“To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.” –Ecclesiastes 5:1
Obedience to God is a fundamental requirement of the Christian life. With our constant recitations of “thy will be done,” it may seem a rather obvious point, but while many of us are comfortable with the basic aims and directives of the Gospel – feed the poor, serve the needy, steward your talents, love your enemies – when it comes to the actual implementation, we tend to defer to our own designs and desires.
Yet no matter how much spiritual frosting we may apply, that basic question still longs to be asked: “Lord, what would you have me do, and how would you have me do it?”
In a free society, wherein individual choice and action are largely uncontrolled and often empowered, we have increased opportunities to align our lives and actions to God, and thus to others. But this same elusive freedom can also mean heightened temptations to become wise in our own eyes. For the Christian, such freedom is only as authentic as it is subservient to the true and the good — a perplexing and paradoxical notion, to be sure.
Along these same lines, I recently referenced Oswald Chambers’ warning about the disease of “self-chosen sacrifice,” through which our personal preferences distract us from the service God is calling us to. Writing elsewhere about this notion of giving up our choice to find it, Chambers points to Abraham’s obedience in leaving his homeland to obey the call of God.
We might be tempted to say that Abraham chose this path, but as Chambers puts it, he exercised his right to waive his rights, and let God choose for him:
As soon as you begin to live the life of faith in God, fascinating and luxurious prospects will open up before you, and these things are yours by right; but if you are living the life of faith you will exercise your right to waive your rights, and let God choose for you. God sometimes allows you to get into a place of testing where your own welfare would be the right and proper thing to consider if you were not living a life of faith; but if you are, you will joyfully waive your right and leave God to choose for you. This is the discipline by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.
Whenever right is made the guidance in the life, it will blunt the spiritual insight. The great enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but the good which is not good enough. The good is always the enemy of the best. It would seem the wisest thing in the world for Abraham to choose, it was his right, and the people around would consider him a fool for not choosing. Many of us do not go on spiritually because we prefer to choose what is right instead of relying on God to choose for us. We have to learn to walk according to the standard which has its eye on God. “Walk before Me.”
This is not, we should note, a reason or excuse for a life of inaction and deferral. On the contrary, the life of obedience will demand more active prayer and discernment, and likely more frequent sacrifice and at higher risks. The more we grow in relationship with God, and the more we learn to hear, discern, trust, and obey His spirit, the higher levels and forms of stewardship he will invite us to.
To serve God and neighbor rightly and fully, we must deny ourselves and acknowledge God’s wisdom and power not just through the words of our mouth and arbitrary sacrificial actions, but from the basic orientation of our hearts and through the particular motions of our hands.
At the very least, we can begin by simply drawing near and listening, learning to live with the basic discipline “by means of which the natural is transformed into the spiritual by obedience to the voice of God.”