And the thing that still boggles the mind is that God denied something that made no sense to us lower mortals. We had to choose to trust him.

      At which we failed miserably!

      Sam

  8. I think the article is flawed because God DOES enlighten Adam and Eva as to why they are not supposed to eat from the tree: “but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17 And that is exactly what happened. Not right away, but eventual death became part of the equation. Or am I misunderstanding somethig?

  9. I think the article is flawed because God DOES enlighten Adam and Eve as to why they are not supposed to eat from the tree: “but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17 And that is exactly what happened. Not right away, but eventual death became part of the equation. Or am I misunderstanding something?

    • Hi Janice,

      Thanks for commenting … even if you disagree 🙂

      Yes, God told them the consequences, but he didn’t make the fruit unattractive or unappealing. He let them choose to “obey” even though “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”

      It comes down to us obeying even when it doesn’t make sense. Which is why it’s called obedience.

      Satan’s attack was a direct attack on the trustworthiness of God: “you shall not surely die.” We can choose to obey when it doesn’t make sense, or we can choose to wait until we understand all things like God.

      Sam

      • Hi, Sam! I understand that God made the fruit attractive and appealing, but He DID lay out the consequences. To me, those consequences make sense! The fact that Satan undermined the trustworthiness of God and that Adam and Eve fell for it does not support the premise that Adam and Eve would have been blindly obedient had they not eaten the fruit. They WERE warned of the consequence and the received the consequence by not obeying. If God had only said, “Don’t eat from that tree,” that would have required blind obedience. I do believe and agree that we need to obey even when it doesn’t make sense, but the Scripture used in this article does not totally support that idea. The flaw is in that the article states that God did not tell them why they needed to stay away. HE DID! I think the story of Abraham obeying God when he was asked to sacrifice his son would have been a better Scripture to illustrate this point the article is trying to make.

        • Also, the story of Abraham is a beautiful illustration of the trustworthiness of God. God knew all along that He was going to provide an alternate sacrifice. And I don’t agree that God was testing Abraham’s faith (the popularly held belief). God already knew that Abraham would obey. After all, He is God and He is omniscient. I believe the whole story was for Abraham’s benefit…and ours as well. It illustrates that when we obey, even when it doesn’t make sense, God can be trusted that everything will work out because He is trustworthy. Can you imagine Abraham’s thought process during the entire ordeal? It was supposed to be through his son, Isaac, that God would bless Abraham with millions of descendants. How was that to be if Isaac was dead? It did not make sense to obey and it does not make sense to kill anyone, especially your own son. But God trusted Abraham. The story is one that atheists use to illustrate the absurdity of Christianity, but that is because they do not understand the intent or the circumstance or our God and that He never intended for Abraham to slay Isaac. The story is a beautiful foreshadowing of God sacrificing His only son. I know I have digressed, but sometimes that happens when one is trying to make a point.

          • Hi Janice,

            I agree that the Abraham/Isaac story is a great example of obeying God even when we don’t understand.

            I DO also think that God WAS testing Abraham, but not the popular sense of testing. God’s testing is meant to train us; so even though God knows the outcome, he still “tests” us in order to train us. See this blog: http://beliefsoftheheart.com/2013/09/09/how-scary-are-the-tests-of-god/

            (Though I agree with you that God wasn’t “testing” Abraham, wondering if Abraham would fail or not.)

            Sam

            • Hi, Sam.

              Thanks for sending that article. We are in agreement regarding “testing.” Testing is never done by God to prove anything about us, including our loyalty and our willingness to obey. It’s about growing us. That’s why I said the test was for Abraham’s benefit. 🙂 And while we experience growth, we also experience God’s faithfulness. My older sister passed away two summers ago. She was diagnosed in 2004 with fourth stage ovarian cancer and was initially only given 3 to 6 months to live. She told her oncologist that He did not know the power of her God and that she would not go home until He said it was time for her to go home. She lived for ten and a half years after her diagnosis, which had been virtually unheard of. About three years into her cancer journey she had this to say: “With all of the ways I have grown as a Christian and with all of the people who have come to faith in the Lord because of what I am going through, I would say it was worth the trip.” She truly benefited from her trial as did a whole lo of other people. I do not believe God caused her cancer, but rather it was a result of living in a fallen world. He did allow it and use it to grow her faith and to ultimately glorify Himself. And God is glorified every time I share her story because her life, her journey, is a testimony to the power of prayer and that God has the last word. Always.

  10. Hey Sam,
    Loved the article as usual. The main point that “worship is obedience” is right on, and the Holy Spirit through you and your illustration has given us an easy way to comprehend it. The comment by Janice about it being flawed is a little disheartening and welled up a response in me, but I think that’s just me wanting to defend my brother. 🙂

    The way I read your article was not pointing out only the consequence or end result of an action as the “why”. The “why” I see you writing about is an explanation of that persons actions, having an effect (or possible effect) on the person not just the end result, which isn’t the same. If just giving the end result or final consequence really worked as the “why” no one would smoke, do drugs or participate in any risky behavior. I also wonder if Adam and Eve really understood “death” in the context (eternal separation) God was talking about. Maybe animals died and they ceased to exist but there were always more of them around. Would that really convey to them the type of “death” God warned about?

    I do agree with Janice that the Abraham example is “another” good example. It even says in Genesis 22:5 KJV 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. He tells his party specifically that we are going to go worship (obediently do what you said we were to do). The NLT uses worship also.

