A question for us to consider: does the form of our obedience matter as much as the state of the heart in the servant of God? That is, does God care whether or not we try to do things the way He tells us to do them, or does He just want us to do something so long as we are sincere in the doing of it?
By way of answering such a question, lets first consider two figures from the Old Testament.
The first is Naaman the leper, whom Jesus mentions in Luke 4:27 as an example of a Gentile whom God was mindful of, healing him of his leprosy. We encounter Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a Syrian leper and a military commander who had been informed of an Israelite, a man of God, who had the ability to heal him of his leprosy. The prophet in question was Elisha, who, through a servant, told Naaman that what God wanted him to do to be healed was to dip in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman was at first upset that he would be required to do such a thing, but then thought better of it and obeyed, thus being healed (cf. 2 Kings 5:1-14).
The second person to consider is the King, Saul, whose lack of obedience to God resulted in him losing God’s favor, and his family losing the rights to the throne of Israel. On one occasion God sent King Saul to fight against the Amalekites, telling him to utterly destroy them and their livestock. Saul did not fully obey, taking the king of the Amalekites prisoner, as well as keeping much of the livestock as plunder (cf. 1 Samuel 15:1-21). When the prophet Samuel confronted Saul, he did so with these inspired words, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1 Kings 15:22; ESV)”
In each of these cases there is a point made concerning obedience. Naaman was rewarded with healing when he obeyed the instructions of God. His desire for healing led him to ask God for healing but he did not gain that healing until he finally followed through with God’s specific instructions. Saul, on the other hand, was punished for disobedience. God had given him specific instructions, which Saul failed to follow through on. God, in no uncertain terms made it clear that obedience was more pleasing to God than any worship accompanied by disobedience.
In each of these cases we also see an illustration of the idea that when a person does not obey, there is an inherent heart problem. Naaman, in his pride, almost refused to obey God, having an idea that he might be able to craft a better solution on his own (cf. 2 Kings 5:11-12). Only when he submitted to God’s plan did it work out. Likewise, Saul in his pride, thought that God would be less concerned with the letter of the commandment and more pleased with lavish gifts (cf. 1 Samuel 15:15). Saul, however, was sorely mistaken.
Consider then the state of the heart today that says to itself, I don’t actually have to follow exactly what God says so long as I offer him what seems good to me. How is such a heart different from that which Saul had? This then is the answer to the initial question. For a heart to even consider whether or not it needs to be fully obedient to God is itself a warning sign that the heart in question is not a heart showing humble submission to God.
God does not Himself distinguish between loving Him and keeping His commandments. To Him, He says more than once, they are one and the same. To the Israelites under Moses, God promised to be merciful and faithful to those who loved Him and kept His commandments (cf. Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10, 7:9, etc.). To Christians under the law of Christ, the word of God says, “this is love for God, that we keep His commandments (1 John 5:3).” Jesus said, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” If we claim to love God, no matter how sincere we are in that claim, if we aren’t actually listening to what He says, God sees it different.
But let us consider Naaman again. Naaman was initially in rebellion against God’s command to dip in the Jordan seven times. But he repented and did what God had said, and God healed him. Similarly, Jesus tells a parable about a son whom, when his father told him to go and do some work, initially refused, but then later thought better of it and obeyed (cf. Matthew 21:28-31). One of the lessons of the parable is that it is possible for us to repent, even after we initially rebel against what God tells us to do.
The Psalmist declared, concerning God’s word, “I delight in your commandments, which I love (Psalm 119:47).” May all who desire to be pleasing to God have the same attitude.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.