Reframing Obedience

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Imagine for a moment that you are running late for an appointment. You rush out of your house, and in one frantic motion you throw yourself and your bag into the car. Even before you have pulled out of the driveway and the seatbelt clicks into place, you are mentally multitasking possible shortcuts, potential traffic, the embarrassment you are going to feel, and the excuses that you could make that would both be reasonable and not utterly untruthful.

After being graced by green lights all the way to the freeway, as a good Christian you try not to go more than eight to ten miles over the speed limit, reckoning that given the time you have already saved that this slight excess is both justified and should place you at your appointment right on time. Then it happens. Absentmindedly glancing in the rear view mirror you notice a state trooper cruising about fifty yards behind you.

All of a sudden adrenaline courses through your body and almost unconsciously your hands slip into the “ten and two” position that you abandoned shortly after Driver’s Ed. You gently ease up on the accelerator, holding your breath until it dips down to the speed limit. Your initial hopes that the state trooper would exit off of the freeway are dashed as he continues to follow you mile after mile. You become hyper aware of every tremble of the speedometer needle and you give yourself fully to the task of maintaining your speed. Anxiously your eyes flit between the rear view mirror, the speedometer, and the dashboard clock. Finally, the trooper takes an exit and, after double-checking to make sure he is not trying to trap you by getting back on at the next entrance, you resume speeding.

This is a picture of obedience as compliance. It is tinged with anxiety, fearful of being caught doing something wrong, and constantly deliberating whether or not obedience will cause you to miss something.  It is the servile obedience of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, perceiving in obedience obligation, burden, and lack of reward rather than privilege. This fear-based obedience at times views the lawgiver with suspicion and resentment at the inconvenient demands placed upon one’s life.  It is also marked with a hyper awareness of fluctuations in behavior, both in oneself and in others.

Now, I want for you to imagine that you are driving down the same freeway later that same evening when suddenly you are captivated by the beauty of the sunset. The rich and interwoven crimson, purple, and blue hues of the evening sky accentuate the gentle pastel caresses of the fleeting sunlight upon the clouds. There is a surge of gratitude deep within you as time appears to slow down and your senses are heightened. Unassumingly you glance down, and sheepishly grin as you note that you are driving five miles below the speed limit. You shrug your shoulders as if to tell yourself, “It’s ok, I am not in a rush,” and your eyes leave the speedometer behind to once again drink in the view as you joyfully ride home.

This is a picture of obedience as the language of freedom. Rather than being characterized by morbid introspection, one’s eyes have been lifted to delight in the journey. Gratitude marks this form of obedience, arising from the conviction that Jesus Christ came that we might have abundant life and that God has richly provided us with everything to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). There is a deep, abiding trust in the goodness and love of the Lawgiver so that the commands of the Lord do not appear burdensome. Rather than causing us to miss something, they gently guide us on how to continue living out of the freedom that we have in Christ. This obedience is a natural byproduct of enjoying the journey, a life overflowing with thanksgiving, and a gracious release of oneself and others from rigorous scrutiny.

This obedience is a natural byproduct of enjoying the journey, a life overflowing with thanksgiving, and a gracious release of oneself and others from rigorous scrutiny.

The all too human tendency at this point would be to paint a neat either-or dichotomy where we acknowledge that we demonstrate the former and we should be the latter. However, as these contrasting images sought to convey we can demonstrate both forms of obedience in the same day.

John Wesley might distinguish these two using the expressions, “faith of a servant” and “faith of a son,” the former obedience marked by fear of God and the latter by overwhelming love and gratitude. Wesley would say that the dividing line between them is the critical point of justification and regeneration, and yet I would suggest that there is still a little bit of servant faith in every son and daughter.

Drawing from 1 John, a book from which Wesley often preached, I would highlight 1 John 4:16, “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us, God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in Him.”

“We have come to know and to believe,” suggests process; a repeated encounter with the truth of God’s love and eternal purpose for us revealed through Jesus Christ. It intimates an immersion in the promises of God, and a continual reminder of the true power and freedom of the gospel. As we are confronted with these liberating truths, the Holy Spirit daily puts to death the faith of a servant within us and breathes life into the faith of sons and daughters.

It is my hope that we could embrace the journey with joy and gratitude, including our all too human blend of servile and childlike faith. I desire to see the children of God come to know and to believe the love that God has for us through repeated encounters with the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. I am confident that as we do so, the servant voice within us will increasingly be silenced, shifting our obedience from compliance to the language of freedom.

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For the past several years, David and his wife Mary Beth have been working inter-denominationally with the Inspire Movement in the U.K. and the U.S., assisting local churches to develop and implement the vision and practice of robust Wesleyan-style discipleship. This reflects his passion to encourage other believers to flourish in their God-given giftings and to reclaim a biblically grounded spirituality that interweaves discipleship, evangelism, prayer and incarnational living.

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