If you’ve listened to enough sermons or read enough devotions, you’ve likely heard or read warnings against simply “going through the motions” of religion. In other words, we should always worship, serve, and give from the heart, not out of fear or duty.
The Bible makes it clear that God wants our hearts. He wants us to engage with Him willingly with our whole selves. When seeking to obey Him, we should beware of legalism and mindlessness.
But sometimes our hearts aren’t quite up for what He asks. We battle fatigue, doubt, questions, or a sense of inadequacy. Or we simply don’t feel like doing what He’s calling us to do. And no amount of reasoning or pep talk can change how we feel.
In such situations, we face a choice: Go through the motions or do nothing. And sometimes the only way closer to God is through the former.
Sometimes action has to precede emotion. Sometimes we have to trust the power of obedience to shape us, instead of trying to get ourselves in shape to obey.
The key is intentionality. When we put ourselves through the motions purposefully, trusting God’s commands despite our feelings and relying on Him to transform us when we can’t transform ourselves, we find our hearts catching up, our souls growing as we go.
Here are three examples of biblical commands that are often so challenging to our hearts that obedience must come first—and change us.
This is probably one of the most easily neglected commands in the Bible. Maybe because it sounds so simple—even simplistic—and yet proves so hard to follow.
Yet over and over, in both the Old and New Testaments, we’re told to rejoice. And not just in good times. Always. Stranger still, Jesus—the One who warns prospective disciples to be ready to die to self, who guarantees they’ll face trials and persecution because of Him—urges us to actually “leap for joy” when those trials arrive.
Wait, what? Are we missing some fine print here? Some hidden meaning or secret formula?
No. The Hebrew and Greek words for “rejoice” have no cool hidden meanings. They’re pretty straightforward. We’re to rejoice, be glad, celebrate.
So yes, this command is as simple as it sounds. And as hard.
And that’s okay. Because we can choose to rejoice in spite of our feelings. And when we do, more often than not we’ll find that obedience strengthens our faith.
Pastor and missionary Andrew Brunson, imprisoned in Turkey for two years, testifies to this. While in prison, he struggled with feeling abandoned by God. Yet at his lowest he chose to literally dance in his cell for five minutes every day in obedience to Jesus’s teaching. And that simple act of obedience, combined with other daily disciplines, carried and grew him in the midst of his ordeal.
In our own struggles, we can do similarly. Whether we feel like it or not, we can still praise God. We can sing worship songs. We can dance. We can remind each other of His goodness.
Rejoicing in spite of our feelings doesn’t mean denying, suppressing, or manipulating them. It means celebrating anyway.
Because even when life gives us no reason to be happy, we always have something to celebrate: God Himself and what He’s done for us through Jesus.
People do some truly horrific things to each other. God knows it. He sees it. He feels it. And one day He’ll set everything right.
Yet still Jesus tells us, “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, CSB)
If forgiveness depended on feelings, we’d never achieve it. Thankfully, forgiveness is more than a feeling. It’s a decision—the decision to stop basing our peace on someone else’s fate, to waive our right to revenge.
We can still hold them accountable. We can still take steps to prevent future harm. But we’ve scratched their names from our spiritual ledger. They don’t owe us personal satisfaction anymore.
What’s more, when we set our minds on forgiving, God supplies what we need in order to forgive. When forgiveness feels impossible, we can ask Him to help us—to let His own mercy, demonstrated on the cross, flow through us to others.
Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman imprisoned by the Nazis for helping Jews, offers a powerful example. Decades after her ordeal, a man who turned out to be one of her former guards approached her and asked for forgiveness.
Corrie could find no forgiveness for this man in her heart. Yet she knew what God wanted her to do. So she prayed inwardly and took the man’s proffered hand. And suddenly she found she could forgive—gladly.
The night before Jesus’s world-redeeming death, He prayed that if it were possible He might avoid His imminent suffering.
Does that mean He didn’t love us? Of course not! His whole life leading up to and on from that point proves He did.
What it means is that love isn’t a warm, fuzzy feeling. And it doesn’t need a warm, fuzzy feeling in order to exist or act.
True love is a willingness to sacrifice. To end our pleading with “Thy will be done“, get up from our knees, and walk to our cross.
The Bible is full of instructions in what this looks like practically. It looks like praying for our enemies. It looks like respecting those we disagree with. It looks like bearing with those who are weaker than us. It looks like giving of our time, possessions, and abilities to help those in need.
It’s okay, even healthy, to pour out our fears, weariness, and frustrations to God. He wants our honesty. He wants us to bring Him our needs and shortcomings.
But we don’t have to stop there—nor should we. His desire for us extends beyond confession to transformation.
He wants to make us more like Jesus, who poured out His distress in prayer—and then moved through it, counting our and the world’s redemption to be worth His own suffering.
But unlike Jesus, who was fully God as well as fully human, we can’t do that on our own. And He knows that too. He meets us where we are…and supplies what we need to do His will.
If we’re going to obey His command to love others as ourselves, we need to call on the One who loves us all unfathomably and forever. The One who sympathizes with our weakness, yet never sinned, and is able to help us love as He did.
The apostle Paul warns us that “everything that is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, CSB). In other words, when we engage in an otherwise right action without believing it’s right, we’re missing the mark.
But we must remember that faith isn’t a feeling, or even an absence of feelings. Faith is a posture. It’s trusting God’s ability to lead rightly and to use our obedience for good in spite of our shortcomings. And all that takes is a decision.
So dance and sing in your prison. Extend forgiveness to the unforgivable. Love the unlovable.
Not because you feel like it. Not because you’re trying to win something over on God. Not to prove a point. Not because you have no choice.
Do it because you trust the One who commanded it. Because you trust that He is right, that He will be with you, that He will supply all you need in order to do what He asks. That He’ll use your obedience to transform you and draw you closer to Him.
And do it because Christ did the same for you.
I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20 (CSB)
Scripture quotations marked CSB have been taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
4 thoughts on “When Obedience Comes First”
This post was beautiful and applicable. Thank you. It encouraged me and challenged me.
As you probably know, when my mom died I took her beloved cat, Roxie, to live with me…and my cat, Katie. To say they hate each other is to put it mildly! However, when I am in the room, they settle down at a distance from each other and go to sleep. What a beautiful picture of what happens when we allow Jesus to be the primary focus of our lives. HE makes the difference no matter what is happening around us.
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Thank you, Beth! I’m glad it blessed you.
What a beautiful illustration! Amen, He does. ❤
Megan, you nailed it. Over the yesrs I’ve learned that our walk with Jesus is a lot more about decision that feeling. Still sometimes when we face heartache and deep pain and despair it is easy to forget this. And when we forget it we end up feeling g that God has abandoned us. Our “knower ” remembers that his word says he never will, but our “feeler” causes us to question. Even Jesus as he hung on his cross cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus understands our every weakness and does not condem us for them. What a merciful God we serve. Thank you again for your blog post.
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Thank you, Debbie!
Well said! I’ve come to realize the same. I’m so thankful for His mercy that both bears with our feelings and empowers us to trust and obey in spite of them.