I was talking with a friend last night about legalism and how, when folks come from legalistic background and then step into the things of the Spirit, often the legalistic inclinations are imported into the way we approach being led by the Spirit. This led to a discussion of how I’ve learned over the years that what God wants from me in terms of obedience to His voice is very different than my initial presuppositions were when I started out this walk.
So a “for instance” is in order here. One example of legalistic thinking about what obedience means would be summed up in a phrase that I heard Christians teaching at some point or another, which was, “Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience.” The image these folks were evoking was that of an authoritarian parent telling a child, “Go clean your room,” and the child saying, “Let me finish this game first,” as an example of what disobedience actually looks like.
While my parents weren’t generally authoritarian (my mom generally would have let me finish the game first), I somehow imported this version of “quick obedience is real obedience, and delayed obedience is disobedience” into my mindset of what it meant to obey God. Thankfully, the Lord generally will set us up in such ways as to lead us out of ways of relating to Him that don’t reflect His heart for us, and this was no different – but it did take some learning and getting used to.
In the New Testament, one of the verses about our obedience calls it, at least in the King James Version, “obedience to the faith.” How does one obey a faith? How might obeying a “faith” be different than obeying a set of laws?
Years ago, before I had ever been overseas anywhere, I was praying about some things in the future and the Holy Spirit interjected a seemingly left-field type sentence into my thought processes as He said, “Go to England.”
England? I was dumbfounded. Where in England? Why? What would I do there? It was a broad, general statement with no specifics and very little context. I’d pray about it to get more information and instead, all I got was a powerful bearing witness in my spirit that the Lord very much wanted me to go to England – not much further info involved.
So I spent a year trying to figure out what I would be going to England for. Nothing. Nada. I tried to go on a mission trip there – that was nixed immediately as I had no peace about it. Another year went by and I realized with horror that I had delayed a full TWO YEARS on obeying a very strong and clear word from the Lord. My “instant obedience” meter was on full tilt. I talked it over with friends and decided that during that upcoming summer I would just buy a random plane ticket to England and backpack around the country for a few weeks, just to see what the Lord would show me while I was there – that way, at least I would know I had literally obeyed and had “gone to England.”
Except the Lord was having none of that. I started shopping for plane tickets online and every date and itinerary I looked at, I could sense the Holy Spirit in me disagreeing and disapproving of the plan. Finally, in exasperation, I got real with God.
“Lord, I’m trying to obey you here and you’re making it impossible!!!” I continued,”And realistically – if I was going to save up money to go to some country, I don’t even want to go to England. I have no interest in England. I want to go to Israel – I’ve never been there and I really want to see Israel. And you’re making me save up my money to go to England for whatever reason I don’t know why, and then making it impossible for me to actual make plans to go there! I just can’t do this. I guess I’m just going to use my time this summer to take classes for my job.”
(I needed to earn 6 credits sometime in the next 18 months in any subject, from any university – it was a job requirement at the time.)
Realistically, there was nothing else I COULD do, I had sought him about the England thing for two years and all I got was brick walls. Being up against that wall, I finally just gave up.
But I think, the Lord finally had me just where He wanted me. (Side note: I think we are too quick to quote, “God is not the author of confusion” and miss these opportunities.) Because instead of me being a blind automaton who just marched mindlessly to obey whatever He said regardless of what I felt or thought about it, He succeeded in exasperating me to the point where I started actually knowing and sharing with Him what I felt – that I wanted to go to Israel, and that I found the England thing to be a strange and tiresome challenge to my sensibilities.
I proceeded to look online and make some calls to my local college to find out what classes I might take that summer. Forty-eight hours later, I was enrolled in two 3-credit summer classes from a college in my neighborhood, that had all these things come together suddenly that I never could have forseen or planned:
1) The two classes were being taught in Israel and the tuition completely covered all the room, board, touring, and plane fare to and from Israel.
2) My job would reimburse me for most of the tuition meaning the entire trip cost me next to nothing.
3) They let me pick my own flight itinerary which I was able to tweek to include a two-week stop in London on the way back for only $40 out of my own pocket.
