The 3 “Ways” of Total Obedience

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Young boy outside

There was a once a little girl who was giving her mother a difficult time one day. It seemed that every time the mother turned around, her little darling was getting into one thing after another. Finally in exasperation and frustration, the mother told her daughter to sit in a chair and not move until she was instructed to. The little girl knew her mother had reached the end of her rope and she’d better not keep pushing the matter too far. The girl flopped into the chair, crossed her arms in front of her chest, and said with a sour expression on her face, “I’m sitting down on the outside, but on the inside I’m still standing up!”

Did the little girl obey her mother? Some might answer, “yes” since she did sit in the chair as instructed, but we might describe her actions as technical obedience, not total obedience, and there is a huge difference between the two. Let’s look at the importance of total obedience vs. technical obedience and identify the three “ways” of total obedience.

The Bible gives us two perfect examples of total vs. technical obedience:  We’re all familiar with the story of the prophet Jonah. God commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrians. Jonah would rather have done just about anything else in the world than this! The Assyrians had developed quite a reputation for their extreme cruelty and barbarism in warfare and in particular, to captured prisoners. The Jewish people had no great love for the Assyrians and would have been more than happy to see God bring swift judgment upon them. This explains why Jonah hopped on the first ship he could find that was going as far away from Nineveh as he could get. But Jonah soon realized that you cannot run from God. After Jonah was thrown overboard in a terrible storm and spent three long days and nights in the belly of a great fish which God had prepared, he decided he had better go and do what God said. He arrived in Nineveh and delivered God’s message. If the Ninevites did not repent, Jonah knew that God would destroy them. He camped out at a great vantage point outside the city to watch the show, but he waited in vain. The people of Nineveh did repent and turned to God and God spared them. Jonah was enraged. He ranted to God at the unjustness of it all. He was so angry at the perceived unfairness that He told God to just kill him now! He was probably raging in his heart as well that he even came on this trip and delivered the message of repentance to these wicked, undeserving people. God was not pleased with Jonah’s attitude, temper, or lack of compassion for others. God asked him the rhetorical question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) So, how would you answer the question – “Did Jonah obey God?” Technically, the answer is yes. He did (eventually) go to Nineveh and he did speak the words God told him to say. But did he really obey God? Was it total obedience? The answer would have to be no. Jonah was no different than the little girl in the chair. He was doing what he absolutely had to in order to avoid further punishment to himself, but his heart was hard, unwilling, and full of anger.

Now let’s look at the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was a young Jewish girl betrothed to a man named Joseph. In ancient times, a betrothal was as binding as the marriage itself and in order to break a betrothal, a certificate of divorcement had to be issued. One day, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel with some startling news – she was going to have a son, a child that would be conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. This child would be special, the very son of God! At this point, a thousand questions must have raced through Mary’s mind. What would Joseph say? What if he divorced her? Could she raise this child as a single mother? What would happen to her and the child? But Mary doesn’t voice any of these concerns or any opposition to the will of God. Instead she makes the astounding statement, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Not only was Mary willing, she was joyful in her obedience. When she visited her cousin Elizabeth to announce the news, Mary praises and glorifies God. She says in Luke 1:47, “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” And in verse 49, “For He who is mighty has done great things for me.” She did not complain or despair. There was only a cheerful, gracious, willing acceptance to do what God wanted her to do.

As we compare the two examples of Jonah and Mary, we see a stark contrast between technical obedience and total obedience. Which one do we want our children to emulate? I believe the answer is clear. Technical obedience just does not cut it. It is not enough to get them to grudgingly do what they are told to do; they must learn to follow the three “ways” of obedience:

  • Obey ALL THE WAY

When our children were small, if they started to do something with a bad attitude or started complaining or making faces, we would ask them how they were to obey. The right answer was the three statements listed above. Teaching obedience requires training the heart. Jonah had a problem with total obedience because of what was in his heart. He did not have a heart that contained mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love for God and others. Mary, on the other hand, had a heart that was soft and yielding to God, humble, and loving. Any behavior problems in our children, including problems with obedience, are heart problems. Training the hearts of our children takes time, consistency, and effort, but the results are so worth it.

So, how do we train the hearts of our children and why is it so important to teach them total obedience instead of just technical? Training the hearts of our children starts with the foundation of teaching them the word of God. When they commit any type of offense, it is not enough to deal with the surface symptoms and just punish. We need to deal with the root of the problem. For example, if one of my children is being cruel to one of their siblings by constantly making fun of them, putting them down, or even hitting them, I can certainly punish them for that and should, but if that is all I do, I’m not really correcting the problem. If I administer punishment, but also take them to the word of God, showing them scriptures about how God expects us to love each other and treat each other, and explain the effects of his treatment on his sibling, then I am reaching his heart. Will one occasion of sitting down and reading scripture and having a discussion fix things? Probably not. This is where consistency and perseverance come in. Training our children does not take place overnight. It is a daily effort that must be maintained. There will be days when you think nothing you are teaching is penetrating. There will be times when you want to throw up your hands in despair and quit. But consider the alternative – if you do quit, where will that leave your children? Will they be better off than if you persevered? Working hard to train the hearts of our children is so important because we are not just teaching them total obedience to parents. Learning to obey all the way, right away, and in a cheerful way, will have lifelong repercussions. Think of others who will have authority over them at some point in their lives: teachers, law enforcement officers, employers, elders in the church and of course, the Lord God. If our children remain like the little girl in the chair for us as parents, they will also have that same defiant spirit for anyone who is in authority over them, including God. That is why it is so important to teach total obedience to our children – we are ultimately teaching them to be totally obedient to God.

Sit down and read the accounts of Jonah and Mary with your children. Open a discussion with them about what constitutes proper obedience to God, parents, and others. Ask them questions about the attitudes of Jonah and Mary and which ones we should be imitating and which ones we should be avoiding. Memorize scriptures together about obedience, post some throughout your house where they can be read frequently, and pray together as a family that God would work in each heart to make it soft and yielding to Him and His will. And finally, never, never, never give up in teaching your children. You can do it, God will always help you, and the results are worth it.

Child Praying


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