Obedience. There’s a word I’ve never liked unless we’re talking about my dog. It has a certain weight, doesn’t it? Obey. It brings to mind images of angry parents, stoic Quakers, and school principals threatening corporal punishment. Oooh, let’s use the word ‘obey’ and God in the same sentence. Now, we can think about angry parents, parochial school complete with the bitter nuns, AND God all at the same time! Does it make your blood run cold?
When I was 13, just a wee lass living in Houston, Texas, my mother took it upon herself to expand my religious education. She had remarried a man of the Catholic persuasion, and my mother grew up Lutheran as all good Swedes do. Hmmm…what to do with the children now? Find a suitably legalistic, orthodox, and scary Lutheran church with an even scarier pastor! They succeeded. Pastor Miller was a German man, and he scared the pants off me. He strongly resembled Martin Luther himself, and, for some reason, he took a keen interest in me. At his suggestion, my mother enrolled me in his confirmation classes, and for two years I saw Pastor Miller every Wednesday night. I never missed a Sunday morning service because he forced us to take meticulous sermon summaries. When we were asked questions during confirmation class, he would stand directly behind us, his hand poised above our heads, ready to strike if we were wrong. He had the habit of hitting our heads with his seminary ring whenever we erred in answering his questions. I loathed confirmation classes with Pastor Miller. Did I mention the homework? It was brutal. Did I mention that he would take me aside after classes urging me to try harder: “There’s something different about you. You must try harder than the others. I expect more from you.” I felt that no matter how hard I tried, I could never please him. He would never be happy with my efforts. I was endlessly preoccupied with my performance, always fearing his seminary ring. “Please don’t hit me, please don’t hit me…”
I know so many people who behave as if God is like Pastor Miller and the Christian life is much like confirmation class. Obedience, for them, is quite simple. Go to class, do your homework, write those sermon summaries, and, whatever you do, don’t get the answers wrong, or down comes the seminary ring! I know a lot of people who tithe their 10% and give offerings, too, earnestly believing that this will protect them from catastrophe. In fact, even when they are facing unemployment, taking money out of their children’s savings accounts to pay the bills, they still tithe 10%. Why? They are afraid, deep down, that God will punish them if they don’t. So really, they are engaging in a superstitious religious act because one must look at the motivation behind the act to determine the truth of it. If I sacrificed a chicken every Sunday to appease God and protect myself from catastrophe–even if my family was on the brink of starvation and could have eaten that chicken for sustenance–then I am engaging in a religious act based upon a belief that God is angry and punitive and requires appeasing through sacrifice and performance. Taking this further, when others face suffering in the form of unemployment, cars breaking down, and lack of financial resources, then the Chicken Sacrificers would be quick to say, “Well, look at that. Tisk tisk…they aren’t sacrificing their chickens, are they? That’s what happens! They’ve stepped out from under God’s good graces…” Apply that to any act of performance in the Christian life: “Well, look at that. They aren’t ____________ (tithing, going to church every Sunday, volunteering as much as we do, showing the fruits of the Spirit, as committed as we are, etc). Looks like God is judging that. Too bad!”
This puts us in an interesting position, doesn’t it? What camp are we really in? Are we one of the Chicken Sacrificers, performing dutifully, trying to appease God, obeying out of fear? You’ll find that once you start “sacrificing chickens” you’ll start expecting everyone around you to do it, too, and judgment is what follows. Judgment is a funny thing. It never works alone. It has a nasty partner–shame. It seeps into us and permeates our language, and we don’t even know we’re doing it.
- “We’re trying to raise money for our trip to Bangladesh. Pray about how much the Lord wants you to give, and keep in mind that everything you have is His. You are to be stewards of His resources and always obey. Are you obeying the call of God in how you manage His resources?”
- “Well, ladies, that was a very powerful message. I know I have a lot of work to do after hearing that. How are you going to apply what we just heard in your life particularly with your husbands? Many of you are quite stubborn. We like to joke about that, but stubbornness is not pleasing to the Lord. What are you going to do to please the Lord?”
- “Church, I am not pleased by our numbers. We are trying to send some missionaries to the field here. I am calling you all to give sacrificially. We are called to live by faith. If you can’t do that, then I question your commitment to the Lord. I’m going to say this. I question whether or not some of you are even saved.”
- “We are about to enter in the Holy Sacrament of Communion. Do not enter into this lightly lest you offend God Himself. You are not to come to the table of the Lord lightly. God takes sin very seriously. If you need to know how seriously he takes it just look at Jesus. You may want to stay back and not even have it if you have not thoroughly repented.”
I’ve heard statements just like these in churches and Bible studies over the years. They are all examples of legalism and performance. Shaming people is the fastest way to coerce compliance and get what you want. If you want money, then shame people into believing that God withholds and gives favor based on performance, punishing people if they don’t meet the requirements of the leadership’s interpretation of the law. If you’re a narcissist and love attention and power, then the pastorate is often a seductive position. Many narcissists are drawn to that position. If you are living in denial and flooded with self-loathing over past issues involving trauma but feel a need to help others ( i.e. a Messiah Complex), then lead a women’s Bible study and drag everyone down with you. Or, just confuse legalism and religion with God. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–God and dangerous religion are mutually exclusive.
