It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey. –Soren Kierkegaard
Religion is hard because obedience is hard. All religious and moral codes prescribe some sort of action, and this action is often different than the natural tendencies of the code’s adherents. Christianity, despite its centeredness on grace, is no exception to this religious mandate for obedience, and Christian obedience does not come easily.
All humanity, prideful in nature, rebels against the thought that each person has duties and obligations to others and to God. Certainly other reasons for not following the Christian God exist, but today I will examine one in particular—the desire not to obey. Even for those who profess belief in a god, and even the Christian one at that, this question of obedience—why obey?—is weighty. Even one well acquainted with Christianity might ask, “If salvation is by grace and through faith, why then should I obey?”1 This article seeks to answer that question. While the Christian tradition has developed many explanations and motivating claims to convince believers to obey, I find many such claims unpersuasive. I shall examine a few claims I find unsuccessful and then present one that I see as having merit.
Before delving into the claims concerning obedience, however, I first want to set the stage by investigating the importance of beliefs that concern obedience. As aforementioned, adherence to a religion means, at the very least, accepting certain claims and beliefs. These religious beliefs are much more significant than any other beliefs one might hold—even basic scientific beliefs like gravity. Morality and religion do not only concern schemes of understanding the physical world, but also speak to the right, best, most fulfilling, most rewarding way to live our very real and tangible lives—and this is of utmost importance.
In this life, the consequences of holding beliefs in Christ and Christianity are both extremely low and extremely high. Low because Christianity says salvation comes by grace through faith in God, not by works as the basis of righteousness.2 But the consequences of belief are also quite costly. The Christian God asks of His follower for not just more good works than bad, not just ten percent of their incomes and being nice to the poor, but He asks His followers to commit their entire lives to him as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). Jesus says that “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Christians are told to give up everything for Christ, who gave up everything for them. All wants, desires, interests and pursuits apart from Christ ought to be counted as garbage (Phil 3:7-9). Everything— family, wealth, honor, status—is not just worthless, but actually can obstruct a follower’s pursuit of Christ (Lk 14:25- 33). Christians are called to be obedient in every part of their lives with everything they have. Considering how high the standard is, there is little wonder that it is so hard to obey.
The Christian life is not just about beliefs about the present, but also revolves around a hope for future glory in being united with Christ in eternal life. Certainly, any sort of afterlife would adjust the consequences of belief in and following Christ. Pascal’s wager (one of the unconvincing motivational tools of belief and obedience Christianity has developed) suggests that simply because the difference in afterlife quality between following God and not following God is so much greater if God exists than the difference between following and not following God if God does not exist; hence, all reasonable people would hedge their bets and choose to believe in and obey God. Perhaps you may find this a convincing argument for belief and obedience. I do not. I thus begin an investigation as to the consequences and motivations of obeying God in this life.3 I will look to a few different claims regarding obedience and expose the difficulties with these claims that an honest Christian thinker must correct.
The first claim I will examine is that God has an inherent right to command obedience. God’s right could stem from His supreme power,4 His omniscience,5 or, more plausibly, His property right over all things given His role as their creator. Before you dismiss a property rights account of God’s authority as out of hand, consider that this is how we think about property rights in other situations. A creator, inventor or producer may use and demand of his creation whatever he wishes, however he wishes. Broadly speaking society extends property rights of ownership from producers over objects and things. There are limits when the object is sentient, of course, but rights exist even for owners over their pets, and even in some sense parents over their children. Christians might very well believe that this “owner’s” or “creator’s” right to command is the basis of our obedience. Paul expresses this sort of sentiment in Romans: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? …Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom 9:20-21) Perhaps on some level the idea that God can command by nature of being Creator is indeed the root of Christian obedience, but I find that answer unsatisfying. The above verse, while true and inspired Word of God, feels too much like “just because” to be where I end my investigation.
Going just slightly further, one may claim that we obey God because obedience is worship. Obeying God relinquishes the role of decision maker to Him and thus demonstrates respect and honor, reflecting the notion that His interests and opinions are more important than our own. But this claim that obedience is a form of worship does not help us in our quest to find reasons to obey. It just moves us to question why we ought worship Him.
The simplest reason God commands (though still not an explanation of why he can command) worship is to bring Him honor and glory. If God commands worship for the face-value product of worship, praise and honor, then naturally one can conclude that God desires His own honor. Scripture confirms this throughout the Bible; God regularly pursues His own name.6 One might look at this trait of God and see Him to be a proud, glory-seeking and hypocritical egomaniac.7 This apparent un-goodness of God is a serious stumbling block not only for obedience, but also for the very belief in God. Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey and young CS Lewis all claim to have walked away from Christ because they saw the Christian God as being self-promoting.8 Any Christian thinker must somehow reconcile God’s self-glorification, and the resulting command to obey, with the goodness of God.9
A second unhelpful explanation of obedience comes from the assumption that God either used or somehow created and then used a sort of standard external to His arbitrary will to set the rules that He commands us to follow.10 If, however, God used some external standard of goodness to create rules to which He commands obedience, then goodness can be known apart from His commands; that is, according to this view, we need only understand this external standard to know what is good.
