When people struggle to get close to God, to find a God they don’t feel is near, wise old men usually give counsel in this order: alms, scripture, and obedience.
Alms: Try it one of these days. Do something wonderful for someone who can never pay you back. Do it in secret. Don’t tell a soul. Not your wife, not your children, not the recipient. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand has been up to. I can almost promise: you will feel God close to you.
The Word: Then wrestle with scripture. Really READ it. The Jesus who felt compassion for the sick, the Jesus who had to face temptation, the Jesus who told the Canaanite woman He couldn’t spare miracles for “dogs” — that Jesus will become more real to you, because you had the courtesy to do what most “believers” don’t. READ HIS BOOK. Read it without human filters. Odds are, you will be more “God fearing” as a result. (The Lord of Hosts is not some Beth Moore, Max Lucado sugar-cookie confection.)
But after all of that, there is a path to God we tend to resist, because it speaks to us too rudely. It asks for a response against our strongest inclination. Obedience. Do it because I told you to. Take the city by blowing trumpets. Reduce your forces, Gideon. Sacrifice your son, Isaac. Get up on that cross, Jesus.
I’m coming to believe it is a kind of indicator of whether we’re really saved, or not.
Judas obedience: The first sort of obedience is essentially rooted in self. We are special because we’ve joined a tribe; we’ve found a system that makes better sense than any other tribe. We’ve settled into a thought-pattern that gives us meaning, and we’re so proud of that meaning, we’re willing to club others over the head with it — not for their good, but our own. To make it simple, let’s call it Judas Obedience.
There’s nothing easy about Judas obedience. We give up old habits. We endure ridicule. We grit our teeth and do what we’re told, but we also make up new rules just to show others how committed we are to the cause. Judas obedience usually manifests itself in ridiculous legalisms — modesty codes, Corban, Sabbath rules, orthodoxy tests. The disciples of Judas obedience scold law-breakers not because others are breaking the law, but because Judas resents having to keep the law. Judas obedience doesn’t really know any wholesome pleasure — music, dance, a glass of wine, love-making with your wife. It mistakes false zeal for holiness, and it waits for praise from men. Eventually it tends to burn out spectacularly. Judas, and his disciples, open a bordello in Reno, or pay for a sex change, or sell Christ for thirty pieces of silver. If Judas obedience doesn’t result in spectacular earthly failure, it hardens its neck and goes to God with a list of accomplishments.
Stephen Obedience: the other sort of obedience is rooted in fear and love for God. It is born in the desire to please a God you both fear and love, a God who won’t check your “like” button or share your posts, a God who might not SEEM as though He’s there when a mob is fixing to stone you. It’s obviously not easy or predictable obedience either. Jesus spoke of the son who was justified, even though he didn’t agree at first. (Matthew 21:28-31), and Jesus, Himself, wrestled with God when He asked for the cup to be taken from Him.
Stephen Obedience is a lonely, unheralded walk. People fall asleep when you’re going through solitary struggles; Your friends deny you. Your friends even give you false lectures, and your own wife urges you to “curse God and die.” Stephen Obedience allows you prophetic remonstrance, and righteous anger, because you actually love the poor souls you’re scolding.
Most of us, including me, fall into “Judas Obedience” more often than “Stephen Obedience.”
But we should take comfort. Paul and Peter are our friends in this weakness.
Praise Jesus. He is merciful. He knows us, and He prays for us.