Truth About Obedience
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
Although this verse has been something of an enigma to me all of my life, I do not want to try to unpack that again from the direction of whether Jesus ever made a mistake or not. Rather, what comes to my mind this morning is the contrast between the kind of obedience that Jesus demonstrated and taught about, and the kind of obedience that I always assumed was expected of me, both by God or from those in authority over me. I suspect there is much to learn in this.
The other verse that was impressed on me almost immediately was this one.
Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel." (John 5:19-20)
I suddenly begin to realize for the first time possibly, that the instant negative reaction produced deep inside of me whenever I hear the word obedience may possibly stem from a serious misunderstanding of the nature of obedience that Jesus practiced. The obedience that I have always thought was expected of me is strikingly different than what I am starting to see Jesus inviting me to experience.
I don't have this clear yet in my own mind; I am working through it as I write it down here, following clues that are coming to my attention. I suspect I won't get it all figured out here but will be in for yet another learning curve as more is revealed to me over time.
What has come to my attention so far is this: that what I have always thought of in relation to obedience was related to rules more than anything else. Rules, laws, regulations, policies, on-the-fly demands of parents, etc, were almost always expected to be carried out perfectly and promptly. Any resistance was viewed are insubordination or evidence of rebellion. Yet that very atmosphere ironically is what breeds a spirit of rebellion; and it most certainly did in my experience.
As far as religion was concerned, on top of being expected to obey unquestioningly all the demands of God as well as religious leaders, I was also supposed to spend as much time as possible learning more about them. Bible study seemed primarily for the purpose of learning about all the things I was supposed to know and comply with in order to be saved when Jesus comes again. Of course, given the only alternative to being saved, there was usually enough incentive to follow these expectations of God with a faint hope that maybe sometime off in the future obedience might finally start to become less burdensome. Yet the more I strove to comply to the increasing demands of the religion around me and what I was taught that God demanded of me, the less inclined I became to want to cooperate willingly.
That is just a smattering of the feelings and impressions I cannot forget from years of striving hard to be obedient. Needless to say, during those years I developed opposite attitudes from what I was supposed to develop as a good Christian. What actually resulted from all this rigid control was growing resentment deep inside of me that had to be continually repressed or I would most certainly experience even more imposed suffering as punishment for my non-compliance to any of the rules and expectations. Fear, guilt, shame, condemnation – all these things were constant and very intimate companions of my heart, but companions devoid of sympathy, lover or compassion that I was told that marked the life of Jesus.
I could go on endlessly about my upbringing and the emotional scars that it produced that still trigger me too often. But what I really want is to begin to see more clearly the kind of liberating obedience that I am beginning to sense that Jesus came to model. Somehow all that I have been taught and that is still so prevalent today just doesn't seem to line up with what I keep discovering as I press in to know God at a far more intimate level that I believe Jesus enjoyed with Him continuously.
Maybe it is because I for so long assumed that intimacy with God was more along the line of a reward rather than of the empowering cause that only could produce true obedience. As I reflect back on what my feelings and perceptions about what obedience was supposed to entail, it was always related to what I had to do, with or without God's help (that's another discussion). It always seemed that the burden was on me to know about what was expected of me and to comply with it. After getting that right, then maybe someday I could begin to enjoy some rest, some peace, some happiness (joy was beyond consideration for me), some relief. Obedience was the currency that had to be paid before one could really begin to enjoy the good stuff as rewards.
Yet when I look at the life of Jesus and His obedience to His Father, I don't see any of what I just described talked about in Scripture. I don't see anything recorded about Him referring incessantly to the demands of God in order for people to earn God's favor. That was the teachings of the religious leaders of His day as well as many in ours. The obedience that defined the life of Jesus seemed to be drastically different than most things I have associated with that word for most of my life.
Is it possible that Jesus spent most of his early years working to memorize Scripture, intensely learning to discipline His thoughts, emotions, urges and hormones until He 'got His act together' and was ready to take on the world in a public demonstration of how to live a perfect life under intense opposition? Somehow that model doesn't fit into the things Jesus taught or the ways in which He related to those around Him.
What strikes me even more is that though Jesus uses the word obey and its variations rather frequently, at the same time I find all of Jesus' teachings nearly devoid of what I would view as doctrinal references. It might be easy to chalk this up to the fact that Jesus mainly taught among people who were already well acquainted with Bible doctrines because most of them were Jews so they already knew those things from their religious leaders. But that doesn't hold much water either. Most of Jesus' disciples were untrained, unschooled, rough, low-class working people with no education to speak of other than maybe Judas. So if Jesus had felt that obedience was so closely linked to keeping all the rules and knowing all the right doctrines as I have always been taught, then He failed to do that much at all in teaching anyone about those things.
Now I find myself becoming even more curious. It appears from what I am starting to see that Jesus had little passion for teaching 'sound doctrine' in the way that this phrase has been used in churches today. What we define as 'doctrines' almost always have to do with things like, believing in the virgin birth of Jesus, believing Jesus was the Son of God, believing Jesus died and rose again, believing our particular denomination's teachings about what happens when people die, or believing what day to go to church on. Doctrine usually involves knowing the right answers for questions worked out by theologians over centuries who have decided for us what is most important to believe.
