Obedience is the Essence of the Life of Faith
Today if you hear his voice, harden not your heart.
We usually define obedience as submission to another. This definition, although true, doesn't provide a full understanding of obedience. The English word "obey" is derived from the Latin audire which means "to hear." The Greek word used in the Bible for obey, upakouw (hupakouo), is also derived from a primitive root (akouo) that means to hear. Finally, the Hebrew word for obey (shama) likewise means to hear. All three of these words have as their basis the picture of listening attentively. Obedience begins with hearing and ends in action in response to what was heard.
When we are obedient to the commands of other men, we must always be on guard against a request that is immoral. It has been said that, "blind obedience belongs to rogues and not to honest men." Any man may have motives that are evil and only seeks our obedience for his gain. But, even if the one requiring obedience has no ill motive, he may simply be giving us a command out of his own ignorance or false knowledge. Thus, to blindly obey other men is dangerous. We must always check to be sure our compliance is a good thing. It is mainly for this reason that we tend to have a negative attitude towards obedience and, unfortunately, this negative attitude is carried over into religious beliefs. So many people will not come to God for the simple reason that they are conditioned to not obey out of a well-founded mistrust of other men.
Obedience to a moral code is for similar reasons. We obey a list of moral or ethical rules because we have been taught or learned to not trust our own desires. We know that some of our desires are likely to be wrong, and thus we should not blindly obey our desires. Thus every action we take must be checked against our knowledge of what is good and what is not good. This programming of our mind to always check our desires against a moral code is the basis of how we are conditioned and conformed in a society. We are made to understand our own failings, then shown a list of rules and told that if we obey these rules, we won't get ourselves into trouble. Unfortunately, this type of obedience is transferred into the Christian community until people are misled into thinking that obeying God means following the officially prescribed set of rules. What those rules are will vary, but it's otherwise just the same from one group to another.
Obedience comes in many forms and for a variety of reasons. The most common reason for obedience is a fear of retribution. We know that if we violate the civil laws, men with badges, guns and chains will come looking for us. Adolescents usually obey adults simply because they don't want to get in trouble, not because they actually want to do what they are told. People also give in to the demands of criminals for the same reason. The fear of harm is usually sufficient to get someone to give up their money. So often Christian preachers will scare people into a religious observance this way. They prey upon our fear of retribution and harm and desire for safety to get us into the group. They preach that if we don't obey God, we will burn in hell for all eternity! That may well be true, but this is simply obedience motivated by a desire for self-preservation, or fear.
Another type of obedience is the obedience that we give in order to gain a benefit. An athlete, for example, obeys the trainer or coach in order to get the benefit of the other's knowledge. The same is true when we follow the instructions of a medical doctor. We follow the advice of the doctor not because we want to do what he says, but because we want to get well. This type of obedience is also used by religious teachers. We are told that if we obey God's commands (as they interpret them), He will bless us and we will live a better life. This is obedience motivated by a desire for self-improvement, or greed.
We may also be obedient in order to receive the admiration of others. For example, we may obey the civil laws in order that others will think of us as a law-abiding citizen and an upstanding member of the community. We may not agree with the law, but would rather do something we don't like than to have other members of the community think badly of us. In religion, this type of obedience is prevalent as well. People obey a religious teaching in the belief that by doing so, God will consider them righteous. This is obedience motivated by a desire for self-promotion, or pride.
All three of these forms of obedience have something in common: self. Self-preservation, self-improvement and self-promotion are usually what most of us are taught to consider when we seek to be obedient. As with so many things, there is some good here, but I truly believe that none of these are what God is really looking for when He asks us to obey Him.
There is another type of obedience that isn't quite so self-serving. If someone we love asks us to do or not do something, we will often obey for no other reason than that it is pleasing to them. This is a much better type of obedience to God than those listed before. We obey Him because it is pleasing to Him and thus pleasing to us as well. But, this obedience is often a kind of begrudging obedience that is given not because we want to do something, but because we value the other person enough to do it anyway. Although a good thing, it really isn't the level of obedience that we need to come to.
I know of one other type of obedience. If we inherently trust, or agree with, the person commanding us, then we obey out of that trust or agreement. This is a type of obedience that we can only rightly give to God. Unlike the commands of men, when we hear God's voice we do not need to worry about whether or not His command is good or evil. Nor do we need to worry about whether or not the command is based on truth or falsehood. It isn't necessary to check against some set of rules, or to doubt. We know that what He desires is good and true and can act on his command without hesitation. I truly believe that this is what God means when He says that we must obey His commands. We must hear His voice and do as that voice commands. This is obedience born out of faith.
This type of obedience is only possible when the confusion of our own thoughts and the whisperings of demonic spirits are silenced. Otherwise, how can we know what voice to trust? When His spirit fills our heart, displacing our corrupt desire, we have no need to fear acting on the voice we hear. Instead, the exact opposite is true. When we hear His voice, we must act without hesitation or questioning. To doubt or question the word of God is apistis -- anti-faith. Thus obedience to God's command is the very essence of the life of faith; it is a total trust in God that causes us to act in confidence on His word. We obey Him, not merely out of fear of retribution, or an attempt to get something in return, or a desire to prove ourselves righteous, but purely out of love and trust. As we are obedient to His commands, His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. And, our obedience is not a burden but instead becomes our greatest joy in that we have become that perfect servant that is useful to Him. Selah.