My family moved to Detroit the summer between my first and second grade. Tommy was the first friend I met. Like me, his dad was a pastor; but unlike me, his mother felt that any kind of punishment was evil.
Tommy’s mother once caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have germs from other people. When that didn’t stop his smoking, she offered him a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.
Tommy’s mother disliked the idea of punishment. I’m pretty sure he never once received a time-out, lost screen time, or went to be early. And she hated even the notion of obedience. Instead of submission, she preferred, Explanation (“Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”) and Enticement (“I’ll pay my ten-year-old not to smoke”).
My mother’s approach was more pointed and painful.
But the reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than her arguments. 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 mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush it himself.
God’s Commandments Seem Odd
God’s first commandment ever was, “Don’t eat from that tree,” and he doesn’t explain why. He doesn’t say, “Fruit from that tree is high in cholesterol and you don’t want clogged arteries.”
It’s an odd restriction. I would have guessed his first command would be to avoid something that was inherently bad or harmful, like “Don’t murder!”
God’s first prohibition is to forbid something good. Lots of his subsequent commands make more sense: “Don’t lie or steal, and do love your neighbor as yourself.” But his very first ban prohibits something attractive and appealing. With no explanation about the nature of why it’s forbidden (though he does say disobedience will be costly).
We demand understanding: “Just tell me why!” But “agreement” cannot be (and never will be) the same thing as “obedience.” When we judge directions solely on our opinions, it means that our real “god” is our own understanding.
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 discipleship is allowing God to be Lord.
Godly obedience means trusting his inexplicable commands no matter how strongly our hearts speak contrary, our cultures disagree, 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, and even good deeds and public prayer. Some seem sensible (because of our personality or culture) while others seem ridiculous.
Obedience means allowing God to be 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. Only when God becomes our Lord (yes, only then) can we receive his equally inexplicable assurances. Agreement-based obedience trains us to trust our own feelings or understandings. But what hope will our feelings and understandings 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 someone beyond our minuscule minds, that is a trustworthy Lord, to set things right:
“If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20)
P. S. Loving obedience is only possible when we know the Loving Father. And the best way to know that Father is to hear His voice. Watch the video below, “What are we saved for?”
Because we are saved for a conversational relationship with God, and only out of that relationship will we know His love.
Hearing God in Conversation makes a great Christmas present, and only in hearing God will our hearts find the hope and peace we need.
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