I have received a bit of criticism for my constant claim that obedience is the defining factor of the Christian life (e.g.), with most of critiques rooted in the belief that we are to instead focus on “sacrifice” or “love” (as if obedience to God would not involve either).
My questions are most simply: (1) love according to whom and (2) sacrifice for what?
To further solidify this point, I wanted to take a moment to look at the Apostle Paul — a man who understood that “following the way of love” was interconnected with “eagerly desiring the gifts of the Spirit” (i.e. learning to hear his voice, discern it, and do what it says). As I have also previously noted, such an approach is extremely difficult because there is no hard-and-fast, legalistic solution. The Christian life is not a one-stop, altar-call sort of thing.
Paul had a good grasp of this, and made clear in his letter to the Philippians. Following a summary of his personal trials, Paul provides encouragement to the believers by honing in on the value that obedience will yield while also reminding them of the tensions it implies for their work here on this earth:
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
We all know what this means for our post-earth destination (or, I hope we do), but what does this mean for our own personal callings and struggles today? What does this mean for our socio-economic engagement with others?
First, it is clear that Paul has a purpose and that purpose is not his own. He did not endure imprisonments and beatings for nothing, yet he also did not endure them for personal glory or some lofty martyrdom status. Paul was not standing in the streets and blocking traffic for the mere purpose of being hauled away and lauded in the annals of do-gooder history. Paul was not offering himself as a firstborn calf on some altar of cultural symbolism or earthly greatness.
Paul was arrested for speaking the truth and doing what God told him to do. He was not seeking suffering as an ideal for himself (or anyone else). He was seeking the Glory of God to the point of suffering.
Likewise, Paul’s impetus did not come from some fleeting passion for “social justice.” Paul did not discover his life’s purpose from reading Barbara Ehrenreich in undergraduate school and getting worked up about class divisions and money-grubbing sinners. His purpose came from a spiritual encounter: from being knocked off a horse, struck with blindness and subsequently commanded by the voice of God to “rise and enter the city” where he would be told what to do.
Obeying God was bound to have significant social implications, but those were not the driving forces in Paul’s thinking and life-mission discernment. It was not about “discovering himself,” as we pampered Westerners are so continuously urged to do. It was about discovering Jesus and doing what the Father said. It was about being a “chosen instrument,” as God himself described it to Ananias.
This would certainly include love and sacrifice (and everything else our flesh runs up against), but responding was the initial step, first to spirit-mind regeneration and transformation, and then to intimate Spirit-led decision making.
But it doesn’t stop with our individual alignment to God. When we obey the voice of the Spirit, our collaboration and socio-economic engagement can then proceed accordingly and productively, in unity and peace.
As Paul continues his encouragement to the Philippians, he notes that by dedicating themselves to God, they will also find themselves dedicating their efforts to each other. By following the leading of the Holy Spirit and participating in a movement of “divine generosity,” as Kelly Kapic describes it, our earthly engagement suddenly moves toward real unity, real redemption, and real productive purpose:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So what does this mean for our Christian walk here on this earth? What does this mean for our social relationships and economic engagement with others? What does it mean, from a macro earthly-kingdoms perspective, for a large body of believers to be actively obedient to the will of God and the leading of the Spirit to the point of death?
The answer goes well beyond our typical bullet-point lists of “outreach programs,” missionary trips and philanthropy projects, stretching deep into our families, social relationships, entrepreneurial efforts, day-to-day business endeavors, and any other efforts or institutions that God wants to transform and redeem.
This is Spirit-led vocation-discovery. This is whole-life missionalism.
And it’s obeying God that will get us there.