    I believe this article is more important than any of us might realize. We are living in times not much different than what the prophet
    Jeremiah lived in. God’s warning in Jeremiah 12:5 about being wearied or
    overwhelmed in the normal things and what will we do when things get really
    hard or even impossible. I say let’s strive to get the obedience thing down
    now. The bottom line is that we have an authority problem. We spend so much time trying to redeem and control the flesh with sensitivity, morality and religiosity (a.k.a. polishing and perfuming a turd) instead of crucifying it, seeking the truth, finding it and being obedient. We must relinquish the throne of our own hearts to Jesus, resign as CEO’s of our little pathetic kingdoms and yield to the Lord’s authority now. Become “His Kingdom” and “His Righteousness” minded.

    Thank you Sam for seeking the voice of the Lord and sharing what he puts on your heart. Love you brother.

    Russ
    P.S. please fix any grammatical errors. 🙂

    • Hey Russell,

      You want to come to my defense! I love it. But I also love that Janice publicly disagrees with me and tells me I’m wrong. I want this to be a place to discuss, share, add examples … and to disagree. All in friendship.

      I love you line, “polishing and perfuming a turd.” I bust out laughing when I read that.

      It is hard to relinquish the thrones of our lives; in some ways, that is what growing in God is all about. Martin Luther once said something like, “Christianity is daily conversion,” and I think I know what he means. I keep saying, “I give my life to God,” only to find out I hadn’t, not every area.

      Alas!

      Sam

      • I agree about the discussion, it’s iron sharpening iron. When I recommend your blog, I almost always encourage reading the comments also. I get so much out the articles and the discussions afterwards. It’s amazing how the Father speaks to us. We’ll keep striving (like you said “daily”)

        Thanks again brother.

  11. I have a question. I tend to agree with what you’re saying, but isn’t this the type of thinking that some Christians use to make a stand for literal six-day Creation. “I don’t understand this in the face of scientific evidence, but I’m trusting God that this is the way life happened. God hasn’t fully explained it but I’m going with what I know from the Bible” Comments?

    • Hi Kevin,

      Great question. Let me preface my answer with two comments:

      First, I don’t believe in “blind” faith … not exactly. God always reveals a bit of himself before he asks for faith. Adam and Eve walked with him (“walking” is a Hebrew metaphor for a conversational relationship) so they had a chance to know God before trusting him. Even before God gave the ten commandments, he first revealed his power and grace. So faith is believing in the person and then obeying out of that trust in the person.

      Second, I DO believe that faith must include faith for miracles, the belief that God can act outside of the normal way we see the natural world around us. Including: healing, answers to prayer, and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

      So, to answer your question, I hear three broad “Christian” approaches to the six-day creation: (a) God literally created the world in six of our current 24 hour days, (b) the approach that believes God DID create all the world but he meant those days as metaphorical (as in 2 Peter 3:8, “A thousand years is like a day in your site), and (c) the approach that says God set the world spinning but he didn’t shape or form the world and that the Genesis creation stories are total fantasy.

      (There are many versions of each of those three categories; the categories are just my approach in summarizing the various approaches.)

      I believe the first two approaches are consistent with being a Christian: believing that God DID create the world (either in six literal or six metaphorical days), and the key is the belief that God is powerful enough and creative enough that he could have done it either way.

      The third option (called deism) is completely inconsistent with Scripture. It requires a rejection of all that God reveals about himself: his involvement in our lives, his love for us as a parent, his rescue of us “from Egypt” and from “sin,” his instilling of his Spirit in us, and his promised return.

      Does that answer your question?

      Sam

  12. Bullseye! When I fail, go to Him in confession and address Him as LORD, I get smacked with the verse “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not the things that I say?”

    • Hi Tim,

      Excellent verse. Thanks for that. We also have Jesus (over and over again) saying, “I only do what the Father tells me,” and “I must do this in order to fulfill the Scriptures.”

      If obedience was important to Jesus, and if we claim Jesus is important to us, why would we ignore obedience or God’s Word?

      Sam

  13. As always, I love the way this article causes us to question our beliefs and ideas that we take for granted. I have to say, though, I agree with Janice! I know you won’t be offended when I say that as I was reading the article, I was thinking the exact same thing that Janice mentions, that God did lay out the consequences. In fact, the consequences were a covenant and would have been understood as such by Adam and Eve, as well as by the author and recipients of Genesis. We live under the popular myth that Adam and Eve were naive, and since they had never witnessed or experienced death they wouldn’t have understood what it meant. It is true that they never experienced death, or spiritual death which is separation from God, but they were far from naive. They didn’t have sinfulness blocking their understanding or their relationship with God, so I believe that they understood the command and consequences of the command better than any other human being on earth ever could after them. Certainly, there were aspects of the commandment which only God can understand, and that’s where I agree with you 100% in the application of this article – In all commands, there will always be a part of me that is capable of understanding, and a part of me that has to just “take His word for it.” The Israelite’s certainly couldn’t comprehend why having mold in your house was impure, or why eating roadkill was a bad idea, but God said so, so they obeyed. Only thousands of years later would we understand about bacteria and invisible organisms that can kill us. We are fallen, and incapable of understanding the perfect thoughts of an eternel, all-powerful, all-knowing God. Thank the Lord that in His mercy He stoops down, sometimes to explain, always to comfort and to carry us through so that “My thoughts are not your thoughts” and “My grace is sufficient” can go hand-in-hand.

  14. I’m sending this to my peeps. Awesome as usual! Thanks for vulnerably sharing your heart with the world.

Comments are closed.