John is a new disciple who struggles with prayer. He understands his need for it but he’s a little overwhelmed by his inability—it’s difficult for him to overcome a lifetime of not praying. He shared his struggle with another believer who told him that the commands of God aren’t of great significance—they’re just externals, what really matters is that John has a good heart (i.e., is sincere). John is now really confused and uncertain about what to do. Would it be insincere to keep trying to pray since (at least at times), he really doesn’t want to pray? Would it be better to just come clean in regard to his prayer failures and move on to something he’s good at doing? Is God more concerned about us doing the right thing or about having the right motivation? How important is obedience and what exactly is involved in obeying God?
Samuel asked Saul, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Israel’s next king said something a little different: You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).
Samuel contrasts the offering of sacrifices with obedience; David contrasts sacrifices with a surrendered heart. The passages aren’t contradictory, they’re complementary—what God desires from man is obedience from a surrendered heart (see Romans 6:17). While this is the ideal, the Scripture addresses a couple of other types of obedience—one that is desirable and one that is not.
There’s what could be referred to as sham obedience—when actions or rituals that are right in and of themselves emanate from someone who isn’t right because they are leading a disobedient, rebellious life and their heart is far from God. Though that person is technically obeying God by doing what has been commanded, it is not for the right reason. Not only are they guilty of being disinterested in honoring God, they compound their culpability by wanting to deceive and misrepresent themselves before others as being righteous. This kind of behavior is addressed in numerous passages of Scripture (see Isaiah 1:10-17; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 6:1-18, for a few).
In none of these texts (or others), should we get the idea that the actions or commands themselves are being minimized (after all, they are from God). What is being lowered is the value of the “obedience” offered. A computer is a wonderful machine that can be used in ways that benefit the user and others. The fact that it can also be used in destructive and harmful ways doesn’t lessen its potential for good. If I choose to use it for bad purposes, then what has been reduced is the value of my using it—not the computer’s potential for good. That is inherent and cannot be changed.
There’s also a struggler’s obedience—where obedience is offered to God even though internally the person is struggling. They don’t always “feel” like praying, being patient, or forgiving others. There is no follower of Jesus that doesn’t experience this (though some do more than others).
There are some things we would do even if they weren’t commanded, there are some attitudes and behaviors we love! And such obedience is pleasing to our Father. It is a wonderful thing. But at the same time, we don’t learn about obedience because from these because we’re doing what we want to do as well as what God wants us to do. It’s when we obey despite our inner battle, when we do what in many ways is counter to us, when we do something that hurts—that’s when we learn true obedience because we have learned how to place God’s will above our own.
To cheapen the above by saying that such obedience is less spiritual because someone struggles with mixed emotions is to seriously misunderstand the nature of the obedience that is pleasing to God. Would they diminish Abraham’s offering of Isaac as an external that wasn’t important? Would they say that Esther shouldn’t have gone before Xerxes because she was conflicted about it? Was Jesus somehow less spiritual because He went through the struggles He did in Gethsemane? The truth is He learned obedience from the things He suffered and so do we (Hebrews 5:8-9).
As a practical note, haven’t we all done what was right when we didn’t feel like it and later we were glad we did? I imagine we’ve all also failed to do what was right because we didn’t feel like it and later regretted it. What we should learn from this is that it’s easier to act your way into feeling better than to feel your way into acting better. The first is the Christian norm, the second is culture’s.
Obedience is the fruit of a loving trust of our Father (John 14:15). To obey Him because it is our will to do so or because we are placing His will above ours is pleasing to Him. To view God’s commands as unimportant externals is to make intent everything and opportunity nothing. The right thing is to obey God; the right reason is because we love Him.