The Heart of Obedience

There is a certain joy in obedience.

This joy does not flow from obedience that seeks to earn acceptance, favor or status. Such “obedience” is self-serving and will not result in true joy. Neither can this joy flow from obedience that seeks to appease. Appeasement is always an elusive goal and can never bring satisfaction. One will always wonder if one has done enough to make things right.

Joy that comes from obedience is the joy of worship. As sinners in need of the grace of God we know that we can do nothing to earn our standing with God. Why then do we obey? Biblically, obedience flows from a heart of love for God. This love is in response to the love of God, who first loved us. Worship is the only attitude of the human heart that is a fitting context for obedience. I cannot use my obedience to plea bargain with God, to appease him, or to make myself worthy in his eyes. Only the work of Christ on my behalf can make things right with God. So obedience is simply a response of love and worship to God. With the psalmist I can say:

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes. Psalm 19:8

Understood in this light, obedience is not something I use to gain a reward – obedience itself is my reward, my great privilege, honor and joy. If that is true for you, the parent, then that is also the attitude you want to convey to your children. Just as I cannot make myself more acceptable to God by my obedience, neither do I want my children to think that I will be more accepting of them because of their obedience. When children disobey, the solution should not be to do better next time. The solution is to to trust Christ for the strength to do what cannot be done in one’s own strength. Apart from Christ we can do nothing. Calling your children to faith in Christ is a far cry from manipulation. Training your children to be obedient is not about getting them to do what you want them to do. It is about teaching them to honor God from their hearts. Manipulation is about controlling behavior. Biblical obedience acknowledges the weakness of our flesh and the absolute necessity of having a heart transformed by the power of the cross.

Now, let’s look again at the scenario posed in the last post:

Sean, if you are good today and pick up your toys after each time you play with them, Mommy will buy you an ice cream cone tonight.

In view of the discussion above, it is good not to blur the issue of obedience with receiving a reward like ice cream. Obedience is a blessing, not a chore (I John 5:3). So during the day when you are teaching Sean to pick up his toys, the focus is on training him to respond to your parental authority and to see that picking up his toys is an act of selflessness that will help others. After a full day of instructing Sean, it is not a bad thing to assess how he has done. Perhaps you could say something like this:

Sean, I know that your tried really hard today to keep your toys put away. It was kind of hard to do sometimes, wasn’t it? Well, remember that this is why you need Christ. He knows that we can’t obey by ourselves. Mommy is thankful that even though you struggled at times, you made real progress. How about we go out for a few minutes and get an ice cream cone?

In this situation, Mom focused on pleasing God and disciplined training in righteousness. Sean was not perfect, but he began to make progress. In this context Mom can offer the reward without making it a carrot that stays just out of reach. By offering it at the end of the day instead of the first thing, it allows your focus to be clearly centered on the goal of obedience–bringing honor to Christ.

Let me know your thoughts.

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