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The "Problem" of Obedience

Further thoughts on Parashat Yitro

by John J. Parsons

The very first duty of the heart is to surrender to God's love for your soul. Surrender of the heart is deeper than outward obedience, since it is possible to obey God for the wrong reasons. Our motivation must be grounded in God's love first of all. We love him because we respond to love's touch (1 John 4:19). This is what it means to "die to yourself" or to be "crucified" with Messiah: you let go; you relinquish control; you trust God to sustain you, even in your weakest moment. That is the nature of trusting in God's love for you.

Some people seem to think that the way of salvation depends on our obedience. But those who say things like we must "trust and obey," or "believe and repent" either do not understand the radical nature of what it means to truly trust God, or they confuse the idea of surrender with obedience. After all, if we seriously think that we are delivered by our obedience, the focus will be on our will, our "works," our performance, and our religious life will become self-centered, driven, and insecure. Moreover, this willful approach assumes we can obey, that we are capable of attaining some kind of spiritual perfection, and so on. No one denies the requirement to obey God, of course, but the question centers on the means to do just that. What is the source of our power to obey God?  To remedy matters of self-deception, it is helpful to review the Sermon on the Mount, where Yeshua interprets the Ten Commandments to show us what really lurks within the unregenerated heart.

The moral law of God is a perfect mirror, revealing the truth about our inward condition. The reality of our sin leads to brokenness and the confession of our need for God's power to change our hearts. But we can only get to that place by means of the cross: We first die to all hope in ourselves and our religious aspirations, and then God does the miracle. The cross demonstrates that any attempt of the flesh to please God (i.e., "religion") is useless and needs to be laid to rest.  True obedience, then, means surrendering to the LORD who heals your heart (forgives your sin) and sets you free to know Him. This is the "end of the law," after all - to walk as God's free child who pleases Him out of a relationship of love, trust, and blessing. We can obey God, in other words, only if we first surrender our hearts to his love.

לא כַחֲטָאֵינוּ עָשָׂה לָנוּ וְלא כַעֲוֹנתֵינוּ גָּמַל עָלֵינוּ
כִּי כִגְבהַּ שָׁמַיִם עַל־הָאָרֶץ גָּבַר חַסְדּוֹ עַל־יְרֵאָיו
כִּרְחק מִזְרָח מִמַּעֲרָב הִרְחִיק מִמֶּנּוּ אֶת־פְּשָׁעֵינוּ
כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל־בָּנִים רִחַם יְהוָה עַל־יְרֵאָיו
כִּי־הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי־עָפָר אֲנָחְנוּ

lo · kha·cha·ta·ei·nu · a·sah · la·nu · ve·lo · kha·a·vo·no·tei·nu · ga·mal · a·lei·nu
ki · khig·vo·ah · sha·ma·yim · al-ha·a·retz · ga·var · chas·do · al-ye·re·av
kir·chok · miz·rach · mi·ma·a·rav · hir·chik · mi·me·nu · et-pesh·a·ei·nu
ke·ra·chem · av · al-ba·nim · rich·am · Adonai · al-ye·re·av
ki · hu · ya·da · yitz·rei·nu · za·khur · ki-a·far · a·nach·nu

Not according to our sins does He deal with us, and not for our iniquities does He repay us. For as high as the heavens ascend over the earth, so His love overwhelmingly prevails for those who revere Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. Like a father who is merciful to his sons, so the LORD shows mercy to those who revere Him. For He knows our nature; He remembers we are but dust.
(Psalm 103:10-14)


Important Note:  All who surrender obey, but not all who obey surrender... While we are not saved by obeying rules of conduct but solely by trusting in God's love (Eph. 2:9; 2 Tim. 1:9, Titus 3:5, Rom. 11:6, etc.), we will find ourselves willing to obey God from the heart only if we are really convinced that he loves and accepts us, despite our sins... The love of God is not without discipline, structure, and order, after all. Love is polite; it listens; it seeks to serve and worship with reverence and gratitude. So, after unconditionally surrendering our hearts to God, we will desire to do his will, that is, we will want to know and to do his Torah (Psalm 1:2), and the Holy Spirit will therefore lead us to a place of order, faithfulness, and peace -  not to disorder and confusion (1 Cor. 14:33,40). There are disciplines to the life of faith that are instilled within our hearts to help us "work out" the inner transformation of God's love into our daily lives (Jer 31:33; Heb. 10:16). And that is part of the rationale for liturgy, ritual, observing the moedim (biblical holidays), reading the weekly Torah portions, giving tzedakah, performing acts of chesed, and so on.  Ideally such things are meant to provide "form" to the inner content of the heart.  Shalom.

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