April 14, 2009

The Art of Obedience

This may seem like an unlikely title, the Art of Obedience. The word "art" evokes ideas about developing skills and creating what is beautiful, appealing and meaningful. As we'll see, all of these things apply to our walk with God and and our obedience to Him.

In the scriptures, God's perspective on what is beautiful is interesting. We tend to see mountains and nature scenes as beautiful, and they are. But even more beautiful than the mountains are the feet on the mountains bringing the good news of the gospel: "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him that brings good tidings, that publishes peace; that brings good tidings of good, that publishes salvation..." (Isaiah 52.7 AKJV) It is implied that obedience to God's will is a beautiful thing. The artwork displayed with this article, "Pierced Hands 1" by Chris Sayburn graphically shows the beauty of Christ's obedience. His love for the Father was revealed by His obedience to Him.

As we have been studying through Deuteronomy, two points have stood out to me. Firstly, I believe we all struggle with obedience to God more than we want to admit, due to our human nature. This was emphasized in Deuteronomy by the fact that the second generation of Israelites that left Egypt complained and murmured, just as much as their parents did, even after they saw their parent’s generation perish in the desert for that very same reason.

Secondly, our success in following God is based not on our own willpower or any formula, but rather develops through our personal relationship with God by His grace as He changes us. Compared to God's work, our role is minimal to insignificant (Phil 1.6). Our main work is to develop our attitude and our faith (Jn 6.29). The word "art" evokes ideas about developing skills but also signifies what is beautiful, appealing and meaningful. All of these things apply to our walk with God and especially apply in the area of obedience. The "Pierced Hands 1" by Chris Sayburn displayed above graphically shows how Christ revealed the reality of His love with His obedience to the Father.

A book I recently read and a film I recently saw also spoke to me about obedience. The book is called “The Blessings of Obedience” by Andrew Murray and the film is called “Dreamer,” a family film based on a true story of a Kentucky family’s struggle to survive and their trials as they a train a race horse after a serious injury. The book pointed out many practical ways in which we can grow in the art of obedience, while the main impression of the film for me was the importance of inspiration in life and in relationships. I’ll bring up more specifics later.

The word obedience and its meaning are dealt with more in Deuteronomy that any other book in the Bible. The book includes a promise, basically, a blessing to those obey God and a curse to those who do not obey (Deut. 11.26-28). The idea is not so much that God punishes people for disobedience but rather that sin in itself will reap destruction in our lives. Our obedience to God is for our own benefit. I believe that we know this deep inside, but the problem is really in finding the will to be obedient to God.

Threefold Work of Obedience in Christ

Murray pointed out three ways in which Christ helps our obedience: “The object of Christ’s obedience was threefold. First, He came to be an example of true obedience. Secondly, he came to be our surety, to fulfill all righteousness for us by His obedience. Finally, He came to be our head, to prepare a new and obedient nature in us.” (pg 25)

Firstly, Jesus showed the high standards of true obedience in comparison to the permeating nature of sin in our human minds and hearts. His first sermon, described in Matthew 5-7, opened up a can of worms, showing our sin nature is worse than expected. Jesus said: "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15.22 NASB). Jesus lived a perfect life and set a perfect standard of obedience. “Be ye therefore perfect…” (Mathewt 5.48 KJV)

Secondly, Jesus became the answer to the very problem He revealed: “For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5.19 KJV). His grace is almost too good to believe. According to the good news of the gospel, we all have the opportunity to receive God’s perfect righteousness by believing Christ died for us and by receiving this gift personally by faith.

Finally, God has promised to be our head and bring about obedience in our lives by grace. "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes." (Ez 36.27) Because living by grace is so contrary to our human nature and the ways of the world, it is something we need to grow in. An art is something which needs to be learned, practiced and ultimately enjoyed if it is to have real potential. The elements of enjoyment and inspiration, I believe, often form a weak link in our Christian lives because we often don’t see these things as “practical” in achieving results. We often focus more on our willpower to overcome sin. But throughout the Bible you see that love is to be our inspiration. It’ should be more about a desire to please than a duty to perform.

Love and Obedience

Deuteronomy connects love and obedience in a few places. For example, Deuteronomy 30.6 states: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart…to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live.” (NKJV) And this love brings about obedience, as shown in verse 8: “And you will again obey the voice of the LORD and do all His commandments which I command you today.” And this leads to a fruitful life as shown in verse 9.

