If you’ve ever watched the NBA basketball playoffs, you’ve likely been impressed by some superstar player, like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. At times you may have heard an announcer say, “Wow, he’s really in the zone!”
When a player is in the zone, and that individual gets hold of the ball, it’s going in the bucket. Chalk it up to skill, momentum, passion, or even luck, but they’re just producing and winning in that moment.
Now, I love playing an occasional game of basketball myself, and I can tell you what it’s like to be out of the zone. You’re kind of oblivious to what’s going on, your mind isn’t in the game, you miss shots and forget plays. We sometimes say a guy like that is “zoning out”!
I believe obedience is the “zone” God wants us to live in.
There’s not much glamour in the actual definition of obedience, which sounds something like submitting to the restraint or command of an authority. Who’s interested in that?
God is. And He has given us commands, for His glory and for our own good. Our first and only response to God when He gives us direction should be, “Yes, Sir!”
Life in the Obedience Zone
There’s no such thing as being partially obedient. You don’t measure obedience in percentage points. You can’t say, “Well, he was 90% obedient” … because partial obedience is actually disobedience. We’re either all in for Christ, or we aren’t.
Remember in 1 Samuel 15 where Samuel was talking to King Saul, and he said, “To obey is better than sacrifice”? In that account, Saul had been instructed very specifically to destroy all of the wicked Amalekites.
We often hear critiques of God’s command regarding this story: “How could that be just?” etc. But what I like to zero in on is Saul’s response. He didn’t question the justice of God’s plan, but he also didn’t fully implement it. If you recall, he had his army sweep through the city and do almost what God had commanded—perhaps even 99% of the command.
But Saul didn’t obey. He took the command of God, reprocessed it in his own understanding and for his own benefit, and only carried out some of what was asked. You can call that a lot of things, but you can’t call it total obedience!
That’s why he felt ashamed to talk to Samuel; that’s why he tried to make excuses and deflect blame. God didn’t ask Saul for partial compliance, and He wasn’t even satisfied with 99%. Obedience doesn’t talk back to God; it doesn’t pick and choose; it just says yes. God, I will do exactly what You’ve asked me to do.
I wonder how many times we’ve thought it sufficient to mostly obey God, or to assume that we’ve done more than most would do, so we must be covered.
Three Requirements of Biblical Obedience
When our Life Action teams teach on obedience in churches across North America, we work hard to make sure every member of the family hears the message. For children, we ask them to memorize a very simple definition: Obedience is doing exactly what God says to do, when He says to do it, with a right heart attitude.
I’m pretty sure that definition works for us adults as well. If we want the blessing of God in our lives, either on earth or in eternity, we have to obey Him. Obedience is discipleship, just as Jesus indicated in the Great Commission.
So, let’s break down that obedience definition and consider what the Holy Spirit might want to show us about our responsiveness to Him.
- Doing exactly what I’m told to do. In order to obey God, we have to listen attentively, and we have to listen in continuous fashion.
Once, a missionary translating the New Testament into the language of a tribe he was working with discovered they did not have a word in their language for obey. It wasn’t a very elevated virtue in their culture, so he couldn’t find a word to translate all of the biblical calls to obedience. One day while walking through the village, he whistled for his dog, and his dog immediately came running to his side. One of the locals said, “Your dog is all ear.” And the missionary thought, “That’s it! That’s the phrase I’m going to use!” So he translated obedience as “all ear.”
- When I’m told to do it. Our definition of biblical obedience includes a time qualifier. It’s not enough to say to God, “Sure! I’ll obey … later.” That’s still not submission. That’s still reserving the right for ourselves regarding when and where we will comply with divine authority. That’s still thinking we know best.
One father tells the story of his son never getting around to cleaning his room. He would be told to do it, and he’d readily agree … but then time would slip by, and the job wouldn’t get done. This son graduated from high school and went off to join the Marines. He came back after boot camp on his first leave, and his dad asked, “Son, what have you learned in the service?” He said, “Dad, I’ve learned what NOW means.”
Some of us have never learned what now means. We’re not hearkening to what God tells us to do—in other words, listening carefully and submitting immediately.
- With a right heart attitude. The third aspect of biblical obedience might be the hardest to maintain. It’s one thing to comply outwardly, but inwardly, what is our heart saying? Are we glad to serve God? Are we glad to uphold His moral standards or His priorities, rather than our own?
In the North Pacific there’s a little volcanic island called Iwo Jima. They used to do exercises for moon walks there, because it’s so like the surface of the moon. As an island, it’s pretty irrelevant in itself, but years ago it was very strategic in America’s fight to liberate the Pacific during World War II.
America lost 21,000 men in the battle to wrest control of that island. Those soldiers charged the hill and were shot down right and left.
But at that moment they weren’t concerned with whether they were adequate or inadequate, with whether they had courage or lacked it; they were simply obeying the command, for better or for worse. Their authority said go, and they went. Get out of the boat, march up the hill, charge the machine gun nest, do whatever you need to do. And 21,000 men were killed because they were obedient!
I use this “negative” illustration here because we often only have a good attitude about obedience when we are in agreement with the logic—when we see what God sees, when we approve the course of action.
But what happens when God asks us to make a sacrifice, or to risk something of great worth for His kingdom cause? In that moment, will we obey, not only on the outside but also on the inside? Do we have that much faith in God’s ultimate plan?
The Best Motivator of All
While raising our children, my wife and I were very interested in their purity of heart. We sheltered them from a lot of the early-age temptations young people are faced with, be it through school, media, or otherwise. I recall one day when I was dropping off my 15-year-old son at someone else’s home. We knew they weren’t Christians, and they probably had very different standards of behavior than my children were used to.
So I asked Steven, “If you guys get out there driving around, and your friend pulls out a pornographic magazine and shows it to you, what are you going to do?”
Steven said, “Well, if I’m walking in the Spirit, I’m not going to look at it because God doesn’t want me to. If I’m not walking in the Spirit, I’m not going to look at it because you don’t want me to.”
I was so glad to hear that he was making the faith his own. He was transitioning from the conviction of Dad to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Because, of course, Dad’s not going to be with him all of his life!
And that’s where I think repentance enters this equation. In order to trust that God’s way is really the best way to walk, I have to repent. I have to turn from my way and embrace His.
It could be that we sometimes try to get people to jump from disobedience to obedience without that important step—the moment they make it their own, the moment they really repent. We’re trying to say, “You’ve been doing this; now you need to start doing that,” rather than saying, “Is God bringing conviction to your life?”
Have you agreed with what God says about your sin? Have you gone to Him in confession? Have you asked forgiveness of others you have wronged? Have you turned from your way and started walking God’s direction? Have you cried out for His grace and power to help you overcome sin and live for Christ?
That’s really what is involved in accepting God’s authority over our lives. As long as we still hold on to our self-will, I don’t think we’ll be able to obey … at least, not the 100% obedience God expects.
Jesus said it this way: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Are you following? Are you obeying? Are you in the zone?
Steve Canfield has served as a Life Action road team Revivalist for more than forty years.