(…continued) We like obedience from others, but for ourselves, we might demand good reasons to do what we are told, and thus, be given the proper motivation. Here are some examples of things that motivate us to obey.
Example #1. On the playground, the biggest bully often sets the rules and must be obeyed. If the big bully says to a little guy, ‘you don’t get to play here,’ the little guy better obey and leave, or risk going home with a black eye. This is not a good rule and it should not have to be obeyed, but the little guy does not have the power to resist. On a much larger level, the Nazis got all sorts of good people to do all kinds of terrible things, because the alternative was oftentimes immediate execution. Many obeyed, even though they did not want to. Some disobeyed and were executed. The motivation to obey was fear.
Example #2. In the military and many other jobs, there is a chain of command. The person in charge may or may not be wise or competent, and he or she may or may not be making the right decisions. But they must be obeyed, or if challenged, that challenge must be done through proper channels. This never works out perfectly, but in any organization you cannot have everyone just doing whatever they want to do. The highest ranking officer, or the boss in charge of you, holds all the cards and must be obeyed, whether or not you think it is a good idea. There are good leaders and bosses and there are those that are not good, and, those in command do make mistakes. On the other hand, the one in command may indeed know more of the situation than those being led, and be right even when it doesn’t look that way to those under his or her charge. Either way, there are good reasons to obey, in this case, the primary reason is the need for order.
Example #3. Imagine being in a group of soldiers on patrol. The enemy opens fire and you are wounded while the others are able to seek cover. Another soldier runs out into the enemy fire to rescue you, but in so doing he also is wounded. You recover from your injuries; but he was shot in the spine, and though he lives, he is paralyzed for the rest of his life. While you are both in the hospital you receive a request from him. He wants to see you; not to ask for anything, but just to see how you are doing. He can’t come to you, so he is asking that you go to him. Will you obey that request? Of course you will. Why? There would be many reasons. We could begin with gratitude, and add indebtedness, and then perhaps even brotherly love. Fear would not be a required reason in this case. Every part of you would want to freely obey such a simple request from a man who saved your life.
Example #4. Your name is Lazarus and you are dead and buried and unconscious and not aware of anything. All of a sudden, you are awakened to consciousness by someone calling your name. It is cold and damp on the stone slab beneath you, but all you can remember is being sick. You realize you are no longer sick in bed, but dead and in a tomb. Your name is again called, and now you recognize the voice. It is your good friend Jesus. He has awakened you from death and he is commanding you to come out of the tomb. Now you have a choice. Will you obey him, or, will you disobey him, shouting back in reply, “No, I don’t want to?” Of course, you will obey him. You are dead and he is offering you another chance at life. Would that not be reason and motivation enough to obey?
Obedience is a big deal in the Bible. God expects us to obey him. Well, we might ask, (and often do in one form or another), why should we? What reasons are there to motivate us to obey God? The above examples provide some insight.
First of all, if we believe in a good God, we must believe that he would command us to do only that which is good for us. We might not understand all of God’s commands, just like an employee might not understand or agree with all of his bosses orders. But if God created this world and this life in the first place, it would only make sense to believe that He knows what is best for a well ordered life. The ten commandments are not given to us as ‘busy work,’ but as a guide to how life is best lived. It is in our own interests to obey them.
If that isn’t reason enough, we would still want to obey God out of fear. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Bible. Fear is not the sum total of wisdom, nor is it the best reason for obedience, but it is a place to begin. God is the boss, you know, and he is bigger than any of us, and he holds all the cards. We should want to obey him in every way. In many Bible stories, when people will obey God for no other reason, they are threatened with punishment. Fear is an effective motivator, though it is clearly not the one God prefers.
There are far better reasons to obey God, and these are illustrated in the story of the two soldiers. The saved man had all sorts of reasons to obey the simple request of the man who saved his life, and all those reasons apply to our relationship with God. Gratitude was one reason. If you would be forever grateful to someone who saved your life, wouldn’t you be even more filled with gratitude to the one who gave you life in the first place? Everything we have and everything we are and our very lives are all gifts from God, and so we have every reason to not only be grateful, but also glad to do whatever God asks of us. Also, like the saved man, we are indebted to God, and for all of that, we should be obedient to God out of love.
Finally, like Lazarus in John 11, God calls us out of death into life. He called us into this life, creating us out of nothing; and promises a resurrection to new life after death for all who believe in him. When this God calls to us to himself, like Jesus called to Lazarus out of the tomb, are we going to say “Do I have to?”
When Martin Luther wrote his explanations to the ten commandments in the Catechism, he began by teaching us what should motivate us to obey God. His explanation to each of the ten commandments begins with these words; “We should FEAR and LOVE God (so that we do or do not do what the commandment says)…” Obey God because you love God, yes, but if that isn’t reason enough, then obey out of fear. Either way, it is best to obey God.
God calls us into a relationship with Himself. God wants to be our Father. We like to sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus. “We love God because he first loved us,’ says the Bible. This is not the language of a contract, or of a good deal, but of a loving relationship. We know from experience that rebellion and disobedience is hard on a relationship, but obedience strengthens the relationship.
Thus, every act of obedience brings us closer to God and every act of disobedience drives a wedge between us, causing us to drift away.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28)
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 — What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
Proverbs 9:10a — The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
John 14:15 — (Jesus said), “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
We most humbly beg you, O Lord, to give us the grace to be not only hearers of the Word, but also doers of that Word; not only to love, but also to live your Gospel; not only to favor, but also to follow your teachings; not only to profess, but also to practice your blessed commandments; all to the honor of your Holy Name, and to the health of our souls. Amen.
–Thomas Becon (1511-1567), English reformer