I wrote something five years ago and I want to run it by you. I know it was five years ago because I referred to my wife, Maggie, and I being married for 30 years, and now we’ve been married for 35 years. I’m good at Math. We no longer have that second Saturn, although we had it for 11 years before trading it in on another car, a Scion xB, if you must know. It’s sad that GM seemed to intentionally let their Saturn branch die like it did. That story might be for another blog, since that story is really about corporate managers wanting more external control. Anyway, here’s some thoughts on obedience.
What is the antonym of arbitrary? What word or phrase captures its opposite? Over the next few minutes, as you read the following ideas, I invite you to answer these questions..
I was recently reading from the small devotional book, As Bill Sees It. This particular Bill isn’t Bill Glasser, whose ideas I also like to read. No, this Bill is Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Over a twenty-five year period he wrote books and articles about the A. A. way of life and As Bill Sees It (Wilson, 1967) contains short excerpts from this literature. The following passage really got me to thinking.
We of A. A. obey spiritual principles, at first because we must, then because we ought to, and ultimately because we love the kind of life such obedience brings. Great suffering and great love are A. A.’s disciplinarians; we need no others (p.27).
It was the phrase we love the kind of life such obedience brings that caught my attention. Christian choice theorists don’t know exactly what to do with the word obedience. Obedience, as either a word or a concept, is found throughout scripture. Jesus himself used the word to describe the standard for our behavior. Yet the word conveys the idea of the control of one person over another. It conveys the idea of compliance. Words like control and compliance raise caution flags in the eyes of a choice theorist.
During one of my interviews with Dr. Glasser, I asked him to do a word association exercise with me. He agreed to the exercise and I said the word obedience. He replied, “Well, I don’t really like that word.” I then said the word forgiveness. “Oh,” he said, “I like that word a lot.” Is he so different from us when it comes to our gut reactions to these words?
But again, I am joyfully confronted by the A. A. principle that we love the kind of life such obedience brings. As the words wove their way through my brain cells a picture came to me.
Twice in our thirty years of marriage, Maggie and I have owned a new car. The first time was in 1996 when we bought a gold-colored Saturn SL2. The second time was when we traded that Saturn in for another new Saturn in 2000, which we still drive to this day. I don’t know if they still do this or not, but when we purchased these new cars the people at the Saturn dealership made a big deal out of it. They all gather around and congratulate you and sing to you and take your picture. It’s like you’ve now become part of a special community. I thought back about how I felt as we drove away from the showroom. It was a need-satisfying moment, to be sure. I felt joyful and powerful and free. As Maggie drove us home to the friendly, waiting garage, I looked in the glove box and pulled out a crisp, new car manual for the model we had just purchased. It contained all kinds of helpful information. It described little details on how you could custom program the automatic door locks; or on how the posi-traction worked; or on how to make the change your oil light go off after you changed your own oil; or on the kind of oil you should put in the car; or on how much oil should go in the car. And on and on the information went.
So think about this for a moment—If I put the kind of motor oil in the car that Saturn recommended in the manual, was I obeying Saturn? When I change my oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, am I complying with a Saturn demand? It seems silly to view it this way. We don’t view Saturn as an arbitrary car company out to make our lives difficult. We figure they built the car and they probably know best how to keep it running well. Obeying Saturn, if you will, rather than being restrictive, simply makes sense. Further it leads to a more joyful car experience now and in the future.
With my Saturn experience in mind, the A. A. principle that we love the kind of life such obedience brings begins to appear in its true light. Such obedience is really not like the obedience we usually think of. If the A. A. passage above is accurate, and I for one think the passage is on the right track, then there are different levels of obedience. Level one is based on I must, probably for reasons of survival. Level two is based on I ought to, which reveals a growing sense of personal responsibility to one’s self and to others. Level three is based on the idea that we love the kind of life such obedience brings, which is the highest and most secure level of obedience, where we obey because it makes sense and is for our best good.
I can see how God would have a challenge on his hands when working with the human race. At times during our earth’s history our very survival has been at stake. When the Hebrews were rescued by the mighty arm of God from Egyptian captivity they formed a massive group, probably approaching two million in number. Although impressive in numbers, they had almost no knowledge of their Rescuer God, had minimal knowledge on how to create and preserve effective relationships, and no knowledge on principles of health. It indeed was a situation calling for God to be extremely clear about who He was and what His expectations were. The boundaries for behavior had to be very specific. For instance, without modern medicine an illness could easily wipe out every one of them. Therefore, cleanliness procedures were vital, not because God was arbitrary, but because their very lives depended on it. It truly was an obey and live moment in time. If they weren’t ready for level two or level three obedience, God was willing to work with them at level one, even if it meant being misunderstood, even if it meant later generations might struggle with the word obedience.
And so we come back to the question that started us off—what is the antonym of arbitrary? Because I think Christian choice theorists would be very interested in those words or phrases. Could it be that God is more like the Saturn car company than we realize?
Wilson, B. (1967). As Bill sees it: The A.A. way of life (selected writings of A.A.’s co-founder). New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
First let me share my response to the question “What is an antonym of arbitrary?” Purposeful guidance for the best interest of a person,with the freedom to chose otherwise.
This post, I think, conveys the levels of maturity of my spiritual journey. In reflection I feel that most of my life I have been in the level two ,”because I ought to” paradigm. For several years now I believe I have been moving more and more in to the level three “because I love the kind of life that obedience brings.” Thank you for sharing your insight of your saturn purchase. To me, it is a parable of how our Father God would like us to understand his relationship with each of his children. His desire is for us to live experiencing high levels of abundant joy, even now on this sin filled world. May we continue to do that in to greater understanding of our Creator /Re-creator God !
