“I just needed to obey the Lord without understanding, and obedience is hard for me”: this is a not-unusual testimony heard at churches across the U.S. Whether it’s going to a foreign country, giving a donation, or making job change, obedience to God is a popular subject for both those giving testimonies and preachers exhorting us to follow God. There’s always a knowing smile and a reaction from the congregation who collectively admits this is part of the human condition: we want to be our own people and obedience is not in our nature. Preachers are quick to add this attitude to the list of things wrong with post-modernism.
My problem is that I’m not generally one of the “knowing smile” crowd who nudges my neighbor. I struggle with obedience, but not in the same way, and I wonder if maybe I’m not alone? Because my struggle is that I like to have someone tell me the answers and I like to have a direction. I’m a planner, and nothing beats a plan, even if it isn’t a particularly good one. So when someone in authority tells me “here’s what we’re going to do”, my natural inclination is to obey.
I’m assuming there are some people who really know me reading this blog and are now thinking “What? Jeff questions everything! This doesn’t sound like him at all!” Well, that is true, but I don’t see questioning as the same thing as disobedience. Many times I will raise objections or questions, but then do what I’m told. Thinking for myself is something that is ingrained in me, but obedience is also something that comes naturally. I just need to be heard.
After doing some self-examination, I’ve seen that my desire to obey is really the opposite side of the same coin as those self-autonomous types who have to control everything. While their sin might be one of self-centeredness, mine is more about not wanting to take responsibility when things get hard. The idea of “covering” (a model preached by many which says you obey your pastor/authority so that if something bad happens, it falls on him rather than you) really resonates with my emotions because I like the idea that there is someone who can take the hits if the decisions are wrong. As attractive as that is, though, I think it’s a sin to desire such an arrangement. God wants me to be a person of responsibility who doesn’t abdicate my decisions to other “authorities”. He gave me emotions and a brain to use, not to let sit useless. Which is not to say there shouldn’t be authorities in my life, just that I need to not hand them all the keys of my life.
I’m being completely honest that when I hear people say “God wanted me to do xyz and I didn’t want to obey”, it doesn’t resonate at all. If I’m ever certain I know what God wants, neither hell nor high water is going to keep me from doing it. Why would I? If the God of the universe plans for something, I’m on board by default. Where I struggle is knowing what he wants. I know the principles in scripture, but sometimes making an application in real life to situations is a challenge. And so enters the church and Christians to help and give perspective. But of course the church and Christians are fallible, which is the rub. The key is discernment about when what others are saying is true to God’s will, and when it is counter. And this is where I have an issue: I fear I’ve often been too obedient to men claiming to know God’s will who turned out to be wrong.
You see, for me (and maybe others?), the struggle isn’t about wanting to be self-made and having autonomy, it’s over learning how to detect when someone is giving me false orders. This was painfully pronounced when I was going through the divorce. For those who know my story, I almost wrecked myself trying to stay in a destructive marriage because of the teaching of my church and prominent, respected Christian teachers like John Piper. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “Why do you care what they think?” as if it should have been an easy thing to just ignore the authority figures in my life and make a decision based on my own understanding. And if I said so, they just get wide eyed at the idea that I saw my pastors as authority figures.
But I’ve been fed over an over again that the heart is deceitful and I must not lean on my own understanding. Therefore, every negative feeling or thought I had was, in my mind, sin trying to trick me. My pastors and the teachers I read were the truth. I needed to obey, not listen to my own heart. I really had gotten to the point that I thought faith could only be demonstrated by acting against what I felt in my heart.
What I learned through that experience was that this is not a good way to look at faith. In fact, I would say faith is more about our hearts being transformed so that what is in them is what God wants, not establishing rules to follow in spite of our feelings. I’ve also learned that feelings are important markers that we must consider. They can help us detect when something is wrong, off, or painful. That doesn’t mean we fly by the seat of our pants and go where the winds of emotion blow us; we were given minds as well. But it does mean we weigh both what we feel and what others tell us.
I don’t think obedience is bad. There are probably many people whose biggest struggle is to move away from their self focus long enough to listen to the wise counsel of others. They need to be rebuked and sermons to exhort them to open up their minds. But what I don’t hear very often are sermons for people like me: people who like to obey to the point of following poor leaders. Surely God cares for us too and wants us to know how to determine the difference between authority worth trusting and authority we must reject? When and how can we listen to what our internal systems are telling us? Because really, I’m still trying to work it out.
I wish I had an answer for knowing how to balance obedience and listening to my internal voice. It would be easy for me to just reject those who would speak truth into my life, but I know I must not do that. I do know that I need more discernment than I had before because even the most well meaning folks can teach some very dangerous things, especially if they are ignorant of the subject (destructive marriages fall into this category).
So obedience is a struggle for me. A struggle because my nature is to obey too much rather than too little. It’s led to some very dark places, but it’s something I’m actively working on. I think I’m not alone in this, so I’m hopeful others like me may be encouraged to know they aren’t the only ones either.