Sunday, February 16, 2014

Obey: A Four Letter Word

Yes, Andre, whatever you say O Giant One
My friend Styx and I were driving in the snow, just leaving a store where we picked up some food for the homeless folks in our church, keeping folks safe and warm and fed another day.  Yep, we are good people, and we don’t care who knows it.

Suddenly, blue and red lights flash behind us, and we are being pulled over by a local officer.  I’m wondering what I could have done wrong... as far as I could see, everything was legal.  The officer comes up to the window and politely points out that my friend didn’t have his seat belt on.  Styx is in a rage, almost shaking, but he keeps it to himself as he gives his ID number.  When the officer walks away, he fumes, “Really?  Don’t they have anything else better to do?”  He is almost shaking in rage. 

After the officer comes back, he gives Styx a ticket and explains that he won’t have to pay anything if he takes a safety class. As we drive away, Styx says, “Let me know that this is no big deal.”  I assure him that it isn’t, but that doesn’t lessen his rage.

Let’s face it, none of us likes to get caught doing something wrong.  We especially don’t like it when a wrong is over-punished, like Styx getting a 350 dollar ticket when he forget to put a strap across his shoulder. Recently, I’ve been reading what the Bible has to say about the ten commandments, and many have been shocked at how frequently the death penalty is used for the smallest infraction of the laws.  Like the man picking up sticks on the Sabbath and he is stoned to death.

Sometimes obedience is a problem because we think particular laws are useless or pointless.  An oft-repeated law in the OT is the rejection of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.  Who would have thought of  that?  And if a society is okay with eating meat, what’s wrong with that?  Some rabbis interpret it as a separation between meat and dairy, but that doesn’t seem to be the point to me.  What IS the point?  Why should we go out of our way to obey such an arbitrary command?

In the end, obeying a bunch of arbitrary commands seems downright silly or even immoral.  Keeping the Sabbath holy seems okay until we are telling kids not to play on the Sabbath, or going hungry because a crisis happened and we couldn’t prepare food ahead of time.  Few people know that in the same section of Scripture that places a taboo on incest and homosexuality is a taboo on having sex with one’s wife while she is on her period. I mean, the idea is kind of gross, but they are married, so who can complain?  And what harm is there in other sexual taboos?  Bestiality is a form of animal abuse, and pedophilia is child abuse, rape is violence, but other kinds of sexual taboos… really, where’s the harm?

In the end, many people want to label sins as “stuff we do to hurt other people” and “nobody’s business”.  Obedience depends on whether we are harming others or not.  If we are loving people, all is good.  Otherwise, we shouldn’t bother.  If a person uses drugs, no harm, no foul, unless they do actual harm to another, like steal or neglect their child.   Everything should be dependent on love.  If no one is harmed, the no one should complain.

Living with God
The funny thing about sin, though, is that it has more to do with our relationship with God than anything else.  The ten commandments and all the laws that follow under those ten categories have to do with a community living under the sight of God, in the presence of God.  They are laws that don’t necessarily say, “This is how we live together”, but more like “God’s house, God’s rules” whether they make sense to the people or not.  God’s people couldn’t eat shellfish not because it could make them sick, but because, in that context, it was “gross” to God.  God was displeased by it.  Just like in my house we don’t have alcohol on the property and no one drinks there.  It’s because we have some who struggle with alcoholism, and we don’t want to tempt them.  This doesn’t mean that people can’t drink in other houses.  Or that loving people don’t drink—I don’t believe that.  That’s just how we work it in my house.

Often there are things that disgust others that we have no problem with.  Our spouse might find eating meat horrifying, but we don’t have any problems with it.  It would make sense that we not eat met in our house, out of respect and love for our spouse, although we might occasionally sneak out and grab a hamburger when she’s not around.  As long as our relationship is honest and respectful, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if we insisted that our spouse watch us eat meat, or participate in eating meat, or to have the smell of cooked meat in the house, we are forcing the one we love to share in that which is abhorrent to her.

When we join God, we are married to Him.  As soon as we begin living together, we begin negotiating our lives with Him.  He will insist that we change some aspects of our lives, and we agree because we love him so.  We don’t want to disgust Him, even if we see nothing wrong with it.  So we make terms of living together, and we work these terms out together.

