Rules, Obedience, and Knowing God

You did it. Someone stopped you on the street. A family member was over at your house for dinner. You stopped into a church without any clue as to what awaited you inside. And suddenly it all made sense. God is real. Jesus did everything you couldn’t do. Now you believe. You’re a follower of Jesus. The old is gone, the new has come, and you’re ready to start down the journey.

Before long some well-meaning but misguided person or group is going to start imposing rules on your life. Don’t do this. Do that. Fill your days here and not there. At first it sounds simple and you desire God so much that you go along with it. As the days turn into weeks, months and years, you learn to gauge how well you and those around you are doing at knowing God. You read your Bible and pray everyday. Your car can almost always be found in the church parking lot because you never miss a service.

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Some of us really like rules. We like to-do lists and have apps for that. That’s right, we don’t just have one, we have a few. Because we don’t want to miss anything, don’t want to leave anything undone. So we’re going to work at it. One of the categories for your to-do’s is simple named, “God.” Your Bible reading plan is there. A list of prayer needs is there. There’s even a calculator for your tithes, missions support, child sponsorship and food bank donations. Plus a calendar with all of those services you wouldn’t want to miss, your discipleship course, conferences, book reading deadlines, and so much more.

Is this the relationship we are called to with Jesus Christ? Is it about to-do lists and rules? We want to stay close to Him and far from evil. Growth is the name of our game; we aren’t staying still because staying still is moving backwards because it ain’t moving forwards. I wonder what Jesus would have to say about all this doing and obeying.

It’s great to want more of God. The pursuit of the Holy One should be the work of our lives. But it isn’t supposed to be about work. There is more to knowing God than obeying rules and completing tasks.

A Familiar Story

You’ve probably heard about the story Jesus told in Luke 15:11-32. It’s a common story, a powerful story, a family story. Jesus didn’t begin with, “The Kingdom of God is like” or “Suppose there was a man”. He says there was a family like this. It happened.

If you’ve looked it up or you know the reference, we know this as the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son. A man had two sons, two heirs to all he owned. One day the younger son asked for his inheritance. When the father gave it to him, he left home and disappeared, off to squander his inheritance. Eventually he sold himself into servitude and lived at the bottom of existence, starving. As he worked tending the pigs, he realized how good the lowest servant lived in his father’s home, and decided that he would go back and ask to serve his father.

When the Lost Son returned, his father met him on the road, weeping and rejoicing. Dad called for a banquet celebration, and a huge commotion ensued. The older brother, the Good Son, heard the noise and asked what was going on. Anger and hurt overwhelmed him. When he didn’t show up for the banquet the father went looking for him. The Good Son refused to enter, citing all of his goodness and his brother’s contempt for their father. He spewed his rage all over his father and, as far as we know, he never joined the celebration.

The story of the Prodigal Son could be renamed the story of the Good Son. Maybe then we would pay closer attention to it. It might have a chance to mean something to more of us in the Church. Sure, those who fall away and choose their own path are glad for the truth of the story, that our Heavenly Father will welcome them and rejoice at their return. But there is also truth for those who never leave.

Rules vs Relationship

The incredulity of the Good Son was based on his performance and his father’s lack of response to it. The Good Son knew the rules and was famous for following them. He could have quoted them and taught seminars to teach others how to follow them. So when his brother returned, the Good Son recounted his report card to his father.

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” (Luke 15:29 NIV)

Did the father disagree with him? Was there any incident or even an accusation against his son’s loyalty or obedience? No, there’s nothing of the sort. What did come from the father was an indictment against the shallowness of the Good Son’s relationship with him.

“But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again …” (Luke 15:32 NIV)

Though the Good Son obeyed his father, completing every task without question, he didn’t have any real relationship with his father. If he truly him, the son would’ve known the depths of the father’s agony and sorrow over the loss of the Prodigal.

Mourning is different for all of us, but signs are still there. Those who don’t know us well might miss them, but those closest to us can’t be convinced otherwise. The Good Son either couldn’t see and recognize the mourning of his father, or he ignored it completely. Why else would he be so selfish when the father’s deepest prayer was answered?

Obedience to rules is not a relationship. We follow the laws of our nation, our city, and our workplaces. Does that obedience produce relationship? How many people complain about their government leaders and bosses? Paying your taxes, voting, being a good citizen, showing up to work early and staying late, excelling at your job. We could do all of these, but which ones would build a relationship?

Obeying isn’t Knowing

The big problem here is that we can obey without knowing. A checklist, to-do list, or a set of expectations can be completed without engaging our hearts. Tasks are not heart-dependent. They don’t require vulnerability or intimacy. These are reasons why we actually like task-focused Christianity. However, no amount of completed tasks or piled up checklists or works done in the name of Jesus will ever result in a heart-to-heart connection, with God or anyone else.

This contributes to the difficulty in connecting with someone who doesn’t seem to notice you. We believe if we can just do enough we can reach the other person’s heart. Whether we are hoping to receive love and approval from a parent or win the heart of a crush, we pile on more and more. When all of that effort goes unrewarded and our love without reciprocation, we lose heart. We have to understand the truth that no amount of trying or prying will open a heart that is closed to us.

As the same time, if all we have to show for our relationship with God is a bunch of trying and doing, our hearts won’t touch His. This isn’t because His heart is closed, but because ours is. Our hearts never have to open because we believe our works and rule following is enough.

Only it isn’t. Obeying is not relationship. Doing is not knowing. Look at what Jesus said:

“In ‘that day’ many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we preach in your name, didn’t we cast out devils in your name, and do many great things in your name?’ Then I shall tell them plainly, ‘I have never known you. Go away from me, you have worked on the side of evil!'” (Matthew 7:22 Phillips)

Obedience does have a place in our relationship with Jesus. It is meant to be the overflow, the fruit of knowing Him.

“If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.” (John 14:15 MSG)

But obedience cannot serve as the foundation of relationship. It can’t replace knowing Jesus, with all of the vulnerability and authenticity necessary for true intimacy. We aren’t told to work for God and obey His commands with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We are told to love Him.

God’s love and approval are freely given. You don’t have to earn them. He loves the entire world, everyone in it. And He accepts those who give themselves to Him. Not just obeying His commands, but receiving and knowing Him.

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