“Continue to obey” (Philippians 2:12).
This scripture is one of more than 50 places in the New Testament that reference obedience. However, “obedience” is not a popular virtue.
Fifty years ago (1963), Stanley Milgram published his seminal paper on Behavioral Studies on Obedience. He reported that people (subjects of the experiment) were willing to administrate larger and more dangerous electric shocks to people if demanded by technicians in lab coats. They felt bound to obey brutal commands from people in authority. The study was reported less than 20 years after the overthrow of the Nazis as well as on the eve of the Civil Rights movement. The lesson is clear: it is best to be suspicious of authority. Obedience. Really?
Yet, Christians are called to obey. Charles Stanley said it well, “The bottom line in the Christian life is obedience and most people don’t even like the word.” How are we to think of obedience? What is obedience, really?
First – Obedience is not a life of bondage or brutality, but a path of freedom and goodness. Take the Old Testament image of Pharaoh. Obedience in Pharaoh’s word was slavery. My friend, God is not Pharaoh. God sets slaves free!
Yet, some of us have felt that in the corporations we work for or even the homes we grew up in are places of bondage and brutality, if not physically, then psychologically. Good news! In the same Old Testament story, obedience to God was the path to freedom. In the New Testament, Jesus declared that we are no longer slaves to sin (John 8:38). Paul testifies that he has been set free from sin and the law.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
Obedience to the “law of the Spirit of life” sets us free.
Second – Obedience is both internal and external, the work of God in you and the way you work out your salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). It is receiving what God is doing inside and responding with what we do outside. “Obedience is the fruit of faith” (Christina Rossetti). Obedience is faithfully receiving His work in us and responding in accordance to His good purpose.
Let me show you the difference between inward and outward obedience:
- To one person I say, “I want to give you this present (hand it to them).”
- To another person I say, “I have a gift for you and it is behind that chair (they go and get it).”
I ask you, which person was obedient? They both were. But, you are thinking that just sitting and receiving a gift is a much easier form of obedience than the other. Well, that depends on the gift.
Let me illustrate:
Outward obedience might be God silently whispering in your heart, “I want you to say something kind about the enemy who has hurt you. I want you to do something kind for them.” Sounds tough. But doing so will bring a measure of freedom to you.
Now, consider inward obedience. Again, God silently whispers to you, “I want to give you the gift of healing from the resentment you have for your enemy. To do so, I ask you to return to the memory of when your enemy wounded you. I want you to forgive in your heart.” Now, that takes obedience. However, to obey will set you free.
Copyright © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.