I’ve had a burning question for months now and I’ve found it difficult to vocalize even to discuss with others. I read something in a Christian fiction, of all things. I won’t even name the work because it’s not important. It depicted the people of Israel, led by Joshua, preparing to cross over the Jordan River to attack Jericho. A particular soldier was doubtful they would make it across the Jordan and his commander told him something to the effect of: “Joshua speaks for the LORD and this is what the LORD has told us to do. Have faith that it can and will happen.”
“I still don’t know…”
“Trust God. And when you run out of trust, just obey.”
That last statement is the one that stuck with me and created the question in my heart. Is this right and good? Or is this a distortion of the truth? Is it Biblical? At first the statement resonated with me. Yes, I thought, we must obey the word of the LORD all the time. Even if we don’t have the amount of faith we think it requires. If we “run out of faith,” we just obey what we know to be right…and that is the right thing to do. But then in the same proverbial breath I thought—but no, that would not be the kind of obedience God wants, is it? We mustn’t ever “run out of faith” because without faith it’s impossible to please God. Doesn’t God desire I put my faith in Him and his person and character even more than following the letter of the law? If I’m obeying his word “blindly,” with no faith in the person of God, I’m no better than Cain or the Pharisees.
I voiced the question to a person I respect and their answer was: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” This threw a wrench in my thought process for awhile because I thought they were saying: “Obedience is better than disobedience, even if you feel you’ve ‘run out of faith,’” which I would tend to agree with. That soldier didn’t desert the army for fear that he would drown in the Jordan; he crossed over with everyone else. So was God pleased with that? I don’t know exactly.
But looking at the verse from which the statement “obedience is better than sacrifice” is pulled, I found out that it’s not really talking about the same thing. Saul had been told by the LORD (through Samuel) to destroy an entire people and everything in their land but instead Saul had held back “the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things…to sacrifice to the LORD” (1 Sam 15:21). Saul disobeyed the direct command of the LORD under the pretense that he was giving something valuable to God (a sacrifice). And this is when Samuel counters with:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam 15:22).
He’s basically saying, “You should have obeyed exactly what God said instead of assuming that God would be pleased with a sacrifice.” Saul acted out of faith in something other than God’s word—perhaps tradition, or himself, or greed. Whatever it was, it displeased God. The soldier crossing the Jordan would have been obeying God’s word, but without initially trusting God could accomplish it.
Does God NEED our faith in order to act? Absolutely not. You see it throughout scripture and with Jesus especially. The story that comes to mind is the father who comes to Jesus asking him to heal his son’s seizures but doubtful that Jesus will actually be able to help.
“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “’If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)
“I believe; help my unbelief!”–a contradictory, paradoxical prayer that (likely) resonates in all our hearts. Our faith is imperfect at the best of times, but that doesn’t diminish God’s power or His compassion. But does this justify divorcing obedience from faith in God? I still think no.
My pastor said something yesterday that sealed the deal for me. He said, “Obedience is not God’s ultimate goal. His goal is for us to enjoy and be satisfied in Him. Obedience is the means to that end.” He is connecting obedience to God not only to honoring and fearing God for who He is (which is right and good), but even extending it to enjoyment of relationship with God. And THAT, my friends, is the ultimate joy and fulfillment! So in this sense, obedience to God is simply an expression of our abiding in Christ. And abiding in Christ, of course, cannot be divorced from faith.
Last point concerning this (you think I’m all over the place and that is very true, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and obviously still haven’t come up with anything very cohesive. Sorry!) Jesus said it in my Bible reading this morning. The Pharisees were giving him a hard time about eating with sinners and he said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:12-13). That quote, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” is pulled from Hosea chapter 6. My translation renders it:
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
If this doesn’t seal the deal, I don’t know what else could. Jesus challenged the Pharisees to “go learn what this means.” I think he’s talking to my Pharisee heart. There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As true obedience without faith in God. My ESV study notes express it this way: “God prefers real participation in the covenant on the part of his people, here expressed as steadfast love and knowledge of God, to the polluted ceremonies of the northern kingdom that ignore these qualities.” Furthermore it says: “The prophets often seem to dismiss sacrificial worship, but careful attention to the context shows that they are concerned with faithful use of the divine ordinances and obedience from the heart…Texts such as Isa. 1:11–17; Jer. 6:20; 7:21–23; and Mic. 6:6–8 are addressed to Judah, where the external form of the sacrifices may be proper, but is not combined with genuine repentance and godly living. In such cases the worship is worse than empty; it is an attempt to manipulate God.”
It is wrong to externally obey when you “run out of trust” in God. The fictional commander of that fictional book ought to have told that fictional soldier: “Trust God. And when you run out of trust, pray that God help your unbelief. Then you can obey from the heart.”
Photo credit: MB Photography