Obedience as love?

In a podcast episode and follow-up I made comments about the difference between loving God and obeying or being grateful to God, and a podcast listener posted the following reply:

How can you divorce obedience from love of God? Jesus Himself said that “if you love Me you will keep My commands,” and John covers that topic as well in his first letter. The motive and heart behind the obedience influence whether it is an act of love or just a response to truth or fear. I obey the speed limit because I fear getting a speeding ticket, but I do what my husband asks as an act of love.
Similarly, gratitude is often, if not always, a response of love. When my daughters express true gratitude for something I have done for them, they are loving me and I am experiencing that love. Both obedience and gratitude are facets of love, but neither completely encompasses love.”

I’m glad for this comment and it’s particularly helpful when folks express their viewpoints with enough substance for me to formulate a reply. Due to the importance of the question and the length of my response a blog post seemed the best format for a reply.

Let’s start with obedience.

I see the matter rather differently. The issue is not about “divorcing” love and obedience but about properly distinguishing and relating them. For instance, in my view many evangelicals have nearly completely related them, to the extent that some make such silly claims as “obedience is God’s love language.”

Of course not!

If we take the gospel writers seriously (and believe that they got the “greatest commandment” right) then a Christian’s primary focus is to love God entirely. Not first to obey or be grateful, but primarily to love. Love is God’s love language!

As I see it, obedience is actually a response to truth and an expression of self-love, not love of others.

So obedience is dependent upon truth, such that obedience is only a virtue (and not a vice such as sloth or credulity—believing / acting upon whatever I am told with taking responsibility for assessing its truthfulness) when obeying a particular request or edict is the right thing to do. In other words, obedience is only merited where that which is requested or demanded is just and based on a truthful understanding and construal of the matters at hand. In such cases obeying is “doing the right thing.”

Yet obedience is ultimately a choice I make for myself. In other words, once I have realized the truth of a certain claim then acceding to that demand or request is much more a matter of whether I choose to “do right” by own self versus doing right by others. Once we understand this then we have the full picture on what it means to obey: loving ourselves by willingly engaging / disengaging in certain activities, orientations, etc. So conceptualized obedience can now become “doing the right thing for the right reason.”

To further debunk the notion that obedience is based in loving others, depending on circumstances I could just as well disobey someone I love as obey them!

So if my father tells me to abandon my engagement with my fiancée because he does not think well of her (or later, to divorce my wife because we are having difficulties), I will both love my father and disobey my father’s wishes unless I believe that there are solid, truthful grounds for acting in accord with them.

Indeed, I have taught my own children first to consider my requests rather than simply obeying them (such as when I allot tasks for cleaning the home). So when I ask one daughter to do something that she thinks offers her an unequal share of the work, or something that falls to my first daughter under another agreement, I am pleased that they do not simply obey me but instead engage with me so as to seek what is most fair (i.e., most truthful).

Now interactions such God can be quite different yet similar.

First, where God is both the source of love and truth we can be assured that God’s requirements of us are true and right. Yet then the issue becomes assuring ourselves that we have properly interpreted these requirements or commands! Second, Christians are not to love God by way of obeying nor even to obey in response to love, but rather all of our interactions with God are to be based on / infused with one primary orientation: loving God entirely! Third, however, obeying God is indeed a manner of self-love.  I will return to this third point in another post.

Let’s look at the first and second points.

So first there is the question of what we are to obey. In other words, how should Christians go about understanding the biblical text such that they have a better understanding of what God seeks of them? My answer involves, minimally, two things: obtaining interpretive skills and cultivating vision born of experience / practical wisdom. I will expand on these in future posts.

Second, there is also the question of how we obey. So where the commentor wrote about the “motive and heart behind obedience.” What does this mean? As I have argued above, if this means—as I think that it does for many Christians—that “I obey because I love” then this is a very questionable orientation. With regard to human beings this would flat out wrong.  With regard to God this would at best amount to “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” In other words, I would argue that love actually countermands simple obedience!

For example, obeying God as loving God risks not only i) failing to understand God’s requirements, and so acting wrongly (as above, through mis- / lack of interpretation) but ii) failing to understand the relationship between belief and life, and so misconstruing how and why Christians believe at all (by circumventing the crucial step of evaluating biblical truth claims and adjudicating their truth values).

In other words, the Gospels advocate human beings coming to belief in the Christian God not because they are commanded to believe but because they find the biblical truth claims about God, humanity, and the recommended relationship between the two to be sound and trustworthy. In other words, people believe these biblical truth claims because they find them to have sufficient truth value, value that can be discerned and adjudicated through our understanding, senses, imagination, and our personal experiences (and via testimony, the experiences of others).

So Christians should not “obey because they love / obey as loving” but instead should:

a) obey as being convinced of the biblical truth claims;
b) obey as becoming good interpreters of who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two should best relate;
c) obey as cultivating a proper vision of what God is seeking to do in and through this right relationship with human beings.

And all of this—all of it—should be done as a result and expression of a Christian’s primary orientation: to love God entirely and seek that this love should proliferate through all areas of one’s life and infuse all aspects of one’s personhood (reason, will, imagination, etc.).

More to come.

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