Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Obedience and Desire

For it is God who is working in you, 
enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.
Philippians 2:13

The question I was asked about obedience, which I referenced in my last post, was this: "Is it obedience if you do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Can practicing obedience change a person’s heart?" Closely related to these questions is the phrase "Fake it until you make it." As I considered these over the last few days, I realized they all had a common theme: the difficulty in obedience when it does not match desire.

Without Faith, You Cannot Please God

Hebrews 11:6 teaches a bold truth. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God." Paul takes it a step further in Romans 14:23 (ESV): "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." A related idea is 1 Corinthians 10:31: "Whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory."

These verses together show us that everything unbelievers do is sinful, even acts that the Bible would describe as good. Until God saves us and puts His Holy Spirit in us, we are constantly violating 1 Corinthians 10:31 because our actions are not motivated by a desire for God's glory. That is why God describes our best acts as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Furthermore, this applies to believers who are holding on to sinfulness as well. Obedience in the Bible is "submission to what is heard." By definition, a believer's heart that is in rebellion in one area of his or her life is not submitting to God. As such, any act of external conformity not driven by an internal submission to the Word and the desire to glorify God is simply that: conformity. It is not obedience.

Does Feeling Follow Action?

I'm sure many of you have heard this phrase before, that feeling follows action. There is some small measure of truth in this. Most of us have either experienced or heard about those producing good or even godly habits by persevering through the "I don't want to"'s.

Ultimately though, the idea that we can produce a spiritual change within ourselves through force of our own will is antithetical to the core message of the gospel. We all start in the same place, as sinful people in need of a Savior. We do not seek God on our own (Romans 3:10-12). In our flesh, we are unable, not just unwilling but unable, to submit to God (Romans 8:7). Our flesh does not suddenly want God just because the Holy Spirit now resides in us. Rather, the remainder of our post-conversion lives is spent at war with our flesh (Romans 7:15-25).

True change only comes when, by the power of the Spirit, we submit our hearts to the authority of God's Word and allow our minds to be renewed and transformed (Romans 12:2). God knows that we do not want to do this on our own. That's why, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:13, God not only enables us do what He wills, He gives us the desire to obey as well.

There is no action we can perform that can make our sinful flesh desire God. That is not to say that God does not use obedience to further change our hearts. He certainly does. But ultimately, we want to obey and are able to obey because of the work He is doing in us, not because of anything we do by ourselves.

Fake It Until You Make It?

Some of you might then ask the question, "Well then, if I don't feel like obeying, should I just not obey?" We inherently recognize that to not be true, and so this idea of "fake it until you make it" has taken hold.

When Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, Luke 22:44 records that He was in such anguish about experiencing the physical and spiritual torment of the cross that He sweated drops of blood. He did not want to go through that. But He did His Father's will, in His Father's timing, and with a heart submitted to His Father's command (Luke 22:42). That is obedience.

The danger of this "fake it" phrase is thinking that obedience is supposed to be easy. Jesus did not desire to be crucified, but His obedience was not fake. What He did desire was to see His Father glorified. It is in that priority of desires that we find the truth about obedience.

As previously referenced, Romans 7:15-25 teaches us that we are at war with our flesh. For any given command we are seeking to obey, it is very likely that we will not want to, at least at first. But the fleshly desire to sin that is made to submit to the God-given desire to glorify our Father can result in obedience.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Why is there so often a disconnect between desire and obedience? Here are some conclusions I have drawn from thinking about these questions:
  1. Some people try to obey God without knowing God. Only you and God know your heart, but if you do not desire God's glory, and if in a general sense you do not desire to obey His Word, then you may not know Him at all.
  2. Some people who know God still try to obey by their own power. Don't try to overcome sin by force of your own will. Rather, heed Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:2 and seek transformation through a change in the way you think. Ask God to grow the desire to obey Him in your specific area of struggle.
  3. Some people believe true obedience will always be easy. Look to the example of Jesus in the garden. Also, understand that as an infinite God expresses His character through finite beings, we will naturally have different gifts and passions. A lack of zeal in a specific area does not absolve disobedience, but it does not cheapen obedience either.
Above all, remember this: there is great joy to be had in obedience. What God wills in any and every situation is always better than what the world or your flesh can offer. Jesus endured the cross because of the joy of bringing glory to God and salvation to His Church (Hebrews 12:2). After nearly 30 years of faith, I can say unequivocally that in every step I take closer to Jesus, I find that He is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than everything I have left behind.

How happy is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path of sinners
or join a group of mockers!
Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction,
and he meditates on it day and night.
He is like a tree planted beside streams of water
that bears its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
Psalm 1:1-3

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