Ever feel caught in those periods of life in which God seems so far from your reach? Ever feel like its burdensome to delight in a God that is seemingly absent and disengaged from your life? Ever feel caught in a cycle of compulsion to follow God? You know his precepts are true and your heart desires to delight in his goodness, and yet no matter your best efforts, that joy seems just out of reach… We’ve all been there, but oh may we never linger there. We will languish quickly if we think we can tarry in complacent spiritual growth simply because it doesn’t come easily.
Before we jump ship and grow frustrated, we must ask God about the inclinations of our hearts. Is our heart inclined toward love, or is it inclined toward an ascetic-disposition that expects intimacy through obedience? I often incline toward the latter, but in fact, the opposite is true. It is our love that compels us to live obediently to God, and as long as our love for him supersedes our obligations to him, we will be able to act in obedience (even for extended periods of time) with joy.
I was reading a book earlier today about Christian counseling and the author pointed to the story of Jacob and his pursuit of his soon-to-be wife Rachel. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Jacob is seeking a woman named Rachel to be his wife. In order to marry her, he agrees to work for her father, Laban. Genesis 29:20 records, “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”
Jacob served Laban SEVEN years for Rachel. Why? The answer is simple. He loved her. He actually loved her so much that the seven years “seemed to him but a few days.” There were days in which “heat consumed him by day and cold by night,” and “sleep fled from his eyes” (Gen. 31:40), and yet he persevered through all of these things for he loved her very deeply. He acted in a obedience not because of an onerous obligation hanging over his head but because his love for his wife superseded all else.
I’m very fortunate to have two absolutely incredible parents. They would do (and have done) anything for me. They care for and love me sacrificially. They’ve rejoiced with me through periods of joy and they have wept with me in periods of depression. As I’ve grown older and more mature, I’ve recognized that because of my parents deep love for me, they never have to force me to follow their wishes, I simply do it out of affection for them. Anytime they ask me do something, I (for the most part) act in obedience right away. I’m fortunate to have the parents I have, but I am even more fortunate to have a God that loves me exponentially more than my parents ever could. And it is because of this love that I pray God’s Spirit empowers me to act in obedience to him through a humble acknowledgment of his unfathomable love for me.
We have something better than an earthly wife or loving earthly parents. We have a savior that was equal with God and yet didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-11) and instead became as we are—human—and submitted himself to the Father obediently for a painstaking amount of time on earth. He didn’t do this out of compulsion but out of the “joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He did it out of love for us. Reread John 1:3 with me, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Imagine being the one that John speaks of in that verse, and now imagine that despite that privilege, you forsook it all for an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death on a cross for sins you didn’t commit. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s how much Jesus loves us.
If you’ll revisit the questions I posed at the beginning of this discourse, I hope you’ll now see the beauty of the freedom found in loving God so much that your obedience to him “seems to you but a few days.” I pray for myself and for you, that you’ll “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19) so that you persevere in following him in obedience not in spite of but because of the love you have for him. I think there’s a reason Paul prays specifically that the church at Ephesus would be able to comprehend the depths of God’s love…and it’s because that love causes us to delight in obeying him, regardless of our circumstances. The reality is that we must remind ourselves often of the love of Jesus for us and so be compelled to a deep, deep affection for God and deep, deep obedience to God.
I’ll close with a quote from the book I mentioned earlier, “The One who created the sun languished under its scorching rays and struggled to keep warm when the cold penetrated his clock at night. The One who multiplied loaves was hungry; he who sustained the universe by his word was tired. He perfectly completed the years of work his Father had given him to do, and his reward was given to others who in at the last moment. His inheritance was bestowed upon people, such as us, who had gleefully deserted him and spent their days in riotous living. The payment he earned was granted to proud, self-righteous ones like us, who had disdained him. But he called it all his delight because he loved. He gladly laid down his life for his bride.
Do you find obedience a burden or a delight? Is loving your neighbor, whoever that may be, a source of joy or a grinding drudgery? Let us suggest that the obligations of the gospel become a burdensome duty simply because we don’t spend enough time remembering what Jesus has already done for us. We have divided the love-inspiring declarations of the gospel from the obligations of the gospel so that obedience is simply a struggle, a discipline, a duty.”
Oh God, I am ashamedly prideful. Though I know I cannot obtain your favor or goodwill through obedience, I return like a man who forgets his own reflection in a mirror to a legalistic lifestyle that expects favor from you through obedience. And then when I don’t receive your favor, I grow frustrated and I fail to persevere in following you. I give up. Forgive me for this. Thank you for using your Holy Spirit to convict me of us this pride and complacency. Thank you for giving me something far, far greater to look to than myself which is your son, Jesus. Free me from a lifestyle of slavery to my own thoughts and desires. Help me to comprehend the depths of your love that I may obey you for years and years on end. Grant me a resolve to follow you self-sacrificially, expecting nothing in return, and solely because of the love I have for you. I need you, Lord, oh I need you. Thank you for your endless grace; may I steward it well through committed dedication to following you as I expect nothing in return.