Beyond Obedience

For many believers, the “gold standard” of godliness is obedience to God’s word. As a boy in a traditional church, I remember praying the act of contrition, which focuses entirely on God’s commands: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done” (overlooking the positive commands), “and we have done those things which we ought not to have done” (overlooking the prohibitions). Either way, it was a question of doing.

Obedience is important. Our Savior said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). One objective of the Spirit’s work in our lives under the new covenant is to cause us to walk in God’s statutes, keep my judgments, and do them (Ezek 36:27). But doing is not the end of the story. Our Savior told his disciples,

Luk 17:10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

Yesterday, in meditating on Mary’s response to the angel in Luke 1, I caught a glimpse of what lies beyond obedience.

When Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, she responded immediately:

Luk 1:38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

This response is not a promise to obey the Lord. Gabriel hasn’t given her any command. He has simply advised her of what is about to happen. She is not promising to do anything. Instead, she is surrendering herself to what the Lord is doing.

This difference between obedience and surrender is profound. In obedience, we retain some measure of control. We are driving the car, following the directions given by the Lord. But in surrender, we move out of the driver’s seat, and climb into the back seat, or even into the trunk. In obedience, we agree to act according to God’s will. In surrender, we rejoice in God’s acts. In obedience, we are the subject of the verbs. In surrender, we become the objects.

I don’t mean to downgrade obedience. David expressed an attitude of obedience when he wrote,

Psa 40:8 I delight to do thy will, O my God:

His Son, our Lord, echoed this commitment to obedience throughout his ministry.

Joh 4:34 Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.

Joh 6:38 For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.

Note the repetition of the verb, “to do.” What we do, or do not do, matters. But it is not all that matters. A large part of our Christian experience is concerned, not with what we do, but with what is done to us. That’s where Mary found herself. Gabriel didn’t say, “How would you like to be the mother of the Messiah?” He said,

Luk 1:31 behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

We might paraphrase, “Mary, this is what is going to happen. Someone thought you might like to know about it.” Mary’s response is to what is being done to her.

Throughout biblical history, people are not only doing, but are being done unto, and the Spirit has preserved for us some of their comments. For example, when Jacob is forced by famine to send his favorite son Benjamin to Egypt, a land that (from his perspective) has already consumed Simeon, he laments,

Gen 43:14 And God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin. If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.

Jacob is in despair. His attitude is one of resignation to an inevitable fate.

We sense the same attitude on the part of Eli, when Samuel reports to him the judgment that will fall upon his house because of his sons’ sin.

1Sa 3:18 And he said, It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good.

Jacob and Eli find themselves backed into a corner, and have no alternative but to acknowledge that bad things are going happen.

Mary certainly faces the possibility of bad things. At the least, she must endure a very awkward conversation with her fiance, and social rejection from her neighbors. Under the law of Deuteronomy 22, she is even liable to stoning. But her response is very different from resignation. When she says, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she uses a form of the verb “to be” that is very rare in Koine Greek (appearing only 79 times out of more than 28,600 verbs in the New Testament). Its use in this passage is thus highly significant.

This form, the optative, indicates that the speaker desires the action described in the verb. We might paraphrase Mary’s words, “Oh, that it might be according to thy word.” She is not resigned to the difficult assignment that has been given her, but surrenders to it with all her heart. She aligns her will with the Lord, and desires that he would do unto her whatever he desires.

I’ve been able to find only two other individuals in the Bible that exemplify this attitude of surrender. (Perhaps you can send me others.)

The first is David, while fleeing Jerusalem after Absalom’s coup. Zadok the priest, together with the Levites, are loyal to David. They accompany him on his retreat, bringing the ark of the covenant with them. But David tells Zadok,

2Sa 15:25 Carry back the ark of God into the city: if I shall find favour in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me again, and shew me both it, and his habitation: 26 But if he thus say, I have no delight in thee; behold, here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him.

David’s words, “Let him do … as seemeth good unto him,” are almost identical to Eli’s, but he makes an important addition. The expression “Behold, here am I” indicates a voluntary submission to the Lord’s authority. This is how Abraham responds to the Lord in Gen 22:1 when the Lord calls him to the awful obedience of sacrificing his son, and how Abraham responds to Isaac in verse 7 when Isaac asks about the lamb for the offering. David’s words indicate, not resignation, but surrender. Like Mary, he is subordinating his will to the Lord’s, and trusting him to work out the details. He has climbed out of the driver’s seat and into the trunk.

David and Mary are two examples of going beyond obedience to surrender. The third is their descendant, our Lord Jesus. In Gethsemane, facing the terrifying prospect of never-ending death for our sin, he cries out,

Luk 22:42 Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

Again, we find, not resignation, but active surrender. “Not my will, but thine.” The prospect is not pleasant, but he acknowledges God’s authority to take action, and is willing to be done unto in whatever way is necessary to achieve the Father’s purposes.

An emphasis on obedience pervades Scripture. These are the only three examples I can find of active surrender—please post me a note if you find others. But that does not mean that this attitude should be rare. On the contrary, it ought to characterize each of us. When our Lord taught us to pray, he instructed us to say,

Mat 6:10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

We should realize the implications of this prayer. Every time we utter these words, we are expressing our surrender to the Father’s will. As we see in the examples of David, and Mary, and our Lord, this is not a light thing to do. We are going beyond obedience, expressing our willingness not just to do what the Lord commands, but also to be done unto according to his plan. We recognize that those plans may entail pain and inconvenience for us, but our delight in the Lord is so great that we trust him with the consequences. May he grant us grace, by his Spirit, to go beyond obedience, and live in a position of continuous surrender to him.

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