Moral philosophy has attempted to find a standard of good and bad for thousands of years. From ancient philosophers like Plato,11 to more modern men like Harvard’s own John Rawls,12 man has constantly been trying to be good without God. Many have attempted to find the source of morality apart from God. In fact, Christianity claims that the first act of disobedience was mankind’s seeking after goodness without God.13 The commandment that Adam and Eve transgressed shortly after creation was: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen 2:16-17) Certainly, seeking what is true and right and good is not something God condemns—after all, the Bible says “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you,” (Jas 4:8) implying that such pursuits will be successful in Christ. Instead, God’s command in Genesis 2 suggests that the pursuit of goodness and truth will be fruitless without Him. Thus, from the Christian perspective, any account of why we should obey needs to explain why we cannot be good without God.
Third, assuming that God exists, one must still answer the question of why one would follow Him. A case can be made that even if God exists and gives a purpose for each human, one’s personal best interest14 would be a stronger, more motivating force than any appeal to a hazily defined “purpose” for one’s life or any abstract moral “rightness”.15 Most fundamentally, the argument goes, nothing but one’s own wants and desires can really motivate one to act.16 This is not a claim that sociopaths are the only sane people, but rather, that upon reflection, each person can see that one’s personal desires17 explain actions. For clarity, I do not see this as a controversial claim and see evidence for this view from the definitions of the words: desires are the motivations for actions, therefore personal desires are the motivations for the actions of individuals. If this is so, no matter how good, righteous, holy, and perfect any sort of being or moral law is, humans cannot be motivated to act in accordance unless they see it as commensurate with their own desires.18
Lest one think that this selfishness is so intuitively a moral flaw in human beings, let me articulate a simple defense of selfishness. First, acting in accordance with one’s desires is more a fact than a flaw of human beings. Any moral system that actually gets people to follow it must (not ought, must) not run counter to the personal desires of human beings. Secondly, some sense of selfishness is not necessarily wrong; I have two arguments to support this suggestion. Argument one is intuitive: if any person only has one period of existence, be it about 70 years or be it an eternity, it makes sense for each to pursue that which he or she thinks will most satisfy him or her. Each only has one life to live and each must live “the good life” as best he or she sees fit no matter what. This does not mean one should be simply hedonistic or ever abuse others—being nice is still likely to happen, and quite often too—but the fundamental reason for the selfish to be nice is never alienated from their own desires and their own happiness. Argument two is that the Bible teaches that selfishness is a motivation for following God; I refer you back to the quick sketch that God is jealous for His own name, and I will elaborate below.
In sum thus far, since people simply do not act consciously or willfully against their desires, there is no motivating force of morality, notion of goodness, or compelling claims of “ought” or “should” apart from one’s self interest.19 There may be an ordered structure to the universe, perhaps even a Divinely given purpose for each person, but no motivating force for one to follow it. The Christian thinker who wants to provide an account of obedience that is motivationally compelling must account for the fact that any time someone is moved to act one can point to a desire the person has regarding themselves.20
Fortunately, for the Christian, however, there is an answer to all the aforementioned difficulties. It is a simple yet profound way of thinking: the Christian’s happiness and satisfaction, that is, what I call their personal self-interests, are one and the same with God’s glory through the Christian’s obedience.
In a very basic sense, Christian obedience is in each man’s interest because each will be judged for his or her actions one day. After all, Paul in a quite dramatic passage states of Jesus, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Th 1:8).21 While I do see merit in thinking about obedience as preventing future punishment,22 I believe there are more profound reasons for Christian obedience plainly evident in this life.
God calls us to obey; however, He also provides reasons for the commands He gives us. In Deuteronomy, Moses explains that “the commandments and statutes of the Lord… [are] for your good” (Deut 10:13). All God’s commandments are for the good of His people.23 If this is the case, then ultimately, God’s commandments cannot be contrary to our best interest. How might this be? In one sense, Christians must trust God to be omniscient and loving and wanting the best for us, but Jesus explains further. In John chapter 5, Jesus summarizes the entire Law and the Prophets— all of God’s commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:37-40). Love is often defined incorrectly as simply an emotion; but, just performing actions without emotion equally misses the point. I contend that love is an emotion that motivates action. Jesus is not forgetting God’s constant command for his people to obey Him, and he is surely not summarizing all of the Law and the Prophets by our lofty perception of the emotion we call “love”. Love is a motivation. When one loves, he or she combines, even replaces, his or her own desires and reasons for acting with others’ desires. One’s goal thus shifts from one’s own self-interest, to the interests of others. Love is the vehicle of transformed motivations.