So, what is obedience then? It’s knowing who are you and being that. Take a look at how God interacted with everyone in the Bible. He met Moses and told him that he would become a god to Pharaoh. (Exodus 7) He met Gideon and told him that he was a mighty warrior. (Judges 6) When Jesus met anyone, he always told them who they were be it giving them a new name–Simon became Peter (Matt. 16:18)–or giving them a different destiny–Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He never, never, never dealt with the part of them that didn’t exist which was their “old nature”. (2 Cor. 5:17) Essentially, he said, “Don’t do that anymore. Do this because this is who you are!” He always went straight for their identity, and when you deal with identities, shifting them, behaviors always follow. Does that take time? Quite possibly, yes, but that’s the process of sanctification. Learning how God sees you and what God wants you to do is what repentance is. Repentance means to think again. To do as God does. To live a lifestyle of repentance means to continually have a renewed mind. (Romans 12:2) How does that work? It means to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit listening to what he says to you about you so that you can dwell in that new identity all the time. That’s how the fruits of his Spirit grow. They are merely the product of an on-going relationship.
What does this look like practically? For many people this might require a shift in their understanding of God. There is quite a bit of opposition in the modern church to the prophetic nature of the Holy Spirit. Recall what I said about those 33,000 plus denominations in the Christian church? Many of these church splits and doctrinal arguments were based upon the activity of the Holy Spirit during what theologians have come to call the “Church Age”. Personally, I don’t care. It’s all academic. Does God speak today or not? Yes, he does. Let me give you an example from my own life.
Last year, I went to a conference with a friend–the dreaded Christian Women’s Conference. I didn’t want to go. All those women…together. In one venue. I was terrified. I have not had great experiences with Christian women’s groups in the past or even Christian women. Can you say ‘relational aggression’? I’d rather go back to high school. Anyway, I went, and my friend signed us up for a ‘prayer appointment’. You know, prayer ministry! I was to receive my own special time of prayer ministry with…THREE WOMEN! I shuddered. I got myself together, held my chin up high, and did it. Trembling, I went into the room and sat down.
Backstory: In the past few years, I developed a habit of condemning myself in the presence of others particularly women. I am a bit of a girly girl, and I like make-up, nail polish, and coloring my hair. I have endured more than my share of “teasing” from other women for whatever reason. I once went to a women’s gathering, and one of the women shrieked, “Oh..my…GAWD! Are you wearing a wig? Your HAIR!!!” She proceeded to pull my hair repeatedly, trying to pull my hair off my head. She then went on to loudly declare that I looked like Barbie–which I most certainly do not. Later on that evening, another woman quietly remarked on my “put-together appearance” citing that she was “too concerned with saving her money and looking natural and had no time for vanity”. I was hurt and whenever someone would say anything to me about my hair, clothing, or appearance, I would just tell them not to pay attention to me because I’m “Southern and vain.” I developed a deep sense of shame around my appearance and love of being ‘girly’, and this was not a good thing for me. Women who have been sexually abused and traumatized suffer with self-esteem issues, and my attempts to cultivate a sense of beauty were being sabotaged in the name of religion. I started to feel…unworthy, ashamed, and ugly to my core.
So, I sat down in that chair amongst the three women who were supposed to “minister” to me prophetically. That means that they pray for me and wait upon the Holy Spirit. Will he speak? What will he say? (John 10:27) Suddenly, the first woman said, “I hear a song! Do you hear it? It’s Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. I have to tell you something. You are a beautiful woman. I saw it when you came in. You emanate beauty, but I think God wants you to know that He thinks that you are beautiful.” I was on guard immediately. The woman next to me looked at me, and said, “You tell people that you are vain.” I gasped. “Yes, you do. You need to stop that. You are not vain at all. You are anything but. You have been telling people that you are vain as an excuse to make them comfortable. To hide. To explain. God loves that you take care of yourself. No more of that. You are never to call yourself vain again. You are a beautiful woman, and you are to enjoy it and embrace it regardless of what anyone tells you.” At this point, I was trying not to cry. Do you see what happened? Don’t do that. Do this! This is who you are so fall in line with your true identity, and when your true identity is called out you are often healed of old wounds, too. I am now able to socialize in groups of women.
I am not saying that we don’t give offerings, attend church, or anything else. What I’m saying is that what we do flows out of who we are and our understanding of how God sees us–and how we experience God on a daily basis. In the end, we either have a passionate, intimate relationship with God, or our thoughts about ourselves and God are sponsored by something else entirely different. My question is: Who is sponsoring you then?
Me? It’s been a process, and I’m still in it. I will always be in process with God, but I will not be sponsored by religion, shame, condemnation, judgment, and performance.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about…when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
–C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses