“And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” Nehemiah 8:12 ESV
“O-B-E-D-I-E-N-C-E, obedience is…the very best way….to show that you believe….” And so goes the song I sang growing up. I’ve believed in Jesus from the time I was eight years old. But it was probably from the time I could talk that obedience became an obsession for my little girl heart.
Do good. Be good. Don’t mess up. All those where hidden whispers – truth and lies mixed together. The truth and grace in the song was twisted by my sinful, flesh-filled heart. From an early age I began to believe not in obedience as a result of grace, but as a means to receive grace.
Obedience wasn’t bringing me joy. In fact, I became shackled by all of the rules. When life turned upside down a couple of times in the past thirty-some years my first response to God was, “But I obeyed!” My little-girl heart still clung to the lie hidden in between the lines of obedience and joy: you have to earn grace and joy. And because of this, joy wasn’t something I found when I obeyed. Instead, pride, self-worth, and acceptance were what I felt as I checked the items off my self-made Christian to-do list.
Characterized by a heart-attitude
Grace is found in the spaces between obedience and joy. Recently my Bible study girls and I studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7. It is one of His first recorded teachings. In these radical words, Jesus spells out what a follower of the Kingdom of God looks like. And it’s not what you might think.
He begins with, “Blessed are the…” Before studying the passage, I had assumed these were commands. Be merciful. Be peacemakers. No, these are not commands, but characteristics. If we are true kingdom-followers of Jesus, we will be blessed because our lives will look like this.
Obedience for me had always been, “How close to the line can I get before crossing over?” If our hearts are fixated on that line, we will immediately think of obedience as simply identifying the boundary line.
Instead, as I’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve realized that obedience isn’t about a “not-to-do” list – it is about a heart attitude. It is about the internal obedience that changes our actions. Murder is not the line; anger and contempt are where disobedience begins. Adultery is not the line; that particular sin begins with the lust we harbor in our hearts.
A high view of God’s commandments
Do we have a high view of the commandments of God? Billy Graham, in a famous interview with Woody Allen, expounded that God’s boundaries afford us happiness. The commandments don’t limit our fun, they set a wide boundary within which we can have fun! On my own journey I’ve found this to be true. Joy will come when I’ve stopped looking for the line, and instead I am free to play on my side of the fence.
In the book of Nehemiah, the people of Israel had just heard the words of God and His law. For the first time in many years, they knew what they needed to do to obey Him. Their first response was weeping and crying. Immediately Nehemiah, their leader, replies with a rebuke. Here is the whole passage from Nehemiah 8:9-12:
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
“So, the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
Notice in verse ten, Nehemiah says “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And then in verse twelve, the people made “great rejoicing, because they had understood the words” of the Lord.
When we hear of how we need to obey, we shouldn’t respond like I did as a little girl, equating acceptance with obedience. Instead, see the joy found in obedience.
Joy inside the fence
In our current home we have a fenced-in yard. Although our property extends beyond the fence, we’ve instructed our children to stay “in the yard.” And yet, so many times, they will come into the house with bruises and cuts because they crossed the fence and fell down the steep hill behind our house. My children forget there is a trampoline, playhouse, toys, and trees to climb inside the fence – all these things to freely enjoy. But they feel the pull of the forbidden. They hover just at the line where they shouldn’t cross.
Joy is found because of the freedom within the boundaries. And by God’s grace, no longer am I shackled by obedience, because obedience from a heart that holds a high view of God and his commands truly does bring joy.