Obedience is over-rated. It’s over-taught. It’s over-emphasized. Or, maybe I should say that it’s just taught wrong.
So much of our heritage is spent teaching obedience to certain lifestyle rules. “Do not speak this way. Do not go here. Do not do this. Do this. Say these things. Don’t say these things. Give your money here. Give more of your money here.”
I suppose those things have a place. But that kind of teaching really only leads to guilt.
Let’s be honest. You will always feel like a failure when your idea of being a believer is doing instead of believing.
But this is probably the basis of your spiritual formation. It was for me. We’ve been told, from sermons and classes, to stop doing certain things. But mere teaching is not life-changing. We don’t change just because we’re told to. Behavior formation rarely leads to lasting change. Instead, in my experience, it just leads to an immense weight of guilt. We don’t have enough self-control to change our own behavior.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, makes this their thesis. Studies on human behavior have proven that even with good intentions, we do not have enough self-control and self-strength to make those changes last. If you have a moment, you should watch this clip with Dan Heath, describing why research shows that behavior modification will always lead to failure.
I’m not real sure Jesus was that interested in ethics training. He knew, as the Word of God, that mere humans do not have the ability to change their own behavior. Because he says something way too profound about the spirit of God to be worried about teaching behavioral change.
Jesus, the Word of God, says that God’s spirit brings truth and counsel and intimacy with God.
It is God’s spirit that brings change.
Jesus wasn’t teaching them to obey any code of ethics. He was teaching them obedience to humility, and giving them God’s own breath to lead them. There is no ethics training here, no mobilization of a church army for politics or moral behavior. Let me show you.
Earlier, in John 13, Jesus removes his clothes and washes the feet of his disciples. He uses a Passover meal, a wash basin, and a towel, and becomes their servant, cleaning their calloused and dirty feet. The man who could raise Lazarus from the dead, turn water into wine, heal those with blindness or paralysis, is the very man who now looks just like a common slave.
And it was this moment that John calls the full extent of Jesus’ love for his followers. (Though many English translations indicate that Jesus “loved them to the end,” the Greek of this phrase is very convincing that Jesus loved them “to the utmost” via this one, single action, hence the footnote in the NLT.)
Really? Removing his clothes and washing their feet is the full extent of his love for these people?
The full extent of his love was washing the feet of his denier, Peter, and of his betrayer, Judas.
Understand that moment for Jesus. He had no contempt in his service. He humbled himself before the two men who, with their own words, would commit selfish acts of treason against him.
And the others? They would all forsake him, too, at the hour of his death.
So when Jesus calls for their obedience, he isn’t calling for a moment of behavior training. He’s not listing all of the sins they must avoid. He’s calling them to a life of humility, not situational ethics or moral relativism. He’s calling them to a life lived by the spirit of God.
I’m not sure I’m ready to grasp this, though. To wash the feet of betrayers is almost unthinkable. Seriously.
Think of the one person that you always avoid, because of personality conflicts, or maybe because of a past (and heated) disagreement. Could you wash their feet? Could you willingly serve them?
And want to?
Obedience is being open to the counsel and truth of God’s spirit. That is life-changing. We replace the breath in our lungs with the breath of God. The air that keeps us alive is not mere oxygen, but the very creative and protective force of God. In fact, Jesus knew that his disciples could not – on their own – follow this extreme example. Perhaps, as John wrote, only the One with all the power of the universe, could serve so eloquently.
Rather, Jesus promised them help. Supernatural help (John 14:16). Because they – we – need it.
They did not have the power to follow such an extreme example. So obedience can’t mean “rule-keeping.” If it did, there would be no need for supernatural help.
Obedience, then, is submission to the supernatural means to serve those we once despised.
Only God’s spirit brings truth and counsel. And until we breathe God’s air, we’ll continue to be mired in the guilt of our own inadequacy.