Getting to the Heart by Way of Obedience

As human beings, you and I were created with both a brain and a heart—with intellect and with emotion. True Christianity speaks to both these capacities, revealing truth about God while also teaching us to love both our God and our neighbor. Yet because Christians are still individual people, with our own characteristic strengths and weaknesses, for many of us either the intellectual or the emotional comes more naturally than the other.

In my own part of the church, as we rightly emphasize the importance of theological study, we are often in danger of sliding into a dry knowledge of abstract truths with little joy or love to go along with them. Yet, as James warns, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19). Theological knowledge by itself just isn’t enough; it can neither satisfy our souls nor put us in right relation to our God.

When we recognize that our Christian life is out of balance—that we have a full head above a cold heart, or at least a tendency in that direction—it is natural to seek to rebalance ourselves by trying to stir up warmth in our own hearts. We buy devotional books which are long on feeling and short on theology, or we sit through worship desperately sifting the singing and preaching for little embers of emotion which may fire our own hearts. We try to will ourselves to feel by raw effort, and usually all we end up feeling is tired and discouraged.

If I just described you, perhaps the most useful thing you can do right now is to stop trying… or rather, to stop trying in that particular direction. The funny thing about emotional warmth is that we can rarely get there by the most direct route. The door marked “Emotion” is probably not the best way to the furnace room of your own heart.

If you love someone else, did that affection and delight grow from sitting around trying to stir up feelings for them, or from living life with them? I love my wife because we’ve walked together through fun times and hard times; because we’ve shared a thousand little conversations over coffee in the morning or while driving together late at the night. My love for my little girls has grown out of roughhousing on the floor and applying bandaids to scrapes and explaining what lizards eat and where birds sleep. Shared experience is the soil from which real emotion grows.

But what does shared experience look like when I desire to grow in my love for, and delight in, a supernatural, transcendent Spirit? More than anything else, it looks like obedience. When James warned against mere abstract theological knowledge, his antidote was not emotionality but obedience: “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26). Jesus commanded his disciples, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

There are two key ways in which the pursuit of obedience warms our hearts toward God: in the dependence of struggle, and in the delight of victory.

You cannot obey God by your own strength and effort. The pursuit of obedience requires meditation on God’s word to know his will for us and dependence upon his Spirit to enable us to do what our flesh resists. We could grow in knowledge by reading a theology book for an hour in the evening and then ignoring God the other 23 hours of the day, but the struggle of obedient living keeps us constantly aware of our God as our guide and helper. It is no coincidence that after Jesus called his disciples to obey him in love, he promised to send them “another Helper… the Spirit of truth” who would abide with them forever (John 14:16-17). Do you want a continual sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence within you? Seek to obey, and cry out for help every time it’s hard. The dependent struggle of obedience will teach you about your God and his faithfulness like nothing else can.

But the obedience of faith is not a dull state of continual, static struggle. As you pursue obedience in dependence upon the Spirit, your path will be illuminated by joyful flashes of victory as dead, crushing habits and sudden, sharp temptations are overcome by the renovating power of God in you! Having described his own bitter struggle with sin in Romans 7, Paul wondered rhetorically who could free him from “the body of this death” and turned to doxology: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25). Then in Romans 8 he describes the victory we have now in union with Christ.

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God (Rom. 8:11-14).

Do you want to grow in love for your God? Then pursue a life of intentional obedience which will force you to depend upon him and move you to rejoice in him as the bondage of sin is gradually overcome by the sanctifying power of his Spirit in you.

There is another dimension to all this as well. On a human level, our obedience naturally stirs up love for God, but it is equally true that God delights to pour out joy and assurance on those who are walking with him in obedience.

This is not to say that we win God’s favor by obedience, which is the false promise of legalism. Your Savior has already won you all the favor you could desire, forever! But precisely because your God loves you and intends good for you, he will punish the sinful disobedience which hinders our walk with him. Hebrews teaches, “God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?… He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (12:7, 10). One way God disciplines us, to make us aware of danger and call us back to himself, is by withdrawing our sense of joy and connection with him. Thus, while our obedience does not merit God’s favor, it may free him to express that favor by showing us the glad light of his face rather than a shadow which is meant to alarm us into repentance. (It is important to remember that even the most obedient and faithful saint can expect periods of dryness and struggle, as David expressed in some of his psalms. In a fallen world, obedience does not guarantee constant joy. But disobedience will certainly diminish our joy and love for God.)

In the end, the best reason to obey God is because our Savior commanded us to do so. Jesus did not say, “If you want to love me more, keep my commandments,” but “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But we can all benefit from a little encouragement in the daily fight of obedience, and there is great encouragement in the fact that obedience cannot help increasing our love for our God, and our joy in him. And if you find yourself in a emotional dry spell, wishing you felt more of the warm presence of God day by day, I hope you will not exhaust yourself poking at the embers of feeling. Instead, prayerfully and hopefully devote yourself to obeying God while waiting for the fire of dependence and victory to spread from your will into your heart.

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