The Bible contains hundreds of exhortations to do or not to do many things. If each is taken individually without taking the spirit of His Law into account, the result is “legalism”, or blind adherence to rules in an attempt to achieve righteousness without the merciful love of God as motivation. Usually, it is a form of self-promotion, an attempt to satisfy one’s need for significance by attempting to outperform everyone else and distinguish one’s self as excelling over others. This approach to Christianity is not pleasing to God. The Pharisees in the Gospels were legalists, having an outer form of godliness, but having foul, cruel or selfish motivations and intentions on the inside. Jesus regularly accused them of hypocrisy because they attempted to disguise their polluted inner selves with an outward appearance of piety (Mt.12:1-29, 23:1-36). St. John the Baptist likewise called them a brood of vipers (Mt.3:7), for their religion was wrongly motivated and they preyed upon others to promote themselves. Let it be clearly understood, legalism is not proper obedience to the will of God. Ungodly motives are always a cause for repentance.
As Christians, we are to love God. Loving God should be our motivation for obeying the will of God. Our love for God has many expressions, worship, thankfulness, reverence, and Christ-likeness among them; here we will summarily speak of them as “being pleasing” to God. Jesus is quoted in John 14:15 as saying “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” and in John 15:12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you”. In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus says that loving God is the greatest commandment, followed by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Clearly, loving God and loving mankind is the will of God. Obediently expressing love is pleasing to Him (Heb.13:21), and since love is the fulfillment of His Law, we should learn how to love by learning and practicing the many components of love, the individual virtues.
Our obedience also puts us in a position to receive His many blessings. Like a child who comes home late and misses the blessing of the dinner meal, we likewise miss out on the blessings of God when we choose to act contrary to His will for us. Obedience to His command to love is supposed to motivate Christians at all times and in all things, His blessings are the results. We must not put the fabled cart before the horse by letting rewards become the motivation for obedience; wrong motivations are not pleasing to God. We take ourselves out of a position to receive His blessings when we seek rewards instead of seeking Him first. We should be satisfied merely by the reward of knowing we are being pleasing to God. When we do so, we are practicing the virtue of humility. As Jesus said, the riches and accolades we receive from seeking to please self and our fellow man is its own reward and precludes heavenly treasures (Mt.6:1-6).
Just as there are right and wrong motivations for obedience, there are right and wrong uses of our will as we seek to be obedient. Obedience is the subjugation of the human will to the divine, also referred to as surrender, submission, brokenness, or abiding. It is making a firm decision to conform our motivations to His will and be willing to do as our Lord commands regardless of all other considerations. Willingness needs to be distinguished from willpower; they are not the same. Willingness draws upon the boundless strength of the Holy Spirit; willpower expends the limits of human strength. Being willing to obey is to trust in God; exercising willpower in attempting to keep the law is to trust in self. Maintaining an attitude of willingness is to abide in our Lord. Abiding is the only way we can do good deeds and collect treasure in Heaven, for only God is truly good (Mt.19:17). Jesus teaches us in John 15:5 that without Christ, we can do nothing good, and that we are to abide in him and bear fruit. Some of the fruits of the Holy Spirit are listed by St. Paul (Gal.5:22-23) as the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.
Being obedient to the will of God and receiving His blessings should not be equated with ongoing pleasant life circumstances. Jesus warned that we “will be hated by all because of My name” (Lk.21:17). A blest life is one lived in the fullness and abundance of the Holy Spirit. His fullness sates our needs for significance, security, fulfillment and joy. His abundance touches all areas of life, the physical, mental, emotional, experiential and the spiritual. Whether a day brings us pleasantries or sorrows, the magnificent presence of God in our lives is an awesome wonder of unparalleled magnitude. The specifics are as unique as our individual personalities.
It should also be noted here that obedience to God does not precipitate results as we might anticipate. We are responsible for our obedience, the results are not necessarily indicative of the quality of our service, the purity of our intentions, or anything else dependent upon us. We are to trust and obey, if we do this, we have been successful. If we fail to obey, we have likewise failed. God alone is Lord; we do not control circumstances or other people, and the powers of our perceptions are too limited to be an accurate judge of the short-term consequences or immediate circumstances when set against the backdrop of eternity. We simply persevere in obedience and learn our lessons from the circumstances He orchestrates. Righteous behavior keeps us joyfully in His presence and spares us the consequences of sin; it does not guarantee perpetually pleasant circumstances or desired outcomes.
As we learn obedience, learning to follow His instruction regardless of circumstances or our personal qualifications for performing any given task, we learn to trust God. We learn what St. Paul meant when he said, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil.4:13), for we will likewise perform tasks beyond our natural, born abilities when we adopt an attitude of surrender and allow ourselves to be His hands, feet and voice here on Earth. Such surrender truly allows us to behold the goodness, the mercy, and the power of God in action as we observe the Holy Spirit at work from the inside out. Dr. Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, author and central figure of the television show “In Touch”, tells a story of surrender that conveys how he learned the difference between trusting his innate abilities verses trusting in God. From “The Wonderful Spirit Filled Life” (© Charles Stanley, 1992, 1995; Nashville, Tennessee, USA by Thomas Nelson Inc., pages 37-39):
It was four o’clock Friday afternoon. My first class was to begin the following Monday. I had done everything I knew to do. I had read, memorized, fasted, prayed, begged, bargained, pleaded, and bordered on threatening a few times. Nothing had changed. From my vantage point, stretched out on the floor in our den, I was just as far away from understanding the Spirit-filled life as I had ever been. But in reality, I was only moments away.