The problem is that some people think that the terms they live with God must be replicated by everyone else, as if everyone’s marriage must come to the same terms.  But how can we determine another’s relationship?  If we do not participate in a relationship, what right do we have to tell them how it should work?  Yes, we can look at another’s relationship and offer wisdom (if asked) about what might work or not.  But in the end, it is that couple, that pairing of God and that particular person, that must determine their own terms.  We might see how a couple might fail unless something changes, but in the end, that’s between them.

Learning to love
Let’s say that all “sin” or wrong-doing did have to do with harm to others and that all positive action has to do with loving others, including God.  Part of the problem we have with this is: What is real “harm” and what is only superficial?  What is really love?  And can’t something be loving in one context, but not another? Can’t something be loving in most contexts, but not all?

And how are we to know?  Let’s say that we have a toddler who only wants to love.  He would give useless gifts to those around him.  Do little deeds that ultimately mean nothing.  Perhaps he would command people to do pointless tasks, because he thinks that’s really loving, even though it’s not. We find it cute, but the actions of a toddler don’t really add up to love, no matter how much he tries.

Even so, we are all toddlers.  We all fail to understand what is truly love.  This is what happened to the law.  So much added to it that the people failed to understand the basic point.  Many people today couch the idea of love in the context of economic terms, that if we do what is good for the economy, we are doing what is good for everyone. 

Sometimes I feel that Jesus is the grown up trying to explain things in simple terms so us toddlers to love could understand.  He lays it out very simply and starkly sometimes: “Do good to those who harm you.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” “Deny yourself.” “You cannot worship both God and wealth.” “Do not commit adultery.” “Do mercy.”  We sometimes find excuses to not follow these straightforward commands. We make ourselves busy with what doesn’t matter, so we don’t have to obey.  But really, we are just acting like disobedient toddlers who don’t want to do what is good for all of us.

Some of us need laws
While I was sitting next to Styx, all I could think of was how I agreed with the seat belt laws.  When I was in high school, I wrote a five page report about the proof that seat belts save lives.  I included the chances of death without a seat belt and how much more likely it is for a person with a seat belt to not die in the case of an accident.   But that didn’t change my habit of not wearing a seat belt.  Just knowing what was right and good doesn’t change our habits.

What did change my habit was when my state made wearing a seat belt compulsory.  On the day it became law, I began to click it around me and I have never turned back.  I appreciate the law because it was a simple tool to help me save my life for the sake of my wife and my children.  I probably would never have done it myself, without the law in place.

Even so, I don’t think I would have learned compassion or sacrificial love without Jesus telling me to do it.  I had a couple people ask me how I am such a compassionate person, and I responded to them honestly (which isn’t always the best idea): “I’m not compassionate.  I don’t really care that much.  I help people because Jesus told me to.  Someone asks me for help and my first response is to say no because I’m too tired or too busy already or don’t feel that they really deserve it.  Then I am reminded that I do this work not because I want to do it, but because Jesus does.  I’m here to represent Jesus and even though I might not give to this person, Jesus would.  So I’ve got to do what Jesus says, even if it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Some people might call this a servant mentality.  Some people might think that I’m so obedience-minded that I’m not open to really loving people.  I might agree.  But obedience is the path God gave me to learn to love.  I wish I was naturally loving.  But at least I’m on the path.  Perhaps others can approach love more flexibly and open-mindedly.   But I’m on the path that works for me.

So I’d say don’t complain about God’s rules and laws.  Perhaps they are doing some people some good.  And remember, that Jesus also gave us a law not to judge others.  That very restriction could be the path of freedom to everyone.


  1. Other than Jesus {If you love me, obey my commandments), F.F. Bruce said it best: "Love and obedience are intextricably interwoven because all the commandments of God are summed up on the law of love."

    One of the shocks of trying to encourage parents to teach kids the Ten Commandment is that many Christians cry, "legalism'" or "grace." But that is nothing new, See the rebuffs to such Christians by Luther, Calvin, and Wesley at the end, here:

  2. [Don't see a contact link. If you would care to consider the above book for review, I would be glad to send you the pdf.]

  3. No problem, Mike-- copy and paste still works.

    Thanks for your input, and especially the FF Bruce quote. I think one of the questions we need to ask is: Does the correct understanding of love determine what commands are given, or do the correct commands sum up what love is? I lean toward the first. Obedience is essential, but no set of commands can sum up all of our duty to love. As Jesus points out in Matt. 12-- the Sabbath command isn't enough to understand how we should best show mercy.