Deuteronomy 30.11 states: “For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off.” And this theme culminates in verse 14: “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” “It’s in your heart,” that’s an encouraging promise. As has been said, “The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.” Paul identifies this Deuteronomy quote with the New Testament life in Romans chapter 10.

The connection between love and obedience runs through the entire Bible. It begins with our desire to seek God. Hosea 11.4 states “I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love...” It gives us a desire to change and repent, as shown in Romans 2.4: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (NASB) And Jesus showed that love is really the bases for our obedience day to day: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14.15)

Getting Personal

Ok, so if love really is the main motivating factor for obedience, how can I keep the kind of love I need to stay obedient? This is one of the most difficult questions, because we are all created differently, with different ways of relating. So when Jude says “keep youselves in the love of God…” (V21) This is filtered through our personal understanding of how we relate to God. My wife and I are still developing our relationship, though we’ve lived together for a number of years. In a similar way, we each need to develop our relationship with God. Sometimes my walk with God feels cold and lifeless and the most important thing is just to be honest with God about the situation.

The rest of verse 21 in Jude says “looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” One of the keys is to realize that our walk with God began with God’s mercy and will continue with God’s mercy. Colossians 2.6 says “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” We each have unique testimonies of how we received Christ. But one thing we have in common is that our salvation was all by His grace and mercy. The fact is, we each know very little in comparison to all that there is to know about God and how to relate to God. Murray pointed out “Being conscious of your ignorance will make you teachable” (pg 85) Psalms 25.9 shows “The meek He will guide in his way.”
Not one of us can claim “I have arrived” because God is still shaping us into the people He wants us to become. In Ephesians, Paul wrote “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2.10) The word “workmanship” is from the Greek “poema” describing how we are like works of art, poetry that is being written day by day. Paul talks about this idea also in his second letter to the Corinthians “Clearly you are an epistle of Christ…written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 NKJV) We are each like poems and letters that God is writing. We are unique expressions of God’s grace and love, both in what we do and who we are becoming.

It’s About God, not me

One of the main points of the Christian life is to realize it’s mainly about His work in us. Our part in the partnership is very small in comparison. This is a promise we can have confidence in: “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1.6 NKJV) Ezekiel 36.26-27 elaborates on this theme: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” (NKVJ) God has promised to give us a living heart, to replace the dead one inherited from Adam. He promised to give us His Holy Spirit to guide us each day. And to top it off, He has promised to make us obedient to Him, pretty amazing!

In different words, the New Testament life is summarized in Jeremiah 31.33-34: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Again, here our obedience is born out of our relationship with God.

Inspiration, Freedom and Unity

The movie “Dreamer” I mentioned earlier was inspiring and had a good impact on me, as I considered it in light of the idea of obedience. When I am filled with a sense of inspiration about life and God, the last thing on my mind would be to sin against God. This thought gave me fresh understanding regarding the importance of art and inspiration in life. Perhaps that is why the book of obedience, Deuteronomy, includes a long and beautiful worship song (Deut. 32.1-32.44). The need for inspiration in God reveals our need to worship God with dynamic freshness. God’s word is a top priority, but verses like Revelation 4.11 show how fresh worship is also a top priority. People who write worship songs can be encouraged that there is a need for inspiring, fresh new songs.

One of the greatest threats to our walk with God is the hazard of falling into a rut. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re in a dynamic relationship with God. Romans 7.3 states how we are “free from the law” and this freedom is given so “that we should serve in “newness of spirit – not oldness of letter” (Romans 7.6) The Spirit is free like the wind (John 3.8) and yet always obedient in unity, in the sense that He is always glorifying to the Father and Son. The more we understand how much we are loved by God, the more we will be free from insecurities and fears (1 John 4.18). God’s love is strong and completely reliable. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8.35-9) And it is everlasting. "Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jeremiah 31.3 NKJV) This is the kind of place God wants us to abide.

In allowing His Spirit to guide us each day, we fulfill God’s will in our lives and also have a deep sense of satisfaction. Jesus said “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me.” (John 4.34) Our greatest sense of joy and satisfaction come in our unity with God and obedience to the Father’s will. God the Father has promised to "Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight." This is why He is the "great shepherd," He leads us by changing us. (Hebrews 13.20-21)

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