For almost eighteen months now I’ve had a draft post sitting in my blog folder titled “Saying Yes to Jesus Isn’t Always Fun”. I keep trying to write it and then getting stuck, giving up for a few weeks, coming back to it, trying again, and getting stuck.
The problem I’m trying to write about is that we seem to have a skewed way of making decisions about obedience to Jesus. As a youth pastor when youth leaders decided to stop youth leading they would generally give me a reason why they were pulling out. Most of the time it was a good reason, but sometimes I felt like they were copping out. The reason that got on my nerves the most was when a youth leader would say “I just feel like God is calling me to something else, so I’m just going to leave myself open to whatever it is that God wants from me.”
The thing that annoyed me about this is that when someone pulls out the “God said” card there’s no way to discuss that. You can’t say “No God didn’t say that.” How do I know what God did and didn’t say to them specifically? But often I suspected the reason they were pulling out had less to do with God “calling them into a new season” and more to do with them wanting their Friday nights back. The sacrifice of youth ministry just wasn’t worth whatever they were missing out on. But how do you have that discussion? When someone dresses up selfish motives as God speaking they shut down any opportunities for discussion and challenge, and reinforce for themselves the lie that God’s ultimate desire for them is to be happy.
I’m not suggesting that the youth leaders were deliberately lying. I think they confused their desires with the voice of God. Because youth ministry felt too tough, they decided it must be God speaking to them.
Now, this thinking doesn’t just manifest itself in making decisions about ministry, it manifests itself all over the place. We seem to spend a lot of time equating feelings with the will of God. If something feels right, how can it be wrong? If we’re true to our heart how can we be disobeying God?
But Jesus points out that our hearts aren’t really that reliable when it comes to making decisions about what’s right and wrong. In Mark 7:20-23 he makes it clear that our hearts are not the source of our deepest truth, but the source of our rebellion and evil.
This is why, when trying to discern the will of God, we often teach people to go to the Bible and to seek wise counsel before going to our own hearts. Of course, the Holy Spirit can speak directly to our hearts, but I suspect when “God” tells us exactly what we want to hear we should treat those words with a certain amount of suspicion, just in case we’ve gotten a bit confused. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Tom and passing it off as God to avoid costly obedience.
On the other hand, not everything we do needs to have God’s explicit tick of approval. There are a lot of things I want to do (most of them involve eating potato) which I can make my own decisions on, I don’t have to try and fit them into the express will of God. Tim Keller talks about how as you mature as a Christian often the choices we make aren’t between right and wrong but between good and better*. I also think sometimes the choice is between good and good. God has given us brains and wisdom, I’m pretty sure he wants us to use them. What this means is, when you make a decision to do something, say, if you eat that bowl of hot chips, don’t try and pass it off as God’s will. Just own it as your choice, you just like hot chips, you don’t need to over-spiritualise it.
How wonderful that we’re free to choose the thing we want to do. We can eat that potato dish, we can take a break from youth ministry, we can decide to have a nap, we can choose all sorts of things. Sometimes we’ll make a bad choice, sometimes it’ll be a good choice, sometimes it’ll be the best one, but whatever it was, it was us exercising our freedom of choice. We can’t pretend it was costly obedience, and we can’t make God responsible for our decisions.
But with all that in mind, I think we often need to be explicitly called to hard things because we aren’t going to choose them for ourselves. We can’t let feelings be our guide, and we can’t always just do what we want because often what we want to do is not what God has called us to. The truth is, saying “Yes” to Jesus isn’t always fun, there is a reason why the road is narrow. We’re not always going to feel like doing what God asks us to do. And we’re definitely not going feel like being obedient day-in-day-out, week-in-week-out, year-in-year-out. Faithfulness to the call of God isn’t often fun. But it is my experience, the times when by God’s grace I have managed it, that while obedience may not be fun, it produces a much deeper, greater joy; the joy of knowing you’re right where you should be, you’re right in the will of God. When we look at Jesus we see this clearly. He didn’t live a fun-filled life, but his life was one of joy. And it was “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
There is joy in obedience. Isn’t that what we really want? More than fun, we want joy and we want contentment. We don’t get there by doing what our heart desires, we get there by doing what God desires. That’s better even than potatoes.
*At least I think Tim Keller said that, or maybe just my false memories of Keller said it.