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WHEN CALLED TO OBEY
"Okay, Jim, I want you to go right to the edge of the cliff, then turn around and lean out over the edge. Just do exactly what I say, and you'll be fine."
I certainly wanted to be fine, but I didn't want to do exactly what my buddy said.
We were in Colorado, and I had been talked into going mountain climbing with some now ex-friends of mine. What I didn't know was that when they said "mountain climbing," they meant actually climbing up mountains. No little hills or picturesque paths with a gradual upward slant. We were scaling the face of a cliff, going from ledge to ledge, foothold to foothold.
Now here's where I reveal the depth of my intellect. I don't know why, but the whole time we were inching our way to the top, it never entered my mind how we were going to get down. I guess I assumed we'd walk down a trail on the backside of the mountain.
After we reached the summit, I saw that there was no gently sloping backside. Instead there was a sheer drop-off on all sides. Suddenly the matter of how we were going to get back down entered my mind. Turning to the men in my group, with something of a nervous laugh, I said, "Uh, guys, just how are we going to get down from here?"
Their answer will forever echo in my mind. "We rappel."
As far as I knew, rappelling had little to do with God or the things of God. Rappelling involves hooking yourself up to a rope, edging out to the top of a precipice, leaning out at a ninety-degree angle, and then shuffling your way down the face of the cliff. A thin nylon rope is all that stands between you and plummeting to a certain death. Now you know why these guys are my ex-friends.
I had options. I could have stayed forever on the mountain. I could have waved down a passing helicopter. Neither of those approaches was particularly viable. So for the next twenty minutes, I did everything I was told without question. It was frightening and it went completely against my better judgment. I had to place a counterintuitive trust in someone other than me. I went against every natural impulse within me, and I succeeded. I'm off the top of that mountain, which has had a rather distinctive impact on the rest of my life.
There are times when choosing to obey determines everything that comes afterward. It's a kairos moment that bears significance far beyond the decision itself. In the book of Numbers, the Bible tells of a time when the people of Israel were moving across a desert and had no water to drink. Moses and his brother, Aaron, sought the counsel of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God appeared to them. The voice of the Lord said to Moses, "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water."
Moses didn't do it though. When he gathered the people together, instead of speaking to the rock as God had prescribed, he chose to go his own way. He struck the rock with his staff. Twice.
It would seem to be a minor variation on a theme. But it was much more than that. Moses knowingly, willfully disobeyed the Lord. He knew God's directive, but he chose not to follow it. He didn't trust God enough to believe that what He had prescribed was best. Intriguingly, water still came forth from the rock. The consequences of disobedience aren't always immediate. But soon thereafter, God told Moses, "Because you did not trust in me ... you will not bring this community into the land I give them." A solitary act of disobedience dramatically shaped the remaining course of Moses' life. When we are faced with the choice to obey or disregard the commands of the living God, we enter into a moment that is filled with lasting consequence.
Think of obedience to God as coming to a fork in the road. You can go right or left. Taking the way of God keeps you securely in His perfect will. When you choose a path of disobedience, however, your steps take you away from God's perfect desires. Nothing less than a new trail has been blazed, and that trail directs you to unavoidable outcomes. Or as Robert Frost reflected on the various paths we take, "way leads on to way."
Life is full of such kairos moments. Some forks in the road present us with greater consequences than others. And at each juncture, with every divergence, we can continue to move away from the life God intended for us or we can maneuver back toward it. But make no mistake: Such choices are like stones thrown into a pool of standing water. They cause ripples throughout the remainder of our lives.
This idea of one brief moment having lifelong consequences is a difficult one to entertain. We shy away from it. Instead of gazing farther down our chosen path to look at its inevitable implications, we prefer to look around for an escape route. When we've wandered into the desert of disobedience, we want to drink deeply from the well of forgiveness and have that eliminate all consequences.
But it doesn't.
Moses no doubt regretted his disobedient action, and God is faithful to forgive anyone who has a repentant heart. But the Lord's forgiveness doesn't diminish the repercussions of a decision to disobey The clock can't be turned back. So it was Joshua, not Moses, who led the people of Israel across the Jordan River. Moses was allowed to look across the river into the Promised Land. But his earlier decision to disobey prevented him from crossing over with the people.
