Back to it: Obedience or joy?

I have a friend who once told me that serving God is all about obedience. Now, ordinarily, I would be inclined to agree: the Bible is pretty clear that, if you love God, you will obey. But this particular friend had convinced himself that obedience to God trumped everything: his church, his family, and even his own joy. While this is certainly true when those things come into conflict with obedience, I begged my friend to realize that God loves His church, He designed the family, and numerous passages of Scripture make clear that God aims to fill us with joy.

For example, Galatians 5 lists joy as the second component of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, if we live by the Spirit – read that, obey – we should have joy. As we saw in my last post, God has made it so that joy can flow from real sacrifice. And then there’s Psalm 37:4, which tells us that, if we delight ourselves in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our heart. There are all sorts of ways that you can take that statement, but I truly believe that, if we align our desires with God – that is, obey, He will give us the stuff that we want because our desires will be in line with His. In other words, we might not get a fancy new car, but we wouldn’t want it anyway. And even when He gives us hardship, we will nevertheless experience joy because it’s the result of God’s will and, thus, ours. (Please note, that’s not to say that God wants us to suffer; rather, suffering is sometimes the undesired side-effect of obedience.)

Maybe that doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. I don’t know. But I do know that, as I returned today to my word study of joy which was disrupted by rabbit trails and distractions, etc., the next passage up for consideration put it pretty succinctly.

Deuteronomy 28 starts off with Moses recording the blessings promised to Israel should she remain faithful to God’s law (i.e., obey). For 14 verses, God reveals through Moses that He would pour out unprecedented, unparalleled favor on Israel. Promises of political dominance, security, prosperity, military prowess, spiritual holiness and blessing, distinction, and more, provided that the people “listen to the commandments of the Lord your God… and do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today… to go after other gods to serve them” (13b-14 NASB).

In verse 15, though, the tone changes dramatically to one of warning when Moses continued, “But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God… that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” And from there to the end of the chapter – 53 verses – God outlines a host of terrible things that will happen if His people fail to obey. And then, in verses 47-48, after Moses took a very brief breath, we read this: “Because you didn’t serve God, your God, out of the joy and goodness of your heart in the great abundance, you’ll have to serve your enemies whom God will send against you” (MSG). Moses goes on to warn of famine and humiliation, forced servitude and more. But what interests me, of course, is the appearance of the phrase “joy and goodness of your heart.”

Of course, different versions translate this phrase a little differently, but the meaning in each is exactly the same. For instance, the NIV says, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly….” The KJV says, “Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart….” And the Holman Christian Standard Bible puts it like this: “Because you didn’t serve the Lord your God with joy and a cheerful heart,” bad things are going to happen to you.

The point? Simply this: the answer to the question of whether God would have us demonstrate obedience or joy is “yes.” It’s not an either-or type of thing. In fact, the longer that I serve Jesus and the more that I study and learn and grow – especially with this word study – the more convinced I am that obedience and joy enjoy a symbiotic relationship. New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word “symbiotic” as “interaction between two different [things] in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” And I believe that this is exactly the relationship that is supposed to exist between joy and obedience. Here’s how it works.

Obedience prompts blessing. Which begets joy. Which inspires obedience. Which enables blessing. Which produces joy. Which compels obedience. And on and on and on.

But is that actually the order in which these things happen? Actually, I don’t know that it is. Consider, for an instant, the joy of a new believer. For the first time, they know that their sins are forgiven and they are bound for heaven. That certainty that things will work out in the end is joy. But is it the result of obedience? How could it be? The new believer hasn’t had a chance to obey! So the cycle starts with joy. It continues with obedience, which opens the door for God to bless, which fuels joy.

All of this to say this: even in the Old Testament context of the Mosaic law, obedience and joy cannot be taken out of the context of one another. You cannot have real joy that does not produce obedience. And real obedience – the kind that God is really looking for and pleased with – should lead right back to even more joy.

So the question must be asked. Are you missing the full measure of joy in your life because you’re being less than obedient? And are you falling short of real, godly obedience because you’re simply plodding through a God-given list of to-do’s without joy and gladness in your heart?

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