Choosing Raw Obedience Over Endless Theologizing

Last week – on the evening of April 20, to be precise – Dave Cover, one of the pastors at The Crossing, spoke to a group of 18 adults on the difficult topic of forgiveness. This was not your typical gathering of Christian believers seeking to go deeper in their faith, however. Knowing just a few of the backstories of the other people in that room, it occurred to me more than once that the idea of forgiving those who had sinned against them was probably about dead-last on their “List of Things To Do.” Several of these people had been through tremendous amounts of spousal abuse. Some are living through ongoing abuse even now.

Using Matthew 18:21-35 – “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” – as his primary text, Dave attempted to bring a God-centered view of sin to a roomful of people who, by and large, could probably make a fairly convincing case for the idea that they had been on the receiving end of far more sin than they had actually dished out. In other words, evaluated purely by human standards, it could well be true that these people had indeed suffered more at the hands of their spouses than they had unleashed suffering themselves. While a verdict such as this might well hold true in the court of human reckoning, it is absolutely unbiblical and will not withstand the judgment of the Lord on That Great Day (Revelation 20:12).

The words of Jesus regarding those who have sinned against us are exceedingly difficult to swallow. We all would greatly prefer to believe something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ve done bad things, to be sure, but oh my gosh, would you look at what this other person has done to me?” To the extent that we comfort ourselves with thoughts such as these, we unwittingly entertain demons, and we flatly ignore the teaching of Jesus in this parable. Again, this is a tough sell in any room, let alone a room filled with people who have been the victims of adultery, intimidation, and much, much worse.

As if Dave’s homily was not in and of itself hard enough to listen to, everyone in the room got to follow it up with a video segment in which several Christian counselors and pastors affirmed that forgiveness is an act of the will, “not a feeling.” Lou Priolo, author of The Heart of Anger, was just one among several experts interviewed who affirmed that we should not wait for our feelings to lead us to forgiveness. Whenever we wait for our hearts in this manner, more often than not forgiveness never takes place. We must decide to forgive and get on with it, regardless of how we feel, and trust Jesus to bring our hearts into compliance with the forgiveness we express.

And it is precisely at this point of resistance where I find that “too much theologizing” can serve to really screw up a life of faithful Christian service and piety.

What I mean by making that rather-bold statement is that, all too often, I find my own life of faithfulness to Christ compromised by my inner desire to twist words and doctrines to my own end. Yes, I know that Jesus wants me to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5:43-45), but I know that my heart is not right with that other person, so I can find myself making up some lame excuse like, “I am too angry to come before the Lord right now; maybe when things settle down I’ll be able to pray for that idiot and actually mean it.”

Like many others who attend The Crossing, you could (if you wanted to) pigeonhole me as a Five-Point Calvinist on just about all matters of faith, doctrine and theology. One key feature of that school of thought (namely, “Total Depravity”) is that no one comes to Christ unless God initiates the relationship and then, over time, draws the person to Himself. That’s something of an oversimplification, but the point is that, armed with solid Christian teachings, it is really tempting to corrupt that good teaching and short-circuit a life of obedience by saying something like, “How can I forgive someone when I don’t feel like it? Don’t I need to wait for God to change my heart?”

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because human beings just like me and you tend to take the Law of God and immediately begin to see how we can bend and mold it to suit our own purposes. “Jesus commands me to forgive, but I don’t feel like it. Besides, Jesus controls my heart, so really I am just waiting on Him anyway.” Like all truly excellent lies, thinking like this contains just enough truth to make it sound convincing. I would argue, perhaps recklessly, that many of us prefer to sit around and debate theology as opposed to getting off our rear ends and simply obeying Jesus, especially when we “don’t feel like it.”

It’s this kind of twisting of theology that I often see myself tempted to do when I truly don’t want to take a step of faith that I know, deep down, I am being called to take. It’s those moments – when the Spirit within compels me to respond in faith, but the flesh fights it (even using sound Christian theology as a weapon!) – that my wife and I often refer to as “raw obedience.” We use that phrase as shorthand in order to quickly convey several truth statements all at once:

  1. God’s Truth has been plainly revealed to me as it concerns the present situation.

  2. God has made it clear to me, through his Word and the wisdom of other faithful believers, what I must now do.

  3. I don’t much like what God has called me to do in this situation. In fact, I hate it.

  4. I am going to grit my teeth and do the right thing, despite my feelings.

  5. I pray that God will bless my effort, even though He knows the corrupt condition of my heart.

  6. As soon as I have done this thing, I am going to ask God to forgive me for my wild, reckless, disobedient heart.

To me, raw obedience is saying “I forgive you” when my heart still burns with hurt, resentment and/or irritation. Raw obedience is extending grace – yet again – to the disrespectful teen under my roof when I would rather bullet-point their disrespectful words and actions in PowerPoint. Raw obedience can even be offering my only free evening in a busy week to a friend who needs a listening ear…when what I really want to do is lay on my sofa and catch my breath. In other words, raw obedience means doing what I know is right in my head, and waiting for my heart to catch up to these acts of faith toward Christ and His call on my life.

At this point, I can almost “hear” the well-studied theologians out there sharpening their pencils as they make notes to respond to the “poor theology” behind the notion of living out raw obedience. I know it may sound to some as if I am pushing works, or perhaps suggesting that “white-knuckling it” will earn us points with Christ. I am certainly not suggesting that.

Instead, I am simply going to point to 14 years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol and assure everyone reading this that I did not want to give up drinking. Sobriety, for me, began in July of 1997 as raw obedience, and God has quite graciously disregarded all of my intellectual theologizing and greatly blessed this commitment on my part. Not only has He given me the power to stay sober during unbelievable duress, but over time He gave me a heart that wanted His kingdom more than alcohol. He has been faithful to me in every other aspect of my life as well; for me, a complete here-and-now picture of the promise that Jesus makes in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

I don’t think I really need to affirm this, but just in case anyone is wondering, I greatly prize Christian scholarship and the process by which we hammer out our doctrine; theology is of massive importance to me! I am at my best when engaging with another human being on the Truth of the Word and how it applies to our lives. I guess the main point here is that theology and doctrine will only take you so far in your relationship with Christ. At some point, I would argue, it’s time to put down Pilgrim’s Progress and pick up the phone to apologize to someone, even if you don’t feel like it – but to do it out of “raw obedience” to the God who calls you to pick up that phone. Perhaps that someone does not deserve that act of kindness. But when we offer something to people that clearly do not deserve it, we are, in that moment, as close to emulating Christ as we can ever hope to be.

James 1:19-27 (ESV)
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

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