What if Moses had obeyed God's command to speak to the rock rather than choosing to strike it? What could his life have been like? We don't know any more than we know what our lives would be like if we were free of the vast array of disobedient choices we've made. The wrong choices have been made, and they impact our lives far more than we can imagine.
In order to seize the day in regard to obedience, we must become aware of what drives us to disobedience. The apostle Paul admitted, "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." This tension between wanting to do right but failing to do so is the great dynamic of our lives. Knowing why is the first step toward wresting our destiny back from its grip.
Why We Disobey
If you have the chance to interact with children on a regular basis, you know that some kids are naturally compliant, but many—in fact, most—aren't. My older daughter, Rebecca, was one of those rare children who was more than willing to comply with every request. Except for the "times."
During her threes and fours, there were half a dozen instances when Rebecca suddenly abandoned her agreeable nature and steadfastly refused to do whatever it was that we'd asked her to do. In our routine of saying, "Rebecca, pick up your toy and put it back into the box" or "Rebecca, tell your sister that you're sorry," there were sudden intrusions when one of our standard requests would be met with an icy silence, a standing of her ground, a pursing of her lips, and a resolute look in her eyes. And then we knew. It was going to be one of those "times."
They were long, drawn out, defiant; truly a battle of wills. She simply wasn't going to do what we told her to do. At least not without a fight.
What causes disobedience? The theological answer is hardly a mystery: Sin has marred our ability to follow the perfect will of God. The heart of God's desire for us is thwarted by the independent exercise of our free will. Since the time of Adam, we've used our will to act independently of God's leadership. We've wanted to be our own god.
True enough. But what are we thinking?
Ask a man who hasn't yet engaged in an illicit affair if he believes pursuing such a course of action would be wise, much less moral, and he'll say, "Of course not." Then six months later you watch as he rushes headlong into an adulterous relationship. What is he thinking?
Ask anyone you talk to if it's best to lie, and he or she will say, "Certainly not." Later, though, when backed into an awkward corner on a particular issue, a person's tongue quickly begins to spread deceit.
What is it that takes hold and drives us to choices that contradict our stated beliefs? Why do we take paths that will mar the complexion of our lives? Consider the following six dynamics, which begin to explain why we do things we know aren't the best for us.
I once read about a sweet old lady who was a bit conservative in her mannerisms and behavior. She wanted to plan a week's vacation at a Florida campground, so she wrote a letter to the manager to find out about availability and services.
Foremost in her mind was whether the campground had a toilet. But she couldn't bring herself to write the word "toilet" in a letter. She considered writing "bathroom commode." But even that was tough for her to put down on paper. So she decided to use an abbreviation, asking in her letter if the campground had its own "BC."
When the campground owner received the letter, he was baffled. He didn't have any idea what "BC" referred to. He decided it had to refer to a local Baptist church. So this is what he wrote back to his elderly correspondent:
I am pleased to inform you that a BC is located nine miles north of the campground, and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it.
The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there.
I would like to say that it pains me very much not to be able to go more regularly, but it surely is no lack of desire on my part. As we grow older, it seems to be more of an effort, particularly in cold weather.
If you decide to come down to our campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time, sit with you, and introduce you to all the other folks. This is a friendly community.
We smile, but it's amazing how easy it is to be unaware of what is really being asked of us. One of the biggest reasons people disobey—particularly if they are relatively new or unschooled in their faith—is that they don't know what it is that God would have them do. Much like Paul's interaction with a group of well-intentioned folk who wanted to be followers of Christ but who never had heard of the Holy Spirit. In fact, they'd never been told there was anything beyond the baptism of John the Baptist. You can't obey what you don't know to obey; and I've worked with too many young believers to underestimate the degree of spiritual illiteracy that can be brought to the table of faith.
But the same thing is true of anyone's introduction to something new. If you're a golfer, you've probably read, or at last heard about, the popular little red book That's the title: Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. Back in the 1920s, Harvey Penick bought a red spiral notebook and began jotting down observations about golf. He never showed it to anyone except his son until 1991, when he shared it with a writer and asked if it might be worth publishing. The man told Penick he thought he ought to give it a try. In fact, the writer contacted Simon & Schuster, where an editor loved the idea and offered an advance of ninety thousand dollars. The writer called and left word with Penick's wife about the money and the proposed book deal.