But again, I find much of what I have been taught as doctrines strangely missing in most of the teachings of Jesus. If obedience is believing all the right facts and additionally obeying all the regulations promoted by authoritative religious people, this model just doesn't make sense with what is becoming clearer in my mind about the life of Jesus So, what does it mean that Jesus was the Son who learned obedience through the things which He suffered?
That brings up more assumptions about obedience that are popular with some who lean toward a life of imposed deprivation. If it feels good it must be bad. If it tastes good you should be suspicious. If there is pleasure involved then you better pull back, for the Christian life must be a life of suffering and that is reinforced by this very verse. If Jesus learned obedience from the things He suffered, then that must mean that if we suffer enough then we will be refined or maybe distill obedience through suffering.
But is that what this verse is really talking about? Is God somehow impressed by excessive suffering? Do we earn brownie points with God by avoiding pleasure and practicing a life of always seeking out the most miserable way to live to prove ourselves worthy of His approval? I may be exaggerating some of these things, but actually not very much. This too has subtly influenced much of my life and has inhibited me from enjoying many things that I now realize God would have had me enjoy without feeling condemned. Now I feel trapped inside a mind that is wired for traditions of austerity with inhibitions about many things that my mind now sees as valid and healthy.
Was suffering the means by which Jesus earned His Father's approval and admiration? Or was Jesus' suffering simply a natural result of living so out of sync with people around Him that He was constantly catching flak for upsetting the status quo? What were the real reasons that Jesus suffered? And did that suffering produce His obedience, or did His suffering come largely as a reaction from those made uncomfortable with His different kind of obedience? It seems to me that much, if not all of His suffering was inflicted on Him by attempts to coerce Him to align with popular views of what was right and wrong.
Of course, there are always endless discussions about what the word learned in this verse means in relation to obedience. However, I suspect that where one comes down on that issue will be largely defined by their preformed conclusions about what God is like and how He expects us to relate to Him. If we view obedience as primarily a behavioral issue, all about performance and compliance with rules, then questions may lurk in the background about how perfectly Jesus performed in His life. It raises debilitating tensions in how one can learn obedience while not having yet fully arrived at perfection. But again, one's assumed definition of obedience is crucial to which way those arguments go.
There is so much emerging here that it is clear I am not going to get very far in this sitting. It is also clear that I now have even more questions than answers; yet something deep inside of me is awakening with new hope that I might find some healing in the near future for the deep, hidden wounds inflicted on my heart for so many years by the confusion and false notions about the real meaning of obedience. I am eager to be freed of the inner triggered reactions I still feel whenever this word is tossed around. I long to experience and to know personally just what Jesus had in mind when He talked about obedience.
I need to summarize what has come to my mind so far concerning what I am starting to see as far as Jesus' obedience is concerned.
I see the main focus in Jesus' life as clinging very tight to His Father through daily, intimate times of communication in which He somehow must have unloaded all the residual emotional garbage He must have accumulated each day in exchange for fresh power, peace, satisfaction, love and patience. He then took what He received from God – grace – to then pour out Himself on behalf of hurting, wounded, dysfunctional, unlovable people who were drawn to Him. He did this each individual day at a time. It seems that the center of Jesus' life of perfect obedience revolved around this daily focus on intimacy with His Father from which flowed everything else that heaven must define as obedience.
That begins to really challenge everything I have assumed in my definition of obedience. It seems to be emerging that obedience is learned in the sense that maybe it is experienced rather than forced or figured out. Obedience is more like emerging fruit that takes shape slowly on the vine as proper attention is paid to making sure all the connections are right and the supply of nutrients is readily available. Obedience is starting to look a lot less like something demanded and worked hard to produce and more like simply a description of what emerges naturally from maintaining a healthy relationship with the Source of life.
I know this may seem like heresy to some, but I am gravitating toward many discoveries that are considered heretical by those who still cling to the performance-based religion of my past. And I suppose this may be part of what is spoken of in this verse relating to the suffering part. If I am afraid to be out of step with those considered to be religiously correct or those in authority, then my life will not be much like the life of Jesus, my perfect example. For if anyone was out of step with religion and compliance to its demands for orthodoxy, it was Jesus Christ. The Bible is full of stories about persecution against those who refused to embrace the kind of obedience taught by mainstream religion. And persecution means suffering will be part of one's life if they follow the truth.
Sadly, most suffering for a true Christ-follower often comes from the direction of people claiming to be religious, and very often from people claiming to be fellow believers. Whenever anyone begins to question accepted opinions and settled beliefs about what it means to be a true Christian, the fiercest opposition most often arises from those who start to feel threatened about their own dependence on liturgy, religious knowledge or the authority, influence and power they wield over other people's lives. A spiritual journey that liberates souls from bondage to earthly religious authorities that have long relied on them for financial, political, emotional or other provision, will be viewed as heresy by those thus threatened; for they have a vested interest in keeping in tact the established status quo beliefs.
