On Mystical Obedience

Today, I want to restore the reputation of obedience.

I think we’ve been conditioned by the imperfection and exploitation of obedience by man to view this term in a negative light. The use of authority as a manipulative tool brings many to think of obedience as voluntary slavery, as the cause of much trauma, violence and imperfection in the world, and for good reason. I’m sure a lot of you — at least the psychologists in the room — have heard of the Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience. Basically, there was an experimenter, a teacher (who was the subject) and a fake learner. The subject could not see the “learner,” which was actually just a tape recorder. But the subject didn’t know that; he/she thought it was a real person. The experimenter would command the subject to give increasing voltages of electric shocks to the alleged learner each time the learner got a question wrong. Each time the subject administered a shock a tape recorder would play from the other room with a man’s voice expressing pain from the shocks. Eventually, with the larger shocks, the recording played noises of banging on the door, complaining of heart problems and eventually the recording stopped responding. Still, 65% of the subjects administered the highest level of shock of 450 Volts. The typical lethal level of shock is 100-250 volts. These are normal people giving lethal electric shocks just because an experimenter commands it.

I don’t think I have to go into the more extreme examples such as the Jonestown massacre or the Nazi party to make the case that obedience has, for good reason, a negative association for many people.

So now that I’ve sufficiently bashed obedience, I want to emphasize that obedience is at the crux of Christian faith. 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” Christians are called to love God; after all, that is the greatest commandment. But what exactly is love? It’s such an abstract concept. It’s not just as Hobbes (the tiger, not the philosopher) describes it: that feeling “when your heart falls into your stomach and splashes your innards and short circuits your brain and makes you woozy.” Love is deeper than an emotion. And for us, it’s far too abstract to have a truthful gauge of our love for God and others, apart from the physical, emotional and mental manifestations of this so-called love. And as John describes, if we love God, our obedience to God will follow. Or in other words, we know that we love God when we obey Him, or rather desire to obey Him. This act is like an indicator of our love.

But this begs the question, why does God command what He commands? And why must we obey Him? Let me read you Clive Staple Lewis’ answer to this:

God’s will is determined by His wisdom, which always perceives, and His goodness, which always embraces the intrinsically good. But when we have said that God commands things only because they are good, we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience. The content of our obedience — the thing we are commanded to do — will always be something intrinsically good … But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backwards and returns.

In this quote I see Lewis split the answer to why God commands what he does into two reasons. First, He commands what he does because they are good things to do. It is good to love your neighbor and your enemy, it is good to forgive trespasses and visit orphans and widows, it is good not to murder. But second, Lewis points out that God commands these things for the sake of commanding, that we may have a chance to obey for the sake of obeying. In the very act of obeying, we will not only be doing good things because God commands good things, but we will be performing an intrinsically good act. Why is the mere act of obedience a good act? Well, first, it’s because as Christians, we believe that God created us, and we rejected our Creator, and yet He came down and died for us so that our sins may be forgiven. Obedience to this graceful, merciful Creator and Savior is our way of not just playing the role we should play as His creation, but also our way of loving Him. Second, Lewis also mentions that this will “tread Adam’s dance backwards.” What does that even mean?

Let me answer that with a verse from John. Let’s read John 8:31-36. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus answers what Lewis means by treading Adam’s dance backwards. Adam’s sin and the fall of man have made us all slaves to sin. I, for one, am enslaved by certain sins more than others. Lust, pride and judgment – I am a slave to them all. These three vices control my actions daily, and though I may think I am free to choose whatever I do, I feel I am controlled by my desires.

Jesus proposes an alternative to this. He says that if we abide in His word, if we act according to His word, we will know truth and become free. Now that seems counterintuitive considering our initial examples about obedience and how that stifles our freedom. But Jesus states that by obeying His commandments, we are set free. What does it mean to be free in this context? It means we are free from the control that sin has over our lives. It means I’m free from doing things that are so toxic to others, so harmful to others or myself. It means that we are free to live as God intended man to be.

Lewis says this: “When humans should have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.” Think about that – a world where it would be as natural for humans to obey God as for the earth to rotate round the sun, or for this pen to fall to the floor when I drop it. We will put on the glory that God has in store for us; the glory so beautiful that we cannot even fathom.

