Obedience Precedes Understanding
What is more pleasing to the Lord:
your burnt offerings and sacrifices
or your obedience to his voice?
Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice,
and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.
1 Samuel 15.22
My friends Paul and Heidi have a parenting rule I’ve always admired—they allow their kids to ask why. They refuse to tell their children to do something because they said so. It seems so simple, so dignity-bestowing, doesn’t it? Unless, of course, you have a daughter like mine who asks why no matter how many times you tell her the reasons behind the reasons.
Dad, can I have a pony?
No, beauty, I’m sorry.
We don’t have anywhere to put the pony, babe.
But why can’t we keep it in my room?
Because ponies need their own space, and because they can’t live indoors with little kids.
But we could build it a pony house. Why can’t we build it a pony-house?
Because that would cost a lot of money that dad and mum haven’t put aside for pony houses.
But you could start saving, dad. Why don’t we save for a pony-house?
You could save for a pony house, Anna. But it would take you a long time.
But you could loan me the money daddy, please can we get a pony?
And so on.
By the end, I just wish I’d told her: No. You can’t have a pony, because all the ponies died in a fire.
Alright. Maybe that wouldn’t have been better.
We all have Anna’s nature, though, to ask why why why, to poke and prod for the loopholes in the reasoning, searching for the escape clause.
But sometimes we just need to shut up and do what’s right whether we want to or not. Sometimes obedience is an end unto itself. In the military, for example, every new recruit must learn to follow orders. At the beginning, those orders can be pretty inane—stand up, on the ground, give me 20, shut your mouth – but the point is to learn obedience. Because there will come a time when following orders can save your life, or the life of the guy next to you, or the lives of countless others.
I try to teach my kids obedience for much the same reason. I want them to listen to me so that if we’re ever in a threatening situation, they’ll just obey without deciding whether or not they feel like it. Every time we’re in a parking lot, I’m glad I’ve trained them this way:
Anna. Stop. Come back. Hold Daddy’s hand in the parking lot.
This obedience has saved her life at least twice when my high-energy, always skipping and leaping daughter runs into traffic. There is an obvious spiritual application here: we need to learn to obey God without always questioning His motives, His means, or His opportunity. I don’t mean to say it’s inappropriate to question God, or that our questions are unwelcome–quite the opposite is true. I think one of the great graces God extends to us is allowing us to question His infinite wisdom ad nauseum. I don’t think we question too oft en either.
No, I feel like it’s one of the hallmarks of my life and ministry and personality to ask good questions and tenaciously pursue satisfying answers. But I do think one small failing in my teaching is to underemphasize obedience for the sake of obedience.
I work tirelessly to help others find solid biblical answers for why we should live as we’re instructed, which is a good, good thing. But I also think it’s important that we learn to obey God because He’s God and we’re not. At the end of the day He makes the rules.
Even when we don’t understand we ought to do as He commands, trusting that what He commands is actually in our best interests anyway.
Jesus modeled for us this obedience for its own sake by being baptized, even though he didn’t need to receive baptism for the repentance of sins.
I see three reasons for Jesus’ baptism. First, his baptism fulfilled a prophecy about the entrance of the Savior of the World to the world stage (see Matt hew 3.1-2, 13-17, and Isaiah 40.3). Second, it made a public declaration of his ministry and connected him to all who had come before him preaching repentance. Third, it modeled obedience. He showed us there are things we ought to do even if we think we don’t need to do them.
In my short life I’ve heard an awful lot of people speak about an awful lot of spiritual things they don’t think they need to do.
I’ve heard people say they don’t need to serve at their local church because it would take time away from their kids or they volunteer somewhere else or they’re just too busy.
Those are good reasons for not serving in our local churches for a season, but they become problematic if we never prioritize the work of the ministry in our families and our schedules. I’ve heard people say they don’t need to give money to their local church because they give money elsewhere or they don’t have much money or they think the church is not as responsible with money as it should be.
Those are valid considerations, but a few short conversations with an elder or member of a finance team can address them. Our refusal to give to the mission of Christ’s church says more about what kind of people we are than it does about the church.
I’ve heard people say they don’t need to study the Scriptures on their own because they get such good biblical teaching at church or they get such great input through blogs and podcasts or they find the Bible too difficult to understand.
Even if true, those things do not mutually exclude the truth that everyone needs to read and study the Bible for themselves so they can grow personally and learn individually from the Holy Spirit.
I’ve heard people say they don’t need to pray, or invite others into the life of the church, or fast, or forgive, or be involved in spiritual conversation with those around them, or extend the hand of friendship to someone not like them, or, or, or whatever.
They always have good reasons.
But sometimes we just need to do the things God has commanded us to do, even if that means our obedience precedes our understanding.
This post is excerpted from Seasons of Christian Spirituality. To download the entire book, click here.
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