“It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” Voltaire
“This is the trouble you get into when you try to understand God without obeying
him, and only obedience can set you free from the lies that you believe as a
result. You might be thinking that you do believe this stuff. Well, that is your
punishment for being able to believe it. You shouldn’t be able to believe it. It is
an ugly lie. It seems like it has satisfied many people who were content to
believe what they were told without thinking for themselves. Well, if you are
satisfied with this lie, I won’t bother you anymore about it.”
Unspoken Sermons, George MacDonald
Heroes are few and far between, and bravery is not the absence of fear but the refusal to be controlled by it.
In the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries a brilliant thinker influenced C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Elizabeth Yates, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain. He hobnobbed with a host of other heavy-hitters the likes of Dickens, Thackeray, Whitman, Tennyson and Longfellow.
“I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close to the Spirit of Christ Himself,” C.S. Lewis wrote of George MacDonald.
His unparaphrased works can be difficult to read due to his profound mastery of the language he employed to bring the great spiritual truths of God to light; English. And without much doubt, this scholarly preacher would be as marginalized by the religious elite in our day as he was in his because speaking the truth is always an iffy proposition when so many have such a fond attachment to the lie.
“Obedience is better than sacrifice,” the Bible says, and does so for a very specific reason. Sacrifice assumes this position before God: That I have something worthy to offer but always accompanied by the distinct possibility that I am blind to the true requirement that would make the sacrifice acceptable. Obedience on the other hand establishes a position before God: Assuming nothing of my worthiness, only His. And if that idea doesn’t make you a little warm behind the ears, you should read it again.
The truth is that this may take years to understand because our pride will stubbornly cling to the idea that Ever Existing God needs something from us. And if you think about that for even a New York minute, the preposterous nature of such an assertion should become obvious.
8th Century BC Judah witnessed the rise of a number of prophets. One of exceptional nature was Micah. From his brief written record come these timeless questions: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted king? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The ostensible answer to each of these inquires is No, and coming to that conclusion the hollow nature of these requirements is exposed for what it is. “He has shown you O man, what is good,” God replies. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Pre-dating Micah by some 200 years, and after having his self-ignorance accosted by the prophet Nathan, King David also had a breakthrough moment with God. It is recorded in Psalm 51. “For you have no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable, O God is a broken and contrite spirit.”
In the heyday of animal blood-letting, it was a humble prophet and a repentant king who could recognize that their hands were empty of anything worthwhile and were then prepared to be obedient to something greater than their own hearts. And in turn, it is only those who are obedient to the commands of Christ who can have the slightest insight into the nature of God and thereby find immunity from all the lies of religion and human opinion.
God is revealed to us as a Son who is obedient to His Father. “I only do what I see my Father doing,” Jesus said. And without His obedience we would have no idea what sonship actually looks like. The most uncomfortable truth: In the absence of obedience, everything is just opinion. And if that’s as true as it obviously is, any claim to faith without obedience is a claim to a lie where every false and dishonoring idea about God not only becomes possible but acceptable although our soul innately rejects the falsehood. Then caught in this terrible predicament, we will be forced to erect cowardly theological barricades around these beliefs and practices before quickly setting out to enlist others to defend those very lies from whose power we ourselves are unable to escape.
Now maybe for this reason alone, the lessons that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount will never be embraced by religious people or religious systems. The bar is set too high, we will say in full retreat to something more debatable like the rest of the Old and New Testaments. But this is because brokenness precedes any possibility of obedience, and remaining unbroken, we are unable to obey that we might enter into a lifestyle that is completely counter intuitive. And in the absence of joy filled obedience, all our devotion can produce is a shrunken version of what God requires, all the while protesting, My life needs protection. But Jesus’ contradiction to this type of human rationale is brutal. “If you seek to save your life you will lose it. If you lose your life for my sake, you will save it.” These are wonderful words of invitation, but they will hang over our heads like Damocles Sword until we have discovered that true living can only be found on the other side of our human resources. “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies,” the Master said, “it cannot bear fruit but remains alone.” Dead and resurrected, genuine faith does not run from the battles of life. It is not tenuous or fragile, ready to wither at the hint of conflict and testing. True faith in Christ is robust and unafraid. It is untempered by partisan politics and cultural fluctuations. Religion however, will settle for much less than that and is most likely predicated on what we believe that others have experienced.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the Lord said, and then added all the other “Blesseds” He could immediately think of. But how wrong it is to think that He is telling us how we should act, when no one can act like this without having their insides rearranged. So yes, the bar is set too high. And it is only when we are finally forced into this impossible corner, that we will ask along with Jesus’ first disciples, If this is so, what makes obedience possible at all? (“Then who can be saved?”) The answer is simple. Obedience is possible because it is not a method for modifying my behavior according to current social or spiritual standards, but rather an inescapable response to the revelation of God’s grace. And if this makes any sense at all it will be easy to see that these beatitudes are not prescriptions for a better or more spiritual life. They are a description of the life that is hid with Christ in God, because one would hardly think of instructing an oak tree on how to grow or a peach pit on how to produce peaches. How silly that sounds even putting it on paper. But the foolishness of such an idea only becomes clear when I come to realize that the life that Jesus is evoking is the fruit of being connected to the vine, not instructions on how to grow a vine.
Can you imagine how ineffective it would be to tell someone that they had to be forgiving although forgiving is a basic command of Christ? Just forgive them! we might say. But it would do no better than making our children say they are sorry when they aren’t. I’m sorry, these little ones will repeat to avoid punishment as their hearts remain unchanged.
So it is good to remember that while Jesus commands absolute obedience, it is not the same obedience most of us require from our kids. Our desire is to teach our sons and daughters right from wrong. His, to lead us from death to life, and there is of course, a huge difference.