A lot of times, I think, Christians feel compelled to justify both to ourselves and to others why we obey all of these guiding principles for life that are found in the Bible. And so over the years, I’ve heard a lot of different explanations for why we obey God:
We obey because…well, because God asked us to obey. He said it, I believe it, that settles it. The end.
We obey because we love Jesus and want to make Him happy.
We obey because we understand the guiding rules/principles in Scripture lead to happy, healthy, holy lives.
We obey because God knows better than us what is good for us.
All of these are valid and true. But lately I’ve been thinking about a reason to obey that we often don’t consider and that often goes neglected, and it’s this: obedience to God’s Word fosters an awareness of, and an intimacy with, God. Obedience is – as strange as it sounds – a way of getting to know Him.
I don’t mean that in the sense that, if we obey, God “rewards” us for obeying by getting closer to us. Rather, the act of obedience is itself a way of knowing God: a way of learning who He is and what He is like.
Psalm 119 makes this correlation both explicitly and implicitly. The Psalm itself is, in general, a praising of God’s laws and commandments, and an examination of what comes from keeping them: preservation, life, and salvation. Obedience to the Law is associated with eye-opening (18), with increased understanding (25-32), and with seeking God’s face. The Psalmist goes on to point out that meditation on and application of God’s precepts has helped him to become closer to God.
It might help to consider obedience as a form of reciprocity. God knows us, all our ways and being and doing; obedience to His precepts is, in return, a form of knowing Him. When we obey, or when we act in accordance with what God wishes us to do, we are essentially trying to emulate His view of the world and what He feels about it and wishes for it. We are drawing Him closer by putting into practice what we know of Him.
In that sense, obedience really isn’t some weird legalistic ritual wherein Christians do A, B, and C in order to avoid smiting, and most of us know that. But Psalm 119 really hammers home the point that obedience is really about relationship: about attempting to learn and understand the mind and will of God. Our acts of obedience foster a closeness with God inasmuch as they express a desire to know and to implement His very outlook into our lives.
By that token, obedience feels like a much warmer concept to me in the light of that realization. I think it was Tim Keller who pointed out in one of his books that Psalm 119 can read bizarrely to people – who really identifies with the phrase “I delight in your decrees”? The Psalmist speaks lovingly, possessively, tenderly about the law in a way that feels foreign to us because…well, because it’s the law. We associate obedience and law-giving with coldness, with distance. But that’s not so.
Obedience means many things about our relationship with God, certainly. It’s a hallmark of submission to Him, it’s an expression of love and worship, and if we’re honest it’s probably a manifestation of self-interest, too. But it is also a form of engagement that in and of itself is a knowing of God. By adopting His perspective, we come closer to understanding His nature, and He welcomes that. It is always God’s desire to be known, and to make Himself known.
Which also means that obedience is a deeply personal act. And I suspect that’s why it’s so hard to browbeat others into obedience, to demand it of them. It’s behind what Jesus told us about tending to our own sin rather than focusing on other people’s in Matthew 7:3. Obedience borne out of love for God, obedience as an act of knowing and intimacy, isn’t something that can be forced. People can’t be shouted or guilted into it. In the end, it comes from an understanding of God that desires an even deeper understanding of God: a love that manifests as genuine curiosity and desires to go deeper.
I don’t know if you’re struggling to obey this morning. Sometimes God says go and your heart says stay. Sometimes you don’t want to give up the thing or go do the thing or say the thing or not say the thing. But maybe it will help to realize that, even if you struggle to get there, your act of obedience is an act of intimacy and love: a growing-closer, a desire to foster nearness and companionship. God honors it. And I have no doubt it brings Him great joy.