Obedience sounds so simple. You may hear people say, “Just trust and obey,” “Just follow Jesus,” or “Just obey the Bible.” However, most people who have been into growth for any length of time know that these statements are more accurate when you remove the word just. This is because, although God helps us to obey him, obedience is anything but simple.
The Nature of Obedience
Few Christians would disagree that obedience is central to spiritual growth. Yet, Christians often misunderstand what biblical obedience really is. One of the central meanings of “to obey” in the Bible is “to hear.” Hearing and doing what God says are deeply interrelated. When we hear God as he is, rather than how we want him to be, we move toward true obedience.
For spiritual growth purposes, a basic definition of obedience is to be God-directed, not self-directed. Obedience is to look outside ourselves for our purpose, values and decisions. This basic stance of life admits that God knows better than we do how to guide our steps because he designed us.
For many people, however, obedience means, “to be deprived and withheld from.” They feel like all of life is simply adhering to the rules and being self-disciplined. In their eyes, God basically says, “Be really good, and don’t do anything fun,” offering no real benefit except maybe later in heaven.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Obedience leads to very good things for us today. As we travel down God’s paths of conducting life, we reap many benefits. In fact, both survival and prosperity—major aspects of a good life—depend on obedience. Deuteronomy 6:24 says, “The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today.” The results of obedience and disobedience are very different. Isaiah 1:19-20 states, “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
How is this so? God designed life to be lived a certain way. When we follow his way, life works better. Some people compartmentalize obedience into their religious or moral lives. For them, obedience is relating to God and doing what is right. However, this view misses the full and comprehensive path God has for life. The Bible teaches and guides on all areas of life: gifts, ministry, money, sex, love, and so on. This is why people pursuing growth often feel as if they have “come alive” when they see that God speaks to their emotional, personal, and relational lives as well as their spiritual lives.
Not only does obedience deal with all of life, but it also encompasses all of us, both inside and out. Obedience is far more profound than simply refraining from external sins such as lying, stealing, and committing adultery, though it certainly includes those. Obedience has also to do with submitting our values, emotions, and hearts to Christ’s lordship. In Matthew 22:37-38, Jesus asks for no less than total commitment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” There is nothing more important, and nothing more demanding. In fact, it requires our lives, which then saves our lives.
Tasks Change as Maturity Increases
Spiritual growth encounters another dimension of obedience. We are all called to follow God in the basic requirements of life: loving him and others, seeking God, being just, kind, and humbly walking with God, living by faith, etc. All these commands are related at their core in that we are being directed by God and his ways instead of by our own.
We all need to obey these commands; however, as we grow, our tasks in these areas change. Spiritual growth has stages and levels of development. Take the growth of relationship, for example. Someone who is very detached may be working on simply being emotionally present with others. Another person who is able to be close might be growing in his ability to be emphatic with others. Obedience is not a “one size fits all” proposition. God deals with us where we are and shows us our next step of growth.
One of the more obvious results of the Fall is that obedience is not continuous. We sin and fail in many ways. However, God’s spiritual growth process takes this into consideration so that we can be restored and continue on the path. Even more, God uses our failures to help mature us.
The bad news is—failure is inevitable and failure is our fault. Yet, this is reality. Even as believers, no matter how hard we try not to, we will fail. Sin and immaturity cause us to miss the mark of God’s standards for life. And even though failure is inevitable, it is still our fault and our problem.
Growth Approaches That Try to Solve the Failure Dilemma
- One school of thought says that we don’t have to fail. We can always be “victorious in Jesus” by making him truly Lord of our lives. Therefore, the person who fails has not totally surrendered to God. Although this can sometimes be the case, the reasoning here denies the reality that we are sinners throughout life. Adherents to this school of thought do not recognize struggle as normal and expected.
- Another group teaches that the presence of sin is a sign of spiritual immaturity. It is not a surrender issue, but a growth issue. As you grow more, you sin less. Therefore the mature believer doesn’t sin a lot. While we would agree that we should become more righteous as we mature, the Bible teaches that personal sin will always be present.
- Still another group tries to resolve this dilemma by addressing the nature of failure itself. Although they will admit that failures happen, they will say that failure isn’t so bad and that sin and mistakes don’t carry a lot of moral weight. They have what is called a weak view of sin. They ignore the gravity of sin and failure.
- A similar teaching is that though we fail, it is not really our fault. It is the fault of others who have made us what we are: our parents, hurtful relationships, society, the Devil, or even God himself. So when you fail, realize it is others who are to blame and try to heal from those hurts. As you heal and forgive, your failures resolve. We would certainly agree that our experiences with others, both loving and hurtful, greatly influence who we are and how we turn out in life. We would also agree that learning to forgive is very important. Yet we often fail simply because we choose to, and we are ultimately accountable for our decisions and choices.
The Bible’s Solution to Failure—Repentance
Our view of the Bible’s teaching is stricter than the above four approaches. It is a pretty desperate situation to realize that we must fail, that our failure is a bad thing, and that we are held accountable. However, the good news is that this dilemma leads us straight into the arms of Jesus. We have a problem we cannot solve. His death is the solution for those who put their personal trust in his sacrifice for their sins. And all through life and growth, we learn to have faith in his love, forgiveness, and grace without resorting to our own devices. In this sense, our failure bears fruit in a deeper walk with him.
In spiritual growth, learn to expect failure. Don’t be surprised by it, because God certainly isn’t. Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus (Luke 22:34). Deal with failure as Peter did, by repenting. When we sin and stop obeying, we then obey by repenting. Repentance, the proper response to our failure, brings forth more growth, love, responsibility and fulfillment.
Simply put, repentance is a change of direction. It is a movement away from the destructive path back toward God’s ways. It requires a great deal of humility, because we have to admit we are wrong. In repentance, our eyes are opened to our own sin, failure, and weakness, especially as compared with God’s nature, and we gladly change our ways to better follow his paths.
Sources of Obedience
Obedience requires an object-that is, we need to know what and whom to obey. The Bible has a great number of universal commands and principles for conducting our lives. However, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Jesus’ two Great Commandments in Matthew 22, sum up the law. Learn these foundational laws as well as the many more specific principles found in Scripture. This is why Bible study and reading are so valuable, as they help unearth these principles of living.
Obedience, or God-directedness, is a lifelong process central to spiritual growth. Stay close to what God says regarding your ways, relationships and inner issues. Those who follow God’s voice generally realize that it is ultimately the only way to go.
Taken from How People Grow, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 2001
This article is part 10 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from How People Grow.
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