I had been praying for almost an hour. I was reading and meditating on two verses in 1 John:
“And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” 1 John 5:14-15 NASB
I was at the end of my emotional rope. I glanced at my watch and then buried my face in my hands. “Lord,” I prayed, “You promised that if I ask anything according to Your will, You will hear me. I know it’s not Your will for me to be frustrated and overwhelmed with this feeling of inadequacy. I believe it’s Your will for me to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. I have done everything I know to do. And nothing has worked. I know You don’t want me to go in there unprepared on Monday. And I know You don’t want me to quit. So I’m just going to trust You because I don’t know anything else to do.”
Immediately, I was overwhelmed with an amazing sense of confidence and assurance. It was a feeling. But it was in such stark contrast with what I had been feeling for the past three months that I knew something had happened. My fear was gone. It had vanished completely.
I didn’t see stars or hear a voice. I didn’t speak in tongues. In fact, that was the point. I didn’t do anything – except trust Him. Then it hit me. I had been consumed with a desire to do something, to somehow win the Holy Spirit. I had been trying to convince God with my sincerity. Furthermore, I had been seeking some kind of physical manifestation to confirm that He had done, or was doing, something. I wanted to see something.
As I sat there thinking all of this through, two verses ran through my mind: “For we walk by faith, not by sight (2Cor.5:7), and “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). The Spirit-filled life is a life of faith. I had missed the obvious. I had been looking all over for something that was right in front of me. I didn’t need to beg. God wanted it for me more than I wanted it for myself. All I needed to do was believe and move out in faith.
I woke up early Monday morning. I couldn’t wait for that first class to begin. As the men filed in, the devil whispered in my ear, “Charles, what do you think you can teach these men? You are the youngest one in the room!” I whispered back, “Maybe so, but I’m filled with the Spirit of truth, and He can handle anything these men throw at Him.”
This first encounter with the Holy Spirit resulted primarily in a heightened sense of confidence. When feelings of insecurity and fear surfaced, I would remember that God – through the Holy Spirit – was living in me. He was adequate for anything that came my way. I would find myself praying throughout the day, “Holy Spirit, I can’t but You can. Fill me for the work You have called me to do.” And He did. It was evident in the classroom and in the pulpit. I preached with greater authority and boldness. As a pastor and faculty member, I led with a passion. The ironic thing was that I was more aware than ever of my inadequacy. But it was no longer a handicap. The Holy Spirit more than compensated.
The Christian life is a life of faith. We usually don’t have much trouble accepting that fact in connection with our salvation. But when it comes to our daily routine, faith is sometimes conspicuously missing. We tend to take matters into our own hands and do the best we can. Simply put, we walk by sight. If I don’t see it or feel it, it must not be true. If I don’t feel God’s presence, He must not be with me. If I don’t see a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, He must not be around. In the weeks that followed my enlightenment I was riveted to any passage of Scripture that said anything about the Holy Spirit. During that time, I discovered several things that revolutionized my perspective concerning what it meant to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
For years I believed that is was my responsibility to wait on the Holy Spirit to fill me. At some point I guess I grew tired of waiting and tried to win Him or talk Him into filling me. Thus, all the praying and begging and fasting. But as Billy Graham stated so perfectly, “This is the good news: we are no longer waiting for the Holy Spirit – He is waiting for us. We are no longer living in a time of promise, but in the days of fulfillment (© Billy Graham 1988, “The Holy Spirit”; Dallas, Texas, USA by Word, p.14).”
2Sa.22:31, the way of God is without fault; take refuge (trust and abide) in Him
Ps.19:7, the law of God is without fault, this knowledge of God leads to wisdom
Is.26:3, believing God at all times brings peace of mind and the favor of God
Mt.5:46-6:4, faithfulness is rewarded when rightly motivated and done in secret with God
Mt.19:21, instruction to surrender all possessions to God (selflessness)
Rom.12:2, forsake secular ways and adopt the ways of God and know His goodness
1Cor.13:8-12, instruction to grow in the ways of God (goodness)
2Cor.12:7-9, grace empowers us to do His will; troubles and weakness are teaching tools
2Cor.13:11, pray for us to grow to full maturity and live ever in peace
Php.3:13-15, focus on God and move towards Him to reveal internal hindrances
Col.3:12-14, children of God are holy and loved; show others the mercies of our Lord
Jas.1:16-25, be free of delusion; know the source of goodness and do His will
1Jn. 3:21-24, a clear conscience is evidence of abiding in the Holy Spirit
“It is well known that obedience is the chief among the initiatory virtues, for first it displaces presumption and then it engenders humility within us. Thus it becomes, for those who willingly embrace it, a door leading to the love of God.”
St. Diadochos of Photiki (5th C.); The Philokalia Vol. I, pg. 265 #41
“An absolute dominion has been given us by the Almighty. All the senses, the evil spirits, and the whole created universe banded together cannot diminish the liberty of the will in acting as often, in any manner, and to any end that it desires”.
Dom Lorenzo Scupoli (16th C.?); “The Spiritual Combat”, pg. 41
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