4) It turned out that the answer to “where should I go when I get to England” was actually answered by some people I met on the trip in Israel.
By expressing my real heart to the Lord in what seemed to me in my then understanding of obedience would have been like rebellious backtalk, God opened the very door to fulfill both what He was commanding me to do (“Go to England”) and what I had always longed to do (go to Israel) in one single, simultaneous gesture of a synergy between what He wanted and what I wanted. He created a unique “Jesus + Heather” shaped answer to His own command – an answer I never would have seen while I assumed obedience was about being an automaton that just sucks it all up and does whatever she is told to do instantly.
And here’s the moral of the story. I still went to England. I still followed His voice into unknown territory and did in fact, “obey” Him. But the lesson He taught me in that exchange and many other situations – in fact, a lesson He is still teaching me – is that He really is after a full-blooded, full-hearted back and forth relationship with me.
He wants to hear my opinions. He wants to hear my dreams. He wants me to tell Him, respectfully, what bothers me about walking with Him. Yes, He’ll challenge me beyond my own thoughts and at times He’ll make it clear that I just need to trust Him on this thing (ie, I still went to England, not knowing why.) But He wants to create a story in my life of us creating life together out of our interaction with one another, not just me blindly and marching to commands.
Just as charismatic folks are fond of saying that prayer is not a one-way street, where we talk and God listens, we also need to remember that once we open up to listening to God, prayer isn’t supposed to become a one-way street the other way, where God talks and we just listen. When He speaks, He is not having the last word, and finalizing the discussion. Rather, he’s inviting us to more dialogue. He’s entered into our realm eager to be in there with us. It sounds all pious for us to just want to do whatever God tells us to do, but no one in the faith hall of fame (Hebrews Ch. 11) had a one-way thing of lockstep command/obedience going on with the Lord.
In legalistic style obedience, God is viewed like the foul-tempered husband that a wife tip-toes around so as not to disturb the household mood. She placates him, making sure her own thoughts and emotions don’t get under his skin. She tries hard not to question him and never puts her own wishes forward. She brings him his dinner and makes sure it is exactly the things he wants made the way he likes them.
But in a healthy relationship with God, it is more like the happy marriage of childhood playmates who grew up to date in high school and then married and became life-long lovers. The exchanges are colorful, full of acceptance and joy, playfully appreciating each others’ quirks. The wife (or even the husband) might cook experimental dinners and if they turn out terrible, they laugh together and poke fun. Both partners speak their minds and are free to negotiate and push back at each others decisions. (Even in marriages where there is a belief that a wife should submit to her husband, healthy marriages of even that sort are filled with freedom for the wife to be herself and honestly express her personality to her husband.)
Legalistic styles of obedience that don’t end up looking like an intimate story of back and forth relationship being written between us and God can seem attractive on one level. Let’s face it – life is risky, scary, and there are zillions of choices presented to us. It can feel like that risk can be alleviated if God would just “tell us what to do” and clearly map out for us what our lives should look like and what decisions we should be making about everything.
I can tell you from experience though – if you approach God for those kinds of answers without being ready to feel, think, have opinions, and have some of your own initiative, God will mostly be silent. He’s just not into being in the type of relationship with us that takes away our personhood, or that is a form of escapism from us having to have agency and actually be full-fledged participants in our own existence. I once approached Him that way – I thought that what it meant for him to increase and for me to decrease meant that who I am was better off erased, to make room for Him. But now I see it more that He’s a God of life, and calls me to be more alive and more fully me as I’m a “new me” with Him already living in me.
God really is a God of relationship, and He just won’t prop up some sort of distorted picture of that if we try to check out of our own story and completely defer to Him. On the other side of “I no longer live” is a huge, big, “nevertheless” where we come fully alive by His life in us – a life that is given to us so that we might turn to Him and fully relate to Him, heart to heart and mind to mind.
(PS – For another post on how our own hearts and – yack! – even emotions – are vital in our relationship with God, read my other posting, “Spirituality and Emotionality,” over here. And you might like my post on Black and White thinking, here, too.)