I cannot count the number of times I have heard sermons or Sunday school lessons, read devotionals, or received the advice to keep holding on even through the tough times. I am consistently reminded that obedience is not easy. After all, if there is no challenge, is it really obedience?
So I hang on. I press on. I grasp harder. I cling more. I stubbornly persist. I persevere in the ministry. I stay the course in homeschooling. I hold my ground in parenting. Because that is obedience, right?
Or is it?
A New Direction?
A year or so ago, I was talking to a fellow mom who was struggling through major frustration. She spoke of persevering in obedience, and I heard surprising words pop out of my own mouth. “Sometimes,” I said quietly, “in our effort to be obedient, we miss God’s new instruction. We cling to the old command for so long that we end up walking in disobedience because we have not listened to His redirection.”
Ouch! Where did that come from? Once I said it, I had to ponder it for myself. Do I press forward in obedience, constantly listening to the voice of my Savior, awaiting His next command? Or do I stubbornly persist in following an old instruction because I have closed my ears to a daily sensitivity to His voice?
There are many things we hold very tightly because, at one point, God gave us an instruction, and we are bound and determined to walk in obedience to that instruction, no matter the cost.
- We learned as teens and budding young adults what marriage should look like. So, we are determined to walk in that image, no matter what.
- Philosophies and church teaching have shown us what Scripture states about families and parenting and raising godly children, so we closely heed that teaching.
- As our children reached school age, we clearly discerned that God was directing us to homeschool. So, no matter what, we are pushing through, determined to walk in continued obedience by homeschooling our children.
The list goes on and on. A direction to move to a certain city or take a specific job. A calling to open our homes to foster children or pack everything and head to the mission field. A irrepressible, burning need to surrender to ministry service or a passion for the poor. Quitting one job to take another. Or sticking with a job even when another opportunity would have been so much better materially. Enduring a painful relationship or holding a cherished one close.
The initial call to obedience was clear, both in direction and in the realization that it would not be a quick-and-done obedience. It would be long. Drawn out. Challenging every aspect of our beings. Obedience requiring true endurance and longsuffering.
So we endured.
Somewhere along the way, though, the focus of our obedience changed. What once was obedience founded on direction from God through the Holy Spirit morphed along the way into endurance for the sake of endurance. We lost our sense of obedience to Christ and exchanged it for adherence to a command.
I am struck by how profoundly this very theme is addressed in Paul’s description of the character of Jesus.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Philippians 2:5-7
Paul’s reference to “a thing to be grasped” offers an extremely powerful image. It is the idea of a coup. A power struggle. A sense of believing oneself to be rightfully in charge.
Now consider Christ Jesus, the One who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” He who was one with God. He who is known as the Word. He of whom John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-4) This is the Jesus Paul is talking about. He did have the right to consider Himself equal to God and in charge of all, because that was His right by nature.
Yet, He let go of it all and lowered Himself to the opposite extreme, all for the sake of perfect obedience.
Every time I read back through the Gospels, it is very clear that Jesus was not committed to a crusade or a specific task. He was committed to full communion with and obedience to the Father. He knew what that looked like practically. But, He wasn’t fixated on the practical implementation. He was devoted to His Father.
That is the very thing we often miss when we “persevere in obedience.” We become committed to the task set before us rather than to the Father who issued the command. And when that happens, we do the opposite of what Jesus did. We grasp. We stage a coup. Our obedience becomes pride. The command becomes our goal. And we take charge and assume authority because nothing – and I mean nothing – is going to distract us from receiving our earned prize when we have endured to the end!
The catch is this: the One who gave the command in the first place is the only One who knows where the end lies. But because our eyes are on the task, the command, and our diligent obedience, we lose sight of the Commander.
This was never Jesus’ attitude, even during those excruciating hours of anticipation leading up to the cross. When Jesus went to the garden the night before His arrest, the one compelling thought that sustained Him and propelled Him forward to the horrific experience awaiting Him was the knowledge that He was walking in the center of the Father’s will. Jesus persevered through each step of obedience because His eyes remained on the Father, not on the command.
This is the example Paul refers to – the mind of Christ that we are to adopt.
Think back with me to the things we cling to. Our conviction to homeschool. Our mentality regarding marriage and parenting. Our determination to endure in the job, role, or position we stepped into out of obedience. Where are our eyes as we walk in “obedience” today? What is sustaining us? Are we persevering out of stubbornness and pride, losing our motivation even as we grasp more tightly to the goal? Or are we keeping our eyes fixed on the Father, drawing on His strength as we take each step, heeding His instruction through every twist and turn of the road He has set before us?
The former will exhaust us. It will deplete us. And in the end, we will fail because we can no longer stand.
The latter, though, will sustain us. It will compel us. It will strengthen us even through the most challenging steps because we are not grasping in such a way as to take hold of authority that is not ours. Instead, we are following the example set before us by Christ Jesus, grasping the Father Himself – the only thing truly worth grasping.