When one hears the word "obedience," thoughts often go in the direction of oppression and submission in a negative sense. This is not surprising, as the word is often used in a negative context. Whether it's children who misbehave and must learn to obey their parents, criminals who must obey the law, or cult leaders who demand complete obedience from their people.
However, obedience is not synonymous with oppression. In fact, our society would not function without people having a certain level of obedience to the country's laws, and there would be chaos in families if children never listened to what their parents said. Obedience is a necessary building block for a well-functioning society that contributes to structure and order—creating room for cooperation and collective well-being.
But in the times we live in, obedience is almost seen as a swear word. This is partly due to the cultural trends we see, where young people are indoctrinated to believe that the only one they should obey is themselves. Today's mantra is "follow your heart!" It sounds nice, but this is a terrible idea because if one were always to do as they feel, life would become quite chaotic. Therefore, it is important to learn to do what is right, simply because it is right, and not necessarily because it feels right. This is perhaps one of the most valuable things we can teach our children.
In an era where individualism and self-realization are highly valued, we must not forget the importance of obedience, but that does not mean blind following of rules.
When it comes to faith, obedience is a central theme. God, who is after all the Almighty Creator, is in a position where demanding obedience is neither inappropriate nor selfish. Our government has a certain right to demand obedience due to its position, but God is a much higher authority—whether we like it or not. Because He is who He is, we must accept that He has the right to demand a far higher degree of obedience than even our government or other earthly authority figures.
Another Kind of Obedience
But there is an important difference between the type of obedience God desires and the type of obedience that earthly institutions seek. For the government, it doesn't matter if we want to obey the country's laws, as long as we just do it. They won't ask, "Did you actually want to pay taxes?" or "Did you want to drive according to the speed limit?" As long as you follow the rules, they are satisfied.
For God, obedience is important, but He is not just after the act of obedience itself. He wants our obedience to come from the heart—meaning that we obey Him because what He desires is what we desire. This becomes very clear in Jesus' teachings in Matthew chapter 5.
Here, among other things, He says that it is not enough to just refrain from killing; if one is angry with their brother without reason, they are in danger of judgment. He also says that it is not enough to just avoid committing adultery; whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
What Jesus is saying is that it is not enough to just obey the law—God wants us to want to obey the law. God does not just look at outward actions. He looks at the heart behind the action, and for Him, it is not enough to just perform the action if the heart is not in it.
This makes obeying God's commandments an impossibility due to our sinful nature. That's precisely why Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3). Because even if we, by pulling ourselves together, managed to obey the commandments, it is impossible to always do it from the heart. Even if we get angry, hopefully, we can pull ourselves together so we don't kill the person we are angry at—but for God, we have already broken His commandment when we became angry.
A Reflection of the Heart's Condition
God does not want our obedience to be an expression of our self-control. He wants our obedience to be a reflection of the state of our heart, and therefore the obedience God seeks is much deeper than just adhering to commands and rules.
For God, our obedience is an expression of our faith and trust in Him, and fundamentally, He does not want our obedience to be motivated by fear of punishment. 1 John 4:18 says that "... perfect love drives out fear..." and that the one who fears is not "... made perfect in love..." At the same time, John says that "... whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him..." (1 John 2:5), and that "... this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments..."—but he also adds that "... His commandments are not burdensome..." (1 John 5:3).
One might wonder why John writes that "... His commandments are not burdensome..." because if you remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5, His commandments were much stricter than the old laws and rules. The difference is that Jesus' commandments are not based on fear of punishment but are an expression of love—and then the commandments are not burdensome to bear.
If you love someone, it's incredible what you can get yourself to do to show your love. But if you were to do the same things because you were afraid the one you love would hit you if you didn't—then suddenly the same things would become a heavy burden.
When our obedience to God is based on fear of punishment, holiness becomes an endlessly heavy burden that one never quite feels they can lift. But when our obedience to God is based on love, holiness becomes the longing of our heart and not something one strives for out of a sense of duty.
Another important element here is also that when we are born again, God gives us the power we need to live holy. In other words, He comes and helps us by changing us from the inside through His Spirit and creating new longings and desires within us. It is still we who must make the choice whether we want to follow the Spirit or the flesh, but when we choose the Spirit, He gives us the power we need.
Only Love is Good Enough
For God, it's not good enough to just obey the commandments—He wants our heart. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee had managed to live up to the commandments and was not shy about making known how good he had been. The tax collector, on the other hand, knew well that he had not managed it, and his remorse comes out in a sigh: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" He had not managed to live up to the commandments as well as the Pharisee, but it is not the Pharisee whom Jesus praises in this story. On the contrary, it says that it was the tax collector who "... went home justified ..."
If the heart is not in the right place, it doesn't matter how good you are or how holy you live. But if the heart is in the right place, David says that "... as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His mercy ...". What is the right attitude of the heart? It comes at the end of the verse: "... toward those who fear Him ..."
This fear is not the fear of punishment but a true acknowledgment that God is the Almighty Lord and God—the acknowledgment that He is holy and righteous. It is not the fear that Adam and Eve had when it says they hid from God, but it is the fear that Joseph had when it says he left his coat and ran from Potiphar's wife when she sought to seduce him. King Solomon says this "... fear of the Lord is to hate evil ..." (Prov 8:13). Why? Because we love God and want to stay far away from anything that can come between us and God.
The obedience God seeks is not just about following commands and rules but about having a heart filled with awe and love for Him. This will lead you to stay away from everything He dislikes, but your motive will be to draw closer to God. Perhaps like David, you fall and mess things up, but because you love God, you will rise again, acknowledge your sin, and continue to draw closer to Him.