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. 1 Cor. 13:12
This is good stuff Jim. I have struggled with this concept for some time. There are several angles one could take. Obedience could be something forced and expected by an external factor, it could be something that motivates you through guilt, or it could be something that you do because you simply want what is best for all parties involved out of love or kinship. I prefer to think of obedience as a choice I make to care for the desires of somebody else. Great illustrations!
Thanks for inviting me to follow the thoughts here, Jim.
There’s such a clear sense of gratitude in everything that Bill writes as a recovering alcoholic for the life he has now been given. But that’s just the point – he has the perspective of what life was like under the burden of his addiction. How would any of us know the joy of grace, and the deep, deep satisfaction of making good choices if we had not had some experience with poor choices. Even your Saturn experience has lurking in the background somewhere some knowledge of a time when someone (perhaps you) didn’t follow manufacture’s recomendations – and experience with the results.Good choices, and the happiness that comes with them, have a direct and interdependent connection to poor choices and the unhappiness asscoiated with those decisions.
I marvel at the grace of God through Jesus. A plan for redemption preceeded creation – why? Because the close relationship he desired with us required not just the bland version of choice that we so often attribute to the Adam and Eve story – “well, they could have just chose to continue loving God – after all look at all the evidence they had being with him face to face.” Not possible. Obedience from the heart as Bill speaks of it is possible only after disobedience. That, I think, is what God knew – they will rebel, else, how will they truly know my love. We will suffer through their rebellion (just like parents and teachers do) and in the day that I recreate all things, gratitude will be the foundation of our new relationship. It will be painful – but worth it.
No wonder Glasser likes the word forgiveness. In God’s creation, forgiveness is present before choice – or it’s not really choice that’s being offered. It causes me to think deeply about this whole matter of choice. Choice and forgiveness are not two seperate discussions – they are two sides of the same coin. Inseperable. And forgiveness is’t something we work on choosing after someone has made some choices we did’t like. If that’s the case, we didn’t truly offer them the freedom to choose in the first place.
For me, all of these thoughts are rooted in my belief about God / salvation / eternal life. I am redeemed by his choice – not mine. I do not choose to be saved – he has chosen to save me. I was redeemed before i came into existance.
I appreciate so much your emphasis on Grace. I cannot claim to understand the scope and power of God’s Grace and His desire to love me, support me, and redeem me, but I am on a mission to understand it better. In fact, I ask God to give me insights into His Grace. As so often is the case, your ideas have comforted me and challenged me at the same time. For instance, is obedience from the heart only possible after disobedience? I am glad, incredibly thankful, actually, that God continues to draw me to Him and empower me to obey Him, even as I keep stumbling and rebelling. I’d like to think that obedience is possible without disobedience, but it is a theoretical question for me. I’ve disobeyed too many times to “have a dog in this fight.” I suppose someday you will have to take it up with Adam and Eve.
I agree with you that God has chosen to pursue us and save us to the uttermost. We lose sight of that too often. Would you say, though, that your choice matters?
I look forward to more time to talk together on this.
I say for now that my choice makes all the difference in terms of relationship i’m able to enjoy with Jesus. If I chosse it can be real, near and enduring. If choose not (usually just out of blindness) I miss that comfort and connection. But redemption is not my choice – just like we choose to love our children, and choose to always call them by our name no matter their choices or behavior. We are his because his love declares it so – the more we realize that the more we rest comfortably in him. And btw, the more we make choices not based in fear.
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There is no fear where love exists, rather perfect love banishes fear, and the person who lives in fear has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4:18
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One of my favorite books is The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. It is an allegory about choice, really, where people who live on the outskirts of hell get on a bus that takes them to the outskirts of heaven, and where heavenly spirits or guides come to the bus stop to meet the ghosts from the bus and escort them to deeper heaven. The book wonderfully captures the different conversations that occur between the spirits and ghosts. Some ghosts do choose to begin the journey to heaven, but most are too hurt, too proud, and even too talented to go to a place they are sure will not fully appreciate them. One of the quotes from this little book (about a hundred pages) is especially insightful for me. When one of the spirits is asked “But what of the poor Ghists who never get into the omnibus at all?
He replies, “Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock, it is opened.”
Does Lewis have this perfectly described? I don’t know for sure, but it seems right to me. It seems right that even God will have to ultimately say to some that He will respect, against His will, their choice.
Here’s a couple of questions I have Jim:
1.Who would honestly choose hell over heaven if they had all the right informaiton? Take a quick imaginary trip around the globe and consider all the cultures and environments people grow up in and think about how many people get a chance to say “thank you Jesus – I choose God”. You don’t even have to go around the world – go to Richmond and talk to a kid from the hood who’s grandmother got ripped off the last time she went to buy a car from the “Christian” car salesman.
2.I think it’s true, as you always say, that every choice we make is the one that we think will serve our interests best. That being the case – what’s the real difference between the person who says “thy will be done” to God (is this the old “submission” always talked about in Christianity?) and the person who says “I don’t get this God thing, and religious people have never impressed me much – forget about it”. Both just made the choice that seemed like the best one for them. I guess God just likes the ones that go along with his program better.
Certainly there are consequences to all of our choices. I happen to think I have a more inwardly peaceful and secure life because of my faith – but is the guy down the street damned by God to extinction because he could never quite make sense of my “faith talk”? If so – then the old theory (as seems to be expressed by Lewis in this quote) espoused by Christians holds true – that only those who confess (interesting word for choice theorists) Jesus as thier savior while living on this earth when the “door of mercy” is still open will be saved from hell by God.
BTW – I too have been deeply moved by much of Lewis writing – but not all of his theology.