It took me a long time work out why disobedience is so condemned in the Bible. I come from a background where obedience is the norm and my personality is such that I tend to obey instinctively, mostly because I like pleasing people and want to gain a lot of my self-value from other people’s approval. I was never a particularly rebellious teenager and don’t disobey lightly. In fact, I tend to be the kind of person who will fulfil the letter of the law in tedious detail, just because it’s written down. That’s why I am so good at administration, I suppose!
It came as something of a shock to me, therefore, to discover that rebellion is man’s natural state without God and that disobedience and obedience are far more than rejecting or following the law. In the Bible, I discovered that obedience needs to come from within and needs to be more than legalistic letter-following. It is a heart attitude which is highly valued by God.
I struggled with 1 Samuel 15:1-35 TNIV for many years. This is the passage where the Lord rejects Saul as king. The reason I struggled was that God’s response seemed disproportionate to the sin committed. It looked rather like my hissy fits: over-the-top and out of control and I knew that could not be true of God (indeed the passage reminds us of God’s character: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” (1 Sam 15:29 TNIV), showing us that capriciousness is not part of His nature.)
In the end, I came to understand that obedience counts more than fine words and that rebellion is essentially idolatry: putting something (in this case, one’s own ideas) before God: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Sam 15:22-23 TNIV)
In Matthew 21:28-32 TNIV, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons. A short story, blunt almost to the point of terseness, this parable reminds me that obedience counts more than fine words. But the Bible is adamant that obedience is about more than simply doing the right thing (the ‘burnt offerings and sacrifices’ were prescribed by the law, but God wanted more than outward obedience only); it is the overflow of a heart that is in right relationship with God. ‘In everything I want You to be pleased’, Jeremy Camp sings in the song ‘Reign In Me’, and it’s that inner desire to please God which has to be the motivation for our obedience.
As a parent I’ve seen grudging, reluctant, heavy-sighing-door-slamming obedience and it is not a pretty picture! As a teacher I’ve seen pupils obediently apologise to others, but with such an attitude that it’s obvious this is in-order-to-avoid-further-trouble obedience rather than genuine repentance. We can be just the same with God: obeying Him with gritted teeth, so to speak. I believe that’s better than disobedience, but I think what God longs for is sincerity: ‘truth in the inner parts’ (Ps 51:6 TNIV), as David came to realise after he had sinned so disastrously against God. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Ps 51:16-17 TNIV)
Obedience, ultimately, has to come from within, from our desire to please God, from our longing to be in right relationship with Him, from our surrendered heart.