A few weeks ago, John a friend of mine, wrote concerning hearing and obeying not being something that is simply encouraged but an imperative. It’s a way of life that Jesus calls us to. I certainly agree with this. We would hope to see these characteristics in any follower of Jesus. John gave us a few biblical examples to clearly demonstrate what this can look like.
The first question that comes to mind is how do we do this? How do we prepare ourselves to listen so we are then moved to act?
The reason I ask this question is because obeying once we hear doesn’t always happen. It often does not feel natural for us to follow or submit especially in our modern society where we value independence.
“Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Do we obey God because it is the right thing to do?
If we look at the book of James, our first thoughts might be to take these words at face value. The Greek here certainly frames these thoughts as an authoritative command. Is obedience simply a decision we make to choose what is good? Let us explore ways this may play out.
Perhaps you have heard of the saying “if you know better you will do better.” Many of us believe this when we think of raising children. A teacher may have told their students many times to not talk when they are talking, but as soon as an idea comes into the child’s mind, they have to tell their friends. In that moment the class rules that this teacher so nicely has laid out don’t come to that child’s mind at all. They look like a disobedient child but in reality, the child simply cannot hold onto the information we have given them in the moment we want them to.
The same is true for adults. We listen to sermons, we go to bible studies and even go to seminary to study God’s word and we do not change. Even if you have seen that you are in jeopardy of being destroyed by sin, disobedience, selfishness, and pride, this will not move us to obey. Even if the consequences are true, consequences never move someone to change, only to feel shame, cover up and hide.
Even Paul struggled with this same problem as he admits in Romans 7:15 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” So, just knowing that we were heading towards destruction and being aware there is a better path does not help.
Do we obey God because we desire the outcome?
Another way this might play out, is that a person might obey so as to get the rewards. We believe that on the other side of our obedience we will see God’s promises for us. This is not at all a restful way to live; we are constantly trying to control the outcome of our relationships with our actions and we are never quiet sure that we have secured the result.
Indeed, people responding this way might look like a good person but we know a perfectionist never finds rest. They never truly find connection with others. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28 “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We do not need to carry the weight of legal ordinances under which we become exhausted. Jesus will give us rest when we simply go to Him.
Neither of these approaches will work, and we risk looking at people as good and evil. We start to judge people’s motives, evaluating them against our expectations, and we compare people to each other. Is there another approach?
The real reason we are moved to obey God.
It struck me when looking at the book of James, there is an implied context that is easy to miss. James is talking to his brothers and sisters, (James 1:2). We can assume that all those he is speaking to already have a relationship with Jesus. These brothers and sisters have simply experienced God as their refuge. That is all that is needed.
We are naturally moved to be good for those we are connected to. When we feel someone is for us, when they accept us, when they are on our side and make things work for us, we are moved to follow them. Here we start to see the third option, that obedience is a fruit of connection.
Today we more often use the term loyalty to describe this characteristic. Imagine you are a football fan and you have a favorite team, you will be loyal to that team. Even if they play badly you will make up reasons as to why they did badly this time and cheer them on for next time. For the opposing teams, any mistake will be criticized, you will berate and belittle them at any opportunity.
We often see this loyalty in romantic relations. We are moved to be loyal to that person we are in relationship with and moved to feel jealous of anyone else who we think might take them away from us.
We might see loyalty in church denominations or in parachurch groups, where we connect more with those we feel understood by, who agree with us, who have the same interests, or who practice the same spiritual disciplines that we do.
The context of a relationship with Jesus then explains obedience. It is our response to feeling we belong to God’s family, that God is on our side, that He is for us. When we feel like we belong, we certainly are moved to act.
I think much of James’s practical guidance, such as “be quick to listen, slow to speak”, or “working for the benefit of others in need” are to be taken in the context of building or maintaining relationships. This frames this guidance not simply as commands we must follow, but instead as part of our ultimate need and purpose – to be in relationship with God and with others.