Do I Have To?
Do I have to? Those four little words frequently crossed my mind and sometimes my lips in response to my parents’ directives during the formative years of my life. The inevitable consequences and pressure to conform usually caused me to obey, though not always in a timely manner.
The required duties were sometimes unpleasant but not overwhelming; I just didn’t want to do them. I eagerly looked forward to an adulthood without commands because I wanted to live freely in an “I want to,” rather than an “I have to,” world.
I immaturely had defined obedience as completing a task, without considering my attitude or motives. We can deceive ourselves about the nature of obedience at all stages of life. When we must submit to authority, a game of cat and mouse often ensues. Those in authority (the cats) vigilantly look for the slightest sign of disobedience, while those under authority (the mice) creatively try to hide their waywardness behind a facade of obedience.
Due to the Bible’s many commands, people often view their relationship with God like the cat-and-mouse illustration. But what does biblical obedience look like? Is it unquestioned compliance? Conformity to an accepted standard? Submission to authority?
In Luke 17:7–10, Jesus taught His disciples obedience goes further than simply doing what one is told, and He illustrated the point with a story about a servant who worked hard at his tasks; yet, Jesus said the servant should not expect praise because he simply “did the things that were commanded him” (v. 9).
Do I Have To Obey?
“Have to” obedience focuses on accomplishing what is demanded by those in authority—nothing more, nothing less. Fear of penalty or loss of benefit often motivates people who obey in this way. They grudgingly complete tasks out of obligation. But Jesus said such obedience receives no thanks. Would a master thank his servant because he simply did what he was told?
God gave the Jewish people detailed instructions on how to offer sacrifices. Yet His Word asserts He didn’t simply want sacrifices. In fact, He rebuked His people for offering an abundance of pointless sacrifices. He wanted something better—true obedience—which is why the prophet Samuel wrote, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22; cf. Ps. 51:16; Isa. 1:11–13).
If obedience means doing only what we are supposed to do, God would not have condemned those who seemed to follow His commands. But He disapproved of Israel’s “have to” obedience; He wanted the Israelites to love and obey Him wholeheartedly, which is worth far more than burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mk. 12:33).
Am I Supposed To Obey?
Jesus applied the servant illustration in Luke 17 to His disciples: “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (v. 10). In other words, “We have done only what we were supposed to do.”
According to Jesus, a servant is unprofitable if he merely fulfills his obligations. The word unprofitable does not mean “worthless” since both master and servant benefit from the work. But the word does imply that a servant does not merit additional praise or compensation merely because he did what was expected of him. “Supposed to” obedience, Jesus said, does not deserve a reward.
James 1:22 warns Christians not to be deceived regarding the true nature of their obedience: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” The apostle Paul shared a similar concern when he told the Corinthian believers not to judge their own faithfulness since God alone knows the motives of the heart:
I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God (1 Cor. 4:3–5).
Should I Want To Obey?
Ephesians 6:5–6 defines obedience as something that springs from “sincerity of heart,” even when no one is watching. So our motives determine true obedience, and love is the greatest motivator.
Love motivated God the Father to send His Son to die for our redemption (cf. Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). Only love can motivate us to want to serve and obey God in sincerity of heart. The apostle John wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). And Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15; cf. vv. 23–24).
Loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength is the only foundation on which to build a life of faithful, true obedience. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3). Burdensome means a difficult or heavy oppression. The ancient Greeks used the word to describe suffering under heavy taxation. Though God’s commands are not burdensome, they are not necessarily easy.
To be honest, sometimes following God’s commandments requires us to take up our crosses to follow Him, which necessitates hard work, sacrifice, and adversity. We will face trials and may need to make costly decisions.
The scribes and Pharisees placed heavy burdens on the Jewish people by adding to the Law of Moses. So the early church council at Jerusalem determined not to place a similarly heavy yoke on Gentile believers since Jesus had fulfilled the Law’s requirements (Mt. 23:4; Acts 15:10, 28). Christ invited people, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you,…and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mt. 11:28–30).
For those who have placed their trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of eternal life, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more than He already does. And there is also nothing you can do to make Him love you less. Burdens are lifted at Calvary.
Imagine that someone you love has planned a special evening to celebrate your relationship. He or she gives you a meaningful greeting card and an extraordinary gift that is truly an expression of love. Stunned, you affirm how much you appreciate everything. It is a warm and loving moment.
How would you feel if your beloved then tells you, “I went through a lot of trouble to put it all together, but something had to be done to keep you happy”? Or, what if your beloved—delighted you noticed how much effort he or she put into the evening—said, “Now that you have enjoyed yourself and I have accomplished all the duties I had to complete, it’s your turn to return the favor”?
Now, envision a different scenario. The person you love provides you with that same lovely evening. When you express your thanks, he or she replies, “It was nothing but a small demonstration of my love and appreciation for you. If I could have, I would have made tonight a thousand times better.”
When you love someone with all of your heart, serving, obeying, and sacrificing for him or her is a joy, not a hassle. It is a pleasure, not a burden. When we truly love the Lord, obeying Him is not an oppressive yoke but a joyful path to freedom. Christ in us empowers us to obey, and He shows us grace and forgiveness when we fail.
Liberty sprouts from obedience. Freedom and blessing are gifts of grace that flood our lives when we love God and want to obey Him (Jas. 1:25). Obedience is a choice and an opportunity to joyously express our love for God. The last lines of the famous hymn “Trust and Obey” effectively convey the sentiments of true obedience: “What He says we will do, where He sends we will go. Never fear, only trust and obey.” The following are the first and third verses:
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
But we never can prove the delights of His love
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.
By obeying freely from a sincere heart, we are free to live the life we were created to live—not as slaves to sin, but as new creations empowered by the Holy Spirit living within us (Rom. 8:1–11).