Scripture suggests that the motivation to obey stems from loving and treasuring God. As aforementioned, Jesus says that a summary of all commandments is to love God with all our strength, soul, and mind. John Piper explains, “Our obedience…proves that God is our treasure. This is good news, because it means very simply that the command to obey is the command to be happy in God.”24 Christian obedience to Christ is, on a basic level, a pursuit after a Christian’s own happiness and delight. This delight in God is not simply some wishful thinking by Christians, but is articulated in scripture. As argued in Romans 8, if one believes that God loves His people so much as to send His son to die for them, it only also makes sense to believe that He will withhold from His people no good thing, and will command them nothing but what is best for them. Piper further claims, “The commandments of God are only as hard to obey as the promises of God are hard to believe. The Word of God is only as hard to obey as the beauty of God is hard to cherish.”25 Obedience is not something that restricts freedom and creates sadness. If one believes God’s promises about His love and that His commands are good for His followers, it is clear that obedience brings happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment when Christians truly delight in the Lord.
Obedience to God by loving Him, and by extension loving others, is not an alienation of the Christian’s interests, but rather a truer calculation of his or her desires to glorify God and serving others because God has made it such that He who loves Him will be blessed in all things (Rom 8:28).
Under this simple but profound understanding of God’s commands and the Christian’s obedience to them, all the aforementioned difficulties can be rectified. First, God’s authority to command is not merely by fiat or inherent authority; rather, it comes, at least in part, due to our own good that comes from following His commands. Therefore, if one trusts and believes in the promises of God that His commands are good, there ought be no objection to obedience. Second, God is very relevant to the pursuit of that which is good because He has the power and ability and beauty to satisfy in ways, if you truly believe His word, that nothing else can. Third, this account of the motivating force behind obedience is indeed commensurate with, indeed stems from, each person’s desires for his or her own happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment.
The Christian loves and obeys because he or she knows that loving obedience leads to one’s own happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment. However, this means that Christian motivations are, at least to some degree, out of personal gain. There is something discomforting about that.26 Something about seeking personal gain feels to get in the way of true love. Love is strongest when one is so fully seeking another’s interests that one completely forgets about how happy it makes him feel. 20th Century American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr addresses this:
The paradox of the moral life consists in this: that the highest mutuality is achieved where mutual advantages are not consciously sought as the fruit of love. For love is purest where it desires no returns for itself; and it is most potent where it is purest. Complete mutuality, with its advantages to each party to the relationship, is therefore most perfectly realised where it is not intended, but love is poured out without seeking returns. That is…the madness of religious morality.27
If this is the case, if self-interest directs us away from the purest love and obedience, perhaps this article’s understanding of obedience and love as being self-interested is unhelpful in pursuing the purest obedience. CS Lewis speaks to this concern in a most beautiful essay, The Weight of Glory. Lewis writes, “Just in proportion as the desire [for God and others] grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”28
Over time, as Christians, we see that God gives grace and that His people seek to do good works simply out of a love and a delight in God. The moral worth of our deeds is in no way diminished by the fact that we were motivated to act out of delight in God. In fact, God commands nothing less.
Obviously, even with this new understanding, obedience is still difficult. At times, our love of God will be tested by obedience and will lead to suffering. Indeed, the book of James says that we should rejoice in suffering and persecution (Jas 1:2) as it makes the Christian closer to Christ.29 Obedience is hard, but obedience is always worth it.
I have just begun to scratch the surface of obedience. I have glossed over much that is contentious and confusing and have not sought to answer all the questions one may have on this topic. I do not wish to change any perspective of what God does command. Instead, I wish only to present a simple thought: obedience to God is not an alienation of a Christian’s will, but rather a fulfillment of his or her interests and for his or her own good. God commands His people to love Him because He alone satisfies, and He commands His people to love others because that makes those who obey more like Him and because that also satisfies. Obedience is important. While in one sense we all face judgment if we do not obey, even more so do we forage true pleasures and true joy if we do not obey. So, study God’s word and examine His commands. Delight yourself in practicing them, and the Lord will faithfully give you the deepest desire of your heart: joy in Him. I leave you with a prayer that you would experience the words of 19th-century American evangelist DL Moody: “The Lord gives his people perpetual joy when they walk in obedience to him.” Give it a try.
1 For the purposes of this piece, I will assume salvation is by grace through faith, a common Christian perspective, though also that, as CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.” Thus obedience is an important result of though not cause of salvation.
2 For a more thorough explanation of grace and other theological concepts, see Grudem, Wayne A., and K. Erik. Thoennes. Systematic Theology. [Grand Rapids, Mich.]: Zondervan, 2008.