I am coming to see that authority in the body of Christ is of a radically different nature than what the church and the world generally defines as authority. But that too is another hot topic I don't want to get into here. I would only say that if a person begins to grasp the true meaning of the kind of obedience Jesus was talking about and that He lived out in His relationship to His Father, this sort of living will undermine and threaten all of the world's structures and systems including the institutional churches. As a result such choices will unavoidably bring suffering to anyone daring to embrace a life like Jesus.
I see in the teachings of Jesus far greater emphasis on attitudes of our heart much more than the outward behaviors or actions. That is not to say He doesn't talk a great deal about our actions. But whenever people came to Jesus seeking answers about behavioral issues, it seems to me that His answers usually directed them to what was deeper inside rather than offering them fixes for their current problems. Jesus talked a great deal about belief, which is itself yet another word I have been exploring for years to discern its true meaning. Belief in God and in Jesus, according to Him anyway, is at the very core of what is necessary to experience true obedience.
For too long I subconsciously thought that obedience was closer to the center of cause and effect. But it is now becoming clearer that real obedience is impossible without first making an intimate, heart-based connection with my Father in heaven the center of my attention rather than spending so much time trying to regulate my behavior or adjust intellectual opinions about points of contention about doctrine.
The religion I grew up with and still live around to a great extent is primarily concerned with staying between certain parameters laid down by church authority. But the religion I see taught and lived by Jesus seems to have little to do with any of that. On the other hand, Jesus' religion had very much to do with the condition of the heart and how I view God which in turn will be reflected in the way I relate to those around me. As usual it is not completely different from mainstream religion, but it does mean moving toward a similar goal but from a very different direction. Typical religion too often tries to arrive at obedience from the direction of studying about it, learning rules about it, working hard at practicing it and when one finds they are too weak, then acquiring techniques to obtain more power from God to assist me in finally achieving it.
All of this seems quite foreign to what I am seeing in the obedience of Jesus. I never see any hint of Him working hard to obey laws of His Father, working hard to overcome temptations the way we usually think of it, striving to hold in check impulses to exploit others for His own benefit. Many assume that this was maybe because He was God so He had an advantage over us by not having the same issues we struggle with. That too is another discussion I won't go into here; but I am convinced that the real misunderstanding is partly traceable to a serious misconception about what obedience actually means. That is why I am seeking to explore this more intentionally now.
I am not examining this because I need another topic to write about or I am interested in inviting intellectual sparring from anyone. God forbid! I am delving into this because my own heart finds itself struggling with recurring depression, fears about what God thinks about me and forebodings whenever I find myself feeling out of sync with God's ways and expectations or when I feel distant from Him. I have learned a great deal over the past forty years that has brought me much peace, joy and enlightenment. Yet old questions and fears from the past still arise from deep inside of me at times to haunt me and darken my spirit with thoughts that maybe all of my learning and assumed progress toward living a life in truth may still be all just a fraud.
When I compare what I sometimes see deep inside of me with what I am even now just starting to learn about what a real Christian looks like inside, I feel hopeless despair many times. The last few days I have had ugly insights into the pervasiveness that selfishness has in my own soul that terrifies me and makes me wonder if even God can deliver me from this mindset of sin and death.
I wonder sometimes if I will ever experience the kind of spontaneous, joyful obedience and intimacy with God that I have been learning more about for so long, or if I will just acquire lots of fascinating information about it that makes me feel good while engaged in discussions with others who are learning similar things. When will these wonderful insights begin to materialize in palpable results and produce fruit of the Holy Spirit sort in my own life? When will I even feel converted or feel like an authentic Christian? Oh, I can find people willing to assure me that I am on the right road and I needn't worry about these fears. But they have no clue of the saturation of intense selfishness and pride that I sometimes glimpse inside of me when the Spirit of God flashes light into those dark places inside.
Short of a stunning miracle and intervention of God to overwhelm and crush the evil that resides inside of me, there is no hope from any obedience I can produce. I know all the right answers to these feelings, but right answers sometimes fall short of assuring the heart about what it knows about me much better than my head. When God says the heart is desperately wicked and is incapable of even knowing, as I learned yesterday the original language says, I have to question when I get to receive a new one that works much better than the one I know still resides inside of me. If perfect obedience is the requirement for entrance into heaven – and there is strong evidence to support that – and true obedience must flow from the heart, I keep wondering why after fifty years of seeking to know God and His will that I still don't feel much more unselfish than I did as a terrified child obsessively pleading with an ever-threatening deity to forgive my sins every waking moment of my days.
Wow, opening up this issue of obedience is really unleashing some residual garbage from deep reservoirs inside of me. But I want to be freed of all this residual stuff that continues to trigger me and cause me to stumble and keeps me held back from the intimacy that I must have with God to experience and grow into what I am learning. I want the natural fruit of true obedience.
As always, my only hope is to trust in a God who is faithful and will continue to completion the work He started in me. I choose to trust in Him while I keep plying Him with questions in the meantime.