The Pharisees of Jesus’ time had a particular way of doing almost everything. They had taken the Old Testament laws and dissected them, working out the best methods and restrictions to ensure they obeyed those laws. Their work led to piles and piles of instructions, details, stipulations, and exceptions. They even had a formula for getting dressed in the morning. If, in your morning ministrations, you skipped one of the prayers or started with the wrong foot, you had to go back and start over. There’s a mindfulness to such deliberateness, but it would have been exhausting—always worrying about prescriptive rules and working to remember every. single. thing.

Both in words and action, Jesus deliberately rejected their legalism. (We love the rebellious side of Jesus, don’t we? Well, I do.) He flouted the Sabbath restrictions, picking grain to eat and healing people (Luke 6:1-11). He criticized the Jewish leadership for worrying about the miniscule while ignoring the mountainous (Luke 6:41-42), for legislating without advocating.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”  –Luke 11:42

The Pharisees picked their way meticulously down narrow trails of righteousness, testing each step uncertainly, double-checking their direction constantly. Now you know how much I love Bible study, but when we try to learn the Law and live it out in our own power, we’re practicing legalism on par with those Pharisees.

Compare their approach to this…

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding.  –Psalm 119:32

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  –John 10:10

Run in the path.

Have life to the full.

These are not images of cautious, timid faith. How do we move from a fear of messing up to a faith of confident risk-taking? How do we run down the path of righteousness (Psalm 23:3 ESV)?

The presence of the Holy Spirit.

Look what Jesus said:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.  –John 14:15-17a

When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.  –John 16:13

We need to stay on the path. Jesus told us to keep His commands. Couple of thoughts…

  1. That’s really hard. There are hundreds of commands/laws in the Old Testament, and some were clearly overwritten by the New Testament (e.g dietary restrictions in Acts 10). How do we know which ones apply?
  2. Jesus didn’t keep all the Pharisaical law, so He obviously didn’t mean we should heed that.
  3. Some of the laws are hard to understand or seem obsolete for 21st-century living (e.g. anything about blood sacrifices).

The Holy Spirit helps
us connect with God
at the heart level.

But Jesus didn’t leave us to figure this out on our own. He promised—and sent—the Holy Spirit to help us know how to obey. Here’s the thing, though. The Holy Spirit doesn’t take out His holy highlighter and mark the laws to obey and the laws to reject. Instead, He helps us know God’s heart so that we can and want to please Him…from our heart level to his. It’s never about our actions.

Stick with me here.

We pursue the Spirit, not the statutes.

The Law of God reflects His righteousness and justice. He gave it so that, in an earlier time, the world—especially the Hebrew people—could learn Who He was and what He was like (see Romans 3:19-20). They could have an idea of what He wanted, which is the Will of God. The Spirit of God, which knows the mind of God, acts from that same Source of righteousness and justice (John 15:26).

Now that Jesus has died and been resurrected, however, we have the Holy Spirit in us. Rather than focusing on the Law, I can focus on the Spirit, through which I gain understanding of the mind of God (= wisdom!). When I heed the Spirit’s direction in the everyday things of life, I will never stray from the essence of the Law of God as He intended it. I will never stray because the Spirit of God cannot lead me contrary to the Will of God, which is expressed (generally) in the Word of God, that is, the Law.

When Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” (Matthew 5:17) this concept was part of what He meant…along with being the perfect sacrifice.

08-20b Fort Loudon State Historic Area (150) trail sign arrow
(c) Carole Sparks

You all know I spend time in the Word of God daily. I study the Old Testament as well as the New. For the past week or so, I’ve been in Psalm 119, where the psalmist uses law or commands or statutes to refer to the larger body of work we would call the Old Testament. We are called to love it, read it, meditate on it, memorize it, delight in it, share it, and apply it to our lives. In fact, the Bible is the number-one means through which God speaks to us. How does that work? Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts, not through our own efforts to obey the words on the page, inspired as those words are. So we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us in the paths of righteousness. We ground ourselves in the Word but let the Spirit lead us through our days. We take the focus off of what we’re doing and how we measure up, aligning ourselves, instead, with the Holy Spirit’s direction in each moment. It was He who first drew us to faith anyway.

I’m focused on responding
to the Holy Spirit rather
than keeping all the rules.

Through our response to the Holy Spirit we fulfill the Law as it was originally intended. That’s why I’m no longer worried about being obedient. I’m focused on recognizing and responding to the Holy Spirit. Obedience will be the natural ‘fruit’ of my pursuit.

In this kind of Christ-life, our obedience will be marked by exuberance and confidence rather than exhaustion and concern.

Sounds good to me. How about you?

Is obedience to God exhausting you? Stop trying so hard. My #obedience is #NotAboutMe. via @Carole_Sparks (click to tweet)

Have you known this feeling of trying so hard, of focusing on the law rather than the spirit? What verses come to your mind? What do you think about the freedom we have in Christ? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Related: Walk This Way

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11 thoughts on “Obedience is Not My Goal

  1. That legalistic rule-following is an exhausting and ridiculous under-taking. My heroine in Steel Rose is such a person. I will, indeed, transform her to enjoy her freedom in Christ so her obedience will be the result of her faith in Him, not guilt-driven, human effort. Love this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 1) I read through Psalm 119 4 years in a row….I may take it up again in January and do one section a week/month. So rich.
    2) I read the most powerful post in “My Utmost” the other day about how it’s not obedience that saves me, it’s not repentance that saves me, it is my belief empowered by the Holy Spirit that JESUS has saved me through His blood…. I can rejoice in his complete sacrifice for me. He said, “It is finished!” not, “now, do more.”
    So good, Carole.

    Liked by 1 person

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