Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A deeper obedience

This morning I was reading a meditation written by John Piper, the well-known preacher and teacher. I don't always agree with Piper, and sometimes reading his material provides me with a theological wrestling match, sort of like sparring with a friend or colleague. It sharpens me, because I respect Piper's biblical knowledge and the fruit his life has borne, even if we disagree on some of the minor points.

This morning, though, I resonated deeply with what I read. Here's just an excerpt:
I have never heard anyone say, 'The really deep lessons of my life have come through times of ease and comfort.' But I have heard strong saints say, 'Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depth of God's love and growing deep with him, has come through suffering.' 
That's sobering. He goes on to quote the New Testament book of Hebrews (5:8) which says that though Jesus was "a son" -- in other words, in the position of an heir, full member of the household of God (just as Jesus' followers are sons and daughters through our adoption into Christ Jesus, his death and resurrection), as well as being uniquely positioned as the "Son of God" -- "he learned obedience through what he suffered." Piper rightly points out that this same book, Hebrews, declares that Jesus never sinned (4:15). So it's not saying he was disobedient and then learned obedience, but rather that the fullness of the experience of obedience was produced in Jesus' earthly life through suffering. Piper says, "It means experiencing depths of yieldedness to God that would not have been otherwise attained."

Here's where my ponderings go with these things today:

While your heart may have been turned to Jesus for a long time, your ability to act in obedience has not been mature. This has certainly been (and continues to be) true for me. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," or what had Paul tied in knots in Romans 7.

As an example, for my entire adult life I have been eager to have strong relationships that reflect the love and glory of God. In my own vernacular, my shorthand for this desire is that I long for a life  built around love. That desire is not new; I remember dreaming in college about what I wanted my adult life to be, and the shape of it was exactly this -- I longed for a life built around love. I believe this is a right, good, God-honoring desire.

Trouble is, my understanding of love and a life built around it was immature and partial, and my ability to act to build my life around genuine, enduring love was broken at best. So for decades, while pursuing the worthy goals of building a marriage and a family and a career that glorified Jesus and built the kingdom of God in some way, my own brokenness and weakness prevented me from making some of the needful hard decisions in obedience. Fact is, I thought I was being obedient, and I looked for all the world like a husband, father, worker who was trying to do things right -- because that's exactly what I was. However, my obedience didn't have enough depth. I needed to set hard limits at times, and instead I gave people cheap grace. I needed to be an advocate for myself, and instead I believed I was called to give up my needs, just one more time. I needed to hold people near me accountable for their hurtful actions, and instead I forgave as best I knew how, but inside I seethed with resentment, and thought I was being loving. I needed to walk away from dysfunctional conversations and cut them short, and instead I just put on an impassive face and tried my best to endure. These specific examples may or may not be the place God is calling you to deeper obedience. But he is definitely calling -- especially if you are suffering.

Eventually my shallow obedience was not enough, and much that I had tried to build came crashing down. While it's tempting in suffering to blame another person or another system (because they're certainly broken as well) that doesn't bear any good fruit. And make no mistake, I suffered for my own actions, or my own inactions. It is an ironclad truth that whatever you plant, that's what you're going to reap. But the suffering I reaped through the crash has begun to teach me a deeper, richer obedience that looks different than what I thought obedience looked like. I'm learning to acknowledge and advocate for my own needs. I am learning to say no to dysfunctional people and systems. I'm learning to walk away from destructive conversations. I'm learning that grace is costly, both for me and for those I love. I'm learning that sometimes I need to take action to call a stop, to make an end, to set and enforce a limit. And make no mistake, that can be painful.

This deeper obedience lies in tension with, and sometimes contradicts, the "Minnesota Nice" I absorbed growing up, which (in reality) is so often simply an impulse to avoid conflict and avoid pain. There are deep, deep confrontations inside me where the truths God is teaching me stand in direct opposition to the long-suffering passive-aggressive behaviors I learned growing up. There were many lessons I learned in those early days that still serve me well -- kindness and patience and careful thought and hard work and many more. But sometimes it is right, deeply obedient, to call a halt, to say "no," to walk away, even if it looks in the short term like those choices might cause more conflict and offend people. Sometimes it is deeply obedient to know your own needs and name them out loud and act as your own advocate, even if doing so looks terrifying at the time.

I look back at the last few years and realize -- and this is uncomfortable -- that without the suffering I've endured (including the self-inflicted parts) I would never have learned these lessons. Too much in my life was wrapped around my old ways of acting, believing, coping. It is a severe grace of God to come at times like an avalanche and sweep away much that seemed solid. But it is also God's mercy and compassion to rebuild on foundations swept clean. More than ever, I continue to long for a life built around love. In this challenging season, I am growing into a deeper understanding of what that requires of me.

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