Choose: Obedience or Happiness
It seems like there’s always been a dreadful choice in trying to be a Christian: obey God and be miserable or do what you please but feel guilty. Hopefully, we all want to live a life of obedience, but unfortunately, it seems to be overshadowed by a tidal wave of gloom. Deep down we have a sense that it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not going to end in our fulfillment. Take the Old Testament for instance:
It’s no surprise that it’s often the part of the Bible that people dread rather than enjoy. It’s the harder part of Scripture to read, understand, and apply to our lives. It includes several accounts of people doing bizarre and disturbing things, death, lengthy lineages, lists, and details of things that we aren’t sure what to do with.
But most of all it has the part we really don’t like, commandments.
The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are referred to as the Torah, which means “law.” Within this law, the people of Israel had a whopping 613 rules to follow and live by. Ten of those 613 are famously known as the Ten Commandments, you know, “don’t kill” or “don’t steal” (Deuteronomy 5:17, 19). But others are more specific and obscure, like don’t boil a goat in its mothers’ milk (Deuteronomy 14:21) or don’t wear clothing with multiple types of fabric (Deuteronomy 22:9-11).
I can’t give you the exact theological reasons why these were included or considered necessary, but they were. Most importantly, these commandments were what made up the structural integrity of the covenant God made with his people. This was how the relationship was going to function — if Israel was going to be God’s people, and they were, these were the terms.
I’m sure the people of Israel didn’t feel thrilled about having to keep them diligently and carefully (in fact I’m confident of this because they often didn’t!). But what if there wasn’t this dichotomy of obedience and happiness? What if these two things weren’t opposed to each other? What if this proposition was one of the greatest lies we’ve bought into?
You see, I’m currently reading Deuteronomy after just recently finishing Numbers, so I’m knee-deep in the things we’re talking about. As I’m working my way through, though, I can’t help but notice some reoccurring phrases. Take Deuteronomy 10:12-13 for example:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
You probably read that and got hung up on phrases like “fear the LORD” or “keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD.” Most people do and let out a deep sigh. But did you catch the last three words? “For your good”
According to Moses, there’s something more than just cold, dreadful obedience to be had. In fact, earlier in the book we come across a similar passage:
“And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.” (Deuteronomy 6:24)
So not only can we know these things were given for our good — but they are always for our good! Without exception, every time, these commandments were designed and put in place for the benefit of the people.
Or how about the fact that throughout Deuteronomy alone, eight times we read the phrase reinforcing the purpose of obedience, “that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 4:40; 5:16, 33; 6:3, 18; 12:25, 28; 22:7).
Here’s the question that came to mind when reading these verses: Why have we pinned obedience with this negative connotation that it’s not in our best interest but we begrudgingly should do it?
If you know a bit more than the average Joe, you may be wondering how this applies today since we don’t operate under the same law the people of Israel did. What was binding in the Old Testament times is no longer binding today thanks to Jesus (Romans 10:4). But that’s exactly my point.
If we see this thread in the Old Testament, which we consider the less exciting part of the Bible to say the least (it’s not all that bad), how much more do we see it in the New Testament with Jesus? Or did this idea of our good being accompanied with obedience get thrown out with the goat milk? Of course, it didn't. How do I know? Because God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17) and Jesus is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever (Hebrews 13:8).
I've heard it said that in the Old Testament you see the "God of wrath" whereas in the New Testament you see the "God of love" — as I just pointed out, this is incorrect. The reality of the situation is what we see between the two parts of the Bible is not a different God, or the same God with an attitude adjustment. We are witnessing his plan unfolding, we’re simply in a different phase of his eternal purposes.
A key shift between the Old and New Testaments is that the result of obedience seems to result in the change of, not circumstance, per se, but of character. That is, in Old Testament times people could equate God's goodness, faithfulness, and favor with external evidence of success and wealth. In the New Testament, it looks to be all about the internal formation of a person. Contrary to popular cultural Christianity narratives, God’s will is shown to be much more about who you are than what you do or have. It’s an inarguable fact that the godliest people in the Bible died or suffered — but were fully satisfied, content, and joyful despite what they faced.
What would you rather have: everything you ever wanted, or unchanging peace, contentment, and joy? Today the dominating narrative of society is to find self-fulfillment in who you are. Yes, we are American. Prosperity and abundance are our birthrights. But lately, it seems like the shine of the American dream is fading away, and instead, people just want to be content with who they are, not what they have.
The reality of the gospel is that we aren’t who we are supposed to be. We do a lot of things we don’t want to do, and we fail to live up to the expectations, hopes, and desires we set for ourselves. I think everyone secretly and painfully knows this. But we can be honest about this, in fact, God wants us to be. He wants us to come to terms that we can't live up to anyone's standard, not even ours and surely not his. Without Jesus, this would just be bad news, but because of him, we can find healing, hope, and transformation through faith in his finished work on the cross (Romans 3:22-27).
To bring it full circle, this is said to be God's purpose for us in the New Testament, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification" (1 Thessalonians 4:3). The word sanctification can be translated as "holiness," but a simple way to understand this is becoming more like Jesus. How do we become more like Jesus? Obedience (Romans 6:19,22). Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t saved by obedience, we don’t earn approval from God by obedience; but where the gospel eliminates the need to earn it does not eliminate the need for effort (just ask Paul: 1 Corinthians 15:10).
The greatest good in your life, becoming like Jesus, is on the other side of obedience. Following God is not easy. Naturally, we won't want to do what he has asked of us, but we must overcome the false proposition that the choice at hand is obedience or happiness. The reality is true happiness, joy, fulfillment, life, etc., is found through the means of obedience, not despite it.
It’s for our good. Always.