When the writer saw Penick later, the old man seemed troubled, even a bit sad. His friend asked what was wrong, and Penick told him that with all of his medical bills there was no way he could pay the publisher that much money. He had no idea that it was Simon & Schuster that would advance the ninety thousand dollars to him! He knew so little about the publishing business that he thought he'd have to pay to have his book published.
But he learned fast. Harvey Penick's Little Red Book has sold more than a million copies, making it one of the most successful sports books ever published.
Penick's ignorance of the rules of publishing could have prevented him from getting his book in the hands of millions of golf lovers, and it could have meant the loss of tens of thousands of dollars. But he learned the rules and acted accordingly. We can do the same to overcome our ignorance of what God wants from us.
The exact opposite of ignorance is rebellion. When ignorance leads to disobedience, it's not willful in nature. But rebellion is purposeful in its rejection of authority. As people with a sinful disposition, we already are oriented toward all forms of rebellion. It doesn't matter what the issue is, we tend to resist the idea of submitting to another authority. It chafes against our souls.
Rather than submit, we boldly pursue the momentary pleasure of indulging our fleshly desires. We recognize the conflict between what we want and what God asks of us, and we defiantly choose our own way. There is a current running within all of us that shouts, "Don't tell me what to do!" While this tendency is universal, it betrays an absence of intimacy in our relationship with Christ. It was Jesus Himself Who said, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.... He who does not love me will not obey my teaching." Far from being a dead, lifeless list of dos and don'ts, obedience is a matter of the heart, flowing from a relationship. It's not an "ought to" as much as a "want to." It's not duty as much as devotion.
My grandmother was terrified of storms. If her fear of the weather didn't border on the phobic, it was at the very least flamingly neurotic. My mother recalls being forced as a young girl to huddle around a car tire in the living room with her brother, all feet against the rubber, as protection against a lightning strike. If a cloud appeared on the horizon, Mama Keele would race home, turn on the television for the weather report, and fret away the hours. Once, while joining us on a family beach trip about twenty miles from her house, my grandmother spotted a cloud. She immediately demanded to be taken home, insisting that we all accompany her. My parents tried to calm her fears, but her anxiety only grew. She announced that if we didn't leave that instant, she'd just walk home. Assessing the situation at the ripe old age of three, I offered to walk with her.
My grandmother always loved me for that.
Many times fear lies behind our choice to disobey. Think of the times we tell a lie. More often than not, we believe a lie will produce better results than telling the truth. Ironically, we opt for the untruth became we fear the consequences of obedience. We're like the rich young ruler who walked away rather than act on Jesus' demands to abandon his materialistic lifestyle. We believe that what we'd lose in following Christ is too great a cost. We value what we already have more than the riches we would gain in obeying Him.
I read about a spy who was captured and then sentenced to death by a general who had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between a firing squad and a big, black door. As the moment of execution drew near, the spy was brought to the general, who asked, "What will it be: the firing squad or the door?"
The spy hesitated, but in the end he chose the firing squad. The shots rang out, and he slumped over dead.
The general turned to his aide and said, "They always prefer the known to the unknown. But he had a choice."
The aide then asked, "Sir, what is behind the door?"
"Freedom," the general replied. "But only a few have been brave enough to take it."
Letting go of what we know in order to lay hold of the wealth that comes with obedience strikes fear in our hearts. The comfort we find in the familiar terrain of the present keeps us from taking the risky step of obedience, which leads us into a much more desirable future. There can be little doubt that acting in obedience to Christ calls us to act against our deepest fears.
Excerpted from Life-Defining Moments by James Emery White. Copyright © 2001 by James Emery White. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Words of Thanks||vii|
|An Opening Word||1|
|1 When Called to Obey||9|
|2 When Seeking to Be Known||29|
|3 When Faced with Failure||49|
|4 When Pursuing Your Purpose||67|
|5 When Taking a Stand||83|
|6 When Engaged in Suffering||99|
|7 When Asked to Forgive||115|
|8 When Experiencing Temptation||139|
|9 When Needing to Repent||159|
|10 When Deciding on God||179|
|A Final Word||195|
|Notes and Acknowledgments||199|