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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Hi, Sam. Karen and I are reading Larry Crabb’s current book “When God’s Ways Make No Sense.” Good, good material. Your writing here made me think of it.
Your earlier post addressing your diagnosis included reference to Psalm 139:13. Thought it interesting that the Hebrew word that gets expressed in English as “inmost being” is literally translated “kidneys”. Even when we can’t make sense out of things, we still get reminded that God knows exactly what He’s doing in our lives right down to every detail of our physical experiences here on earth. With you, Bob.
Beliefs of the Heart
Crabb’s book title sums up the entire article!
And yes, it also means that the difficult issues we face also need to be given to him, to him who knows so much more than us. Even our kid-knees (or adult-knees).
Your post arrived in my email hot on the heels of an invitation to watch a video on how to flush toenail fungus. Your email was the more welcome one. I have yet to read a post of yours that didn’t ring true and make me think, “He did it again.” Another home run, Sam, clearly and imaginatively written and smack on the money.
You usually manage to come up with one or two nuggets that seem designed to stick. I love this one: “Tommy’s mom’s philosophy was, ‘I don’t want to crush his spirit.’ She let him crush it himself.” Wow. There’s impact for ya.
This morning, as I drink my coffee, I appreciate the encouragement to follow the way of obedience rather than my limited understanding. I doubt I’ll ever get it perfect, but my goal is to trust my Father and align with his heart. He’s the rock, stable amid a culture that has lost its moorings.
Keep ’em coming, amigo. You’re a gift.
Beliefs of the Heart
Wow, a VIDEO on flushing toenail fungus? That’s stiff competition!
And, yes, I sometimes think we fear disciplining our kids (or ourselves) for fear of hurting their feelings; when we are actually giving them backbone for later times in their lives. (Of course, though, we’ve all heard of parents who bully and badger and beat their kids, and that is an entirely different and evil matter. And we don’t want that either.)
Elizabeth A Hunter
Loved this, as usual. Made me ponder new facets to obedience that I hadn’t considered before…
“When we judge directions solely on our opinions, it means that our real “god” is our own understanding.”
(True obedience is trusting in Lord with all heart, leaning not on 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.”
Such great statements!
You liked the same phrases I liked! Great minds … (or, I suppose, no-so-great minds … but let’s be positive).
I like that God’s commands are often inexplicable; it forces me to go to him.
Excellent stuff, Sam!
Beliefs of the Heart
Hi Sam, I am concerned that you don’t further explain the statement that the reason God did not want men and women to eat of the “Tree of Good and Evil” was because it would set them up to be stuck in doing “good” in order to avoid doing “evil”. For instance, Immediately upon eating the fruit of the tree they were struck with shame, an emotion they had not previously experienced. By eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, they came to the conclusion that public nudity was “evil” and fig tree clothes were “good. “DUH! The enemy had deluded them to believe that they could be more like God if they knew the difference between “good and evil” BUT They were already “like God”. They were created in His image. God’s point, as you say, was they should obey Him, even without a “good reason” But there was a good reason, which might be mentioned. God always gives us free choice and like your friend’s mother, he allows us to make choices which will harm us, or bless us, and that we need to learn from our mistakes. He is always forgiving, always graceful, but he knows that our choices which run against His best plans for us will ultimately harm us. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:5, speaking to the church concerning the man who is sleeping with his mother, “You must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself willl be saved on the day the Lord returns. ” The man eventually realizes the error of his sin and is allowed to come back into fellowship as is told in 2nd Corinthians. ….I love your phrase about your friend’s mother, “she didn’t want to crush his spirit, so she let him crush it himself”. God gives us that same freedom of choice. What an awesome God we serve!
Wow! You packed a lot into your response.
Thanks for taking the time.
Sam, your comment “Agreement-based obedience” reminds me of something my brother teaches: “Trust grounded obedience” – obedience based on trusting Him. Having faith He knows, and wants, the best for us.
That’s good! And “faith” means we can’t see “it” in this moment … but we see Him!