In spite of my unshakeable belief in the person of Christ, my Christian life has been a patchwork of successes and disappointments. I have known both joy and tumult. A number of crashing personal failures and regular emotional turbulence has often left me dangling over the precipice, grappling with despondency. Many times I have nearly concluded that Jesus doesn’t “work” for everyone, that some are doomed to live out their days as sad wastrels. I thought I might be one such person, having the strong suspicion that I was somehow constitutionally ineligible for successful Christianity due to my inability to consistently obey God.
Thankfully, as often as my missteps and mental anguish have caused my pursuit of Christ to sag, God has come around to rally me, often through painful circumstances. God’s chastening hurts, and pain is a great motivator. I may hate rules, but I hate pain more.
God showed me recently that there is much more to all this than disobedience and discipline. The pain in my life has often been nothing more than the natural consequences of wrong choices. In these cases, God didn’t even have to get involved; He just let the sequence of events play themselves out. Worse still was the inward decay that resulted from my disobedience. Whenever I have rebelled against God’s instructions for long, I have been left with a great shadow on my soul. My peace and joy and every other good thing inside me gets choked, while all the bad things increase: fear, pride, resentment and the urge to further rebel against God.
On the sleepless night I spoke about in the last post (“Discipline”), while I tossed and turned, God was showing me that I had been taking His laws into my own hands by acts of calculated disobedience. I had developed the habit of permitting myself to be disobedient in ways I thought would not harm anyone or seriously offend God. I have no doubt that the hubris I displayed by doing this was worse than most of the sins I declined to commit. Moreover, I had succeeded in undermining my own self-control. I had placed myself on slippery ground; the “minor” sins soon began to give way to more destructive misbehavior. There is no such thing as controlled sin.
In all this, God was showing me that rebellion is poison to the human soul. It takes away reason, self-control, humility, love. It isn’t only, or even primarily, about the effect of the sin; it is, first and foremost, about obedience to God.
When David sinned with Bathsheba, his prayer of repentance included the statement, Against you [God], and you only, have I sinned. (Psalm 51:4) Excuse me? This man had committed adultery and then covered it up by murdering the woman’s husband! He didn’t sin against them too? But of course what David meant was that his gravest sin was against God’s holy law.
Notice the progression of disobedience that takes place here: once David had given in to his lust, he was weakened. Then, in his compromised condition, he crossed a great boundary (murder) that he would previously have rejected out of hand. Furthermore, his victim wasn’t just a casual acquaintance; Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba’s husband) was one of only 37 men out of all the hundreds of thousands of Israelite soldiers who were called “David’s Mighty Men.” (2 Sam. 23) David had put a friend to death. Such is the self-serving fever of sin. It corrupts whatever it touches. I think the Bible’s fierce warnings against sin, more than they are condemning, are informative. God knows our bent nature and how alluring forbidden fruit is to us. He wants to get the message across that sin is like candy laced with arsenic.
Obedience, on the other hand, is more like eating vegetables such as Brussels sprouts. It is quite healthy but often unpleasant tasting, and it may not immediately energize the one who obeys. Its benefits are long-term spiritual strength and health.
When Jesus was fasting in the desert, Satan tempted Him to make bread out of stones, but Jesus refused, saying, Bread won’t feed men’s souls; obedience to every word of God is what we need. (Matt. 4:4, TLB) Here we find that even Jesus, God incarnate, was under the Father’s authority. He declared as much when He said, I do nothing on my own, but speak just what the Father has taught me. (John 8:28) Jesus spoke of obedience as actual sustenance. “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34, NIV)
Perhaps the worst aspect of sin is that it is the vehicle of humanity’s estrangement from God. We can choose either to step away from God (rebellion) or towards Him (obedience). Distance from God causes our souls to wither; proximity to Him causes them to flourish. We should all celebrate God’s patient resolve. God’s chastening is love.