I mean, that sounds awesome, right? So why don’t we just get set free? Why don’t we just achieve that glory? All we have to do is … oh wait … become perfect in voluntary obedience and abide in his word. Let’s go back to that first verse we read, 1 John 5:3. John writes, “And His commands are not burdensome.” What the heck John? You’re telling me that God’s commands are not burdensome while I’m struggling to go even half of a day without breaking one? How can you say that his commands are not burdensome when our desires and our wills conflict with his commands?

This can range from straightforward to downright confusing.

Let me give you a more ambiguous example. In “The Magician’s Nephew”, which is one of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the main character Digory is a little boy whose mother is dying. Aslan the lion (who is a figurative Jesus) commands Digory to go fetch one apple from a magic tree. When Digory gets there, he sees a witch who tells him that the apples from that tree have the power to heal anyone and give eternal life, which is true. The witch eats the apple and lives forever. So here, Digory is faced with a desire to save his dying mother’s life by taking an extra apple. Yet Aslan’s command is to take only one. In the end, Aslan ends up healing the boy’s mother by giving him another apple, but that’s just a miserable conflict in desires for a little boy to choose between. How can John say that this is not burdensome? How, when our desires conflict with the desire to obey God, can God expect us to obey him?

I believe that the problem arises from our misperception that our salvation has two parts to it. We think that there’s God’s part: He dies on the cross and forgives our sins for us, and our part: we love him and we obey him. In fact, there is only one part – God’s part. He not only forgives my sins, but when I believe in him and ask him, he also puts into me the miraculous desire to obey His will. We cannot love God apart from God. We cannot obey God apart from God. To try to obey Him on our own with brute-force discipline would be futile. I know this because if any of you know me pretty well, you probably know that brute-force discipline is something I’m quite good at. It’s a perk of being raised in a Korean family. And yet I cannot obey Him through my will only. I have to ask Him to remove my will and supplant it with His will, the will to obey Him.

Let me show you this with an analogy. Here I have a cup; let’s say this is my heart. Here I have water; let’s say this is the good will that I have; the will to obey. After all, humans aren’t completely depraved. We empathize, we love and we are sometimes altruistic even without God. Now let’s say that these rocks are some of my sinful desires. I put them into my heart and now my desires are corrupt. They conflict with wanting to obey God’s will. But I can easily stick my finger in there or get a strainer and pick those out. But here is some salt. Now if I pour these desires in there, they will dissolve in the water, and I can’t manually separate them. This is the state I’m in every day, and that I’m pretty sure most of us are in every day. So how do we get our heart’s desires pure again?

Actually the correct answer is to vacuum filtrate the solution to remove the rocks and debris and then subsequently perform a simple distillation to separate the salt and water. But for the metaphor’s sake, let’s say we can’t do that. What we really need to do is to dump the whole thing out and ask to have it filled with water again. To love God, we must obey Him. And we cannot do this by our own meager efforts. We need a heart of obedience. We must empty all of our desires, even our good ones, so that our cup is empty to become filled again with the new desire, the desire to obey Him.

Why does this seem so difficult? It means the rejecting of our own desires, admitting that they are flawed and wrong, and asking Him to make us new, to give us His perfect desires. It’s painful because it means admitting that our dark desires are the reason for so much of the pain, evil and suffering in the world. It means confessing this in the most self-effacing and vulnerable manner about our personal desires, not just attributing evil to some vague concept of “mankind.”

By continual prayer for less of our desires and more of His in our hearts, we can truly get closer to that elusive but beautiful goal of perfect voluntary obedience to Christ. The obedience that not only sets us free from being slaves to sin, but also brings us to share His eternal glory.

Let me close with a short quote from our friend CS Lewis, or as his friends called him, Jack. One of the characters in Jack’s novel, “That Hideous Strength”, has mice that he has trained so that after a meal when he rings a bell, the mice come out and eat the crumbs on the floor to clean up after him. He says this:

“Humans want crumbs removed; mice are anxious to remove them. It ought never to have been a cause of war. But you see that obedience and rule are more like a dance than a drill.”

I desire nothing less than this for us – that we overcome our negative views of obedience imparted on us by our imperfect earthly experience, that we instead ask God to put into us the delight to do His will, and that we ask this continuously, every day, every hour, every time we are tempted to break his commands (a simple prayer: “God let me desire to do your will”). So often in fact, it would be as hard for us to disobey Him in that ideal future as it is hard for us to obey him now. God, imagine a world like that. It would be heavenly.


This is a modified transcript of a speech given at a Branch Christian Fellowship gathering during the Fall of 2011.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,