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The Unexpected Secret to Joy

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Obedience is not one of my favorite words (except when I’m with my kids). It doesn’t give me all the feels; it doesn’t make me warm inside. In fact, the concept seems rather cold. There’s an almost robotic quality to it.

Maybe that’s just me, though. Maybe you have the word framed on your wall, or Instagrammed over a nice filter, or even tattooed on your ankle. In Hebrew, of course.

Throughout our lives we’re being told to obey. Obey your parents. Obey your teacher. Obey your coach. Obey your professors. Obey your landlord. Obey your governing authorities. Obey your doctors.

Obey, obey, obey. I doubt anyone reading this article is on a quest to find another person or institution to whom they should submit.

Exactly, you may be thinking. So why would I want to obey the Bible? I’ve seen one; it’s thick enough with rules to make a great doorstop. And I hear the author is quite demanding. I have plenty of obligations already, thank you.

Custom Designed

I used to live in a foreign country, and, despite attending class each day, I never mastered the language. I was functional but not fluent. As you can imagine, this made it tricky when trying to share the gospel story with the friends I’d made. Illustrations had to be really simple. For example, I would often say something to this effect:

Fish are made for the water, and birds for the air, right? Now imagine a fish who decides he’s tired of being restricted to the water. He wants to be free, to experience the joy of life on land. So he manages to flop around and “free” himself onto dry ground—which turns out to be a death sentence. Why? He was only designed for water, not for air. Conversely, imagine a seagull growing jealous of the freedom he witnesses in the ocean below. I’m sick of being confined to the air, he thinks. I want to be truly free. So he plunges in and perishes. Why? He was only designed for air, not for water.

In a similar way, just as the fish was built for water and the bird for air, so you were built for God—and you will not find true life and freedom anywhere else. (See Keller, 39)

It’s an elementary metaphor, I know. But it’s also a mirror. We are more like these disgruntled creatures than we may care to admit. The distance between their logic and ours can be uncomfortably thin.

Biblical obedience is not about keeping an arbitrary set of rules; it’s about living in accordance with our design, in harmony with our Maker. Because he wants us to flourish, he restricts us in order to truly free us. He prohibits us to drive us to what is good. He lays boundaries with hands of love.

Because he wants us to flourish, God restricts us in order to truly free us. He prohibits us to drive us to what is good. He lays boundaries with hands of love.

Good for You

To the degree that we approach Scripture prayerfully and studiously, we will be positioned to catch easy-to-miss phrases. Hear, for example, the words of Moses:

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deut. 10:12–13).

Did you catch those rapid-fire requirements? There are five: fear, walk, serve, obey, and the central one, love. They function like links in a chain, or like distinct notes of obedience in the music of your life. Moses’s call is comprehensive; God is interested in both your actions and your attitude. Feet, hands, mind, heart—he wants it all.

Rather daunting, huh?

But here’s the part we’re inclined to miss entirely: “for your own good.” Did you catch those four words when you read the passage? They revolutionize it. So why is God making all-encompassing claims on your life today, even as you read this book? It is because he deserves your obedience. But it is also because you were made for obedience, like fish for water and birds for air.

You were made for obedience, like fish for water and birds for air.

This news is not always easy to swallow, but it’s good: The One who flung the stars into space and spoke galaxies into being is far too qualified to govern just one or two small provinces in your life. He loves you too much to leave you in charge of an existence you didn’t design. Just as there are physical laws like gravity built into creation, there are moral laws you were born to honor. A disobedient believer makes no more sense than a disenchanted bird trying to reach the ocean floor. In infinite wisdom and goodness, God has structured his moral universe in a particular way. We can trust him. If we refuse, we won’t just be breaking his laws; we’ll be breaking ourselves against them.

Note of Urgency

“Slow obedience is no obedience,” we tell our kids. A similar note of urgency rings through the pages of the New Testament.

Consider the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matt. 7:24–27, emphasis mine)

And James:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

And also John:

Whoever says “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. (1 John 2:4–5)

The Bible is not an arbitrary list of prohibitions; it’s an epic story of a Creator more committed to your joy than you could imagine.

And on and on. In fact, let’s return to Jesus for a moment. Shortly before his ascension and enthronement, he delivers marching orders to his disciples. We know it as the Great Commission:

Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18–20)

When we think about this famous charge, we often focus on themes like evangelism, discipleship, and missions. As we should. But again, it’s vital to read slowly and studiously, lest we miss easy-to-overlook words.

Jesus does not merely say, “Teach them everything I have commanded you.” That would be a simple call for information transfer. Instead he says, “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The risen King sends his servants into the world not merely to impart information, but to promote obedience. Have you ever thought about the fact that holiness is part of the Great Commission? This means that no matter how many disciples you are making or how jazzed up about missions you feel, if you are not pursuing obedience, then the Great Commission remains unfulfilled in your life.

Unexpected Path

Maybe you’re still skeptical. Following a demanding God still seems like a drag. Again, I want to reiterate that the Bible is not an arbitrary list of prohibitions; it’s an epic story of a Creator more committed to your joy than you could imagine. Entrusting each sphere of your life to him, therefore, is not something you do instead of enjoying him; it’s the way you enjoy him. Following him is not an alternative to your joy; it’s the secret to it.

So approach your Bible obediently, because obedience produces joy.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word (10Publishing, 2019).

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