I’ve been thinking a lot about obedience lately.
There are things in life that we know we should do. Things we have been called to do, and specially equipped by God to fulfill. Each of us has our own place in the Body, our own heaven-sent ‘to-do list’, and throughout our lives we all get many opportunities to be a part of what God is doing in the world around us. Sometimes we serve cheerfully and easily out of a particular talent or strength; sometimes our lack of qualifications makes us cling gratefully to His grace. But there is a sweet spot from which all true service springs, a point of surrender which one of my best friends aptly calls our ‘place of peace’. We know it when we experience it. It’s that wonderful sense of being exactly where the Lord wants you for that space of time, and with it comes joy, true joy and rest, no matter what outward challenges may be laid upon us.
And then there are the things we feel we ought to do, and I am just beginning to recognize this for the pernicious little temptation that it is. It’s called obligation, and I certainly know the signs of its presence in my own life: my heart begins to beat a little faster, my mind starts racing around in circles trying to figure out how I’m going to add this one more thing to my day or my week or my month. A sudden weight descends on my woefully inadequate shoulders and I feel completely and miserably overwhelmed. It makes me shudder to think how many things I have done ‘for God’ out of this dreadful state of being. What an insult to His love and sovereignty to cherish such a self-important notion of my own indispensability.
It’s so easy to counterfeit obligation for obedience. It’s easy to look around at the mad-cap pace of modern life and convince ourselves that an ‘intolerable round of panting feverishness’ is just the way we’re all supposed to live. To buy into the idea that obedience equals ‘Christian service’. But if we are really yielded, truly and earnestly desirous of God’s will, we may find, to our relief and surprise, that obedience sometimes equals stillness. Not doing, but being. Listening. Waiting. Saying ‘no’ can be as much an act of true worship as saying ‘yes’. And, speaking from personal experience, when we take the time to stand back at look at things, we may find that most of our ‘yeses’ are said more out of a desire to impress other Christians or appease our own conscience than out of a true devotion to Christ.
Here’s a hymn that we sang at a tiny village church in England a few weeks ago. The lovely setting, the atmosphere of heavenly peace, the scent of lilies in the air, seemed to frame the sweet simplicity of its message, truly ‘a word fitly spoken’:
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.
O sabbath rest by Galilee!
Oh calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.
John Greenleaf Whittier