3 Paul says that if Christ has not been raised than we are among the most pitiable of men. (1 Cor 15:17) If Christian’s only have a gambler’s hope for resurrection to a glorious afterlife with Christ, than Christianity is a bold worthlessness.
4 Thrasymachus argues a similar view in Plato’s Republic.
5 Comparable to the “impartial spectator” of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.
6 Ex 3:15, 6:3, 9:16, 20:24…Lev 19:12, 20:3, 22:2, 22:32 Num 6:27…etc
7 God calls others to be humble: ie “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chr 7:14)
8 Reinke, Tony. “Why Oprah and Brad Pitt Deserted God (And Why You Shouldn’t).” Desiring God. Desiring God Ministries, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/why-oprah-and-brad-pitt-deserted-god-and-why-you-shouldnt>.
CS Lewis eventually came back to Christianity and became a great theologian.
9 One also must reconcile this self-glorification of God with the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who Christians believe is God who became man, was so humble as to die for the sins of humanity. (see Phil 2) One might be susceptible to thinking there is a incongruity between God the Father and God the Son.
10 This pattern of thinking is common among moral philosophers, but especially well articulated in Natural Law theorists.
11 Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro articulates this question of whether what the gods command is good or gods only command that which is already good.
12 Rawls developed A Theory of Justice that relies on claims of impartiality between each and every person’s interests. Rawls’ claim at achieving Justice or goodness without God was recently articulated by HCHAA, the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics, in a debate at Harvard on September 2, 2012.
13 Other explanations of what Adam and Eve were doing in disobeying this commandment are plausible. If what the serpent says is in fact their motivation than they were trying to be like God in wisdom. At the very least Adam and Eve were attempting to set up their own system of morality separate from God’s.
14 By “personal best interest” I broadly mean an individuals utility along the lines of John Stuart Mill. As a concept it is basically whatever gives an individual a sense of happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.
15 On the debate on Sept. 2, 2012, (see footnote 12) HCFA, Harvard College Faith in Action argued moral “good” comes from people following the purpose God has ordained for us. I find this unconvincing because it begs the question why anyone should follow a role that another, even God, defines for them.
16 Certainly there are reasons that motivations exist (ie whims, predictions of desired ends, etc). Motivations are only the results of these reasons, however, motivations rather than the underlying reasons are what directly compels an agent to action.
17 I am broadly defining personal desires so as to include wishes for one’s own – and, if caring about others, then also others’ – material and psychological well being
18 This is a Humean understanding of values, desires and motivations. See David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.
19 This is within the philosophical school of egoism. I believe Nozick and not a few other libertarians fit within this moral framework. The key thought from this school of thought is that no one else can tell another what to do or not do, one’s self-interest is the only truly motivational force.
20 This interest would rightly include an eternal perspective with God’s rewards and punishments as well as temporal and short-term interests.
21 However, Christians commonly, though not exclusively, consider Jesus as having paid their due punishments for disobedience with His crucifixion.
22 Fearing punishment is part of fearing God. This is considered good (Prov. 9:10) but is incomplete. As the Apostle John writes “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 Jn 4:18) Thus, jumping a little ahead in my argument, any time the Christian fears God, he or she ought feel compelled to transition to loving God.
23 Your is in the plural, but because we have one Spirit in Christ (Rom 8:11), there is reason to believe this is not just a collective self-interest, but also an individual self-interest.
24 John Piper, “The Pleasures of God: The Pleasure of God in Obedience” (sermon, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, March 29, 2987), MP3 file, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/ the-pleasure-of-god-in-obedience (accessed October 27, 2012).
26 I think this discomfort comes from a tension within the Bible. Jesus says that “Greater love has no man than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) and Paul says he wishes he were cut off from Christ that Israel would come to know Christ as Lord (Rom 9:3) both of which imply complete disavowal of one’s own interests. Though, on the same hand, Hebrews states of Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (excerpt of Heb 12:2) suggesting that even in the midst of the most selfless act there are still righteous motivations stemming from one’s own joy.
27 Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society; a Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribner, 1960.
28 Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942.
29 I understand that there is much more to explore when it comes to obedience. I would direct you to John Piper’s Desiring God and Don’t Waste Your Life to see more practical explorations of obedience.
Aaron Gyde ’14 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Cabot House. He is the Features Editor of The Ichthus.
Thumbnail image by Djf from Stock Free Images.Tags: Brad Pitt, Christian, CS Lewis, DL Moody, eternity, faith, grace, Harvard University, Ichthus, John Piper, John Rawls, joy, Kierkegaard, law, love, morality, obedience, Oprah Winfrey, paradox, philosophy, Plato, pride, Reinhold Niebuhr, religion, self-interest, why