Heartfelt or Heartless Obedience?

from Issue #1, April 2016, page # 18

by Mike Atnip

This article shows how a heartless legalistic obedience fills only the letter of the law, while a heartfelt obedience joyfully fills the spirit of the commandment. -AV

In I Samuel 15:13, King Saul told Samuel that he had done what God had told him to do. Yet, the prophet heard bleating from sheep that were supposed to have been sacrificed. Do we do the same thing today? Consider this true story.

Last winter I told my 14 year-old son, “Daniel, it is supposed to be very cold over the weekend. Fill the firewood in the back room up to the windows so we don’t run out of wood when it is cold.”

Since Daniel was feeling cold and a bit sluggish, as boys sometimes do at chore-time, he wasn’t excited about my plan. Eventually he made his way to the wood pile and began his task.

Not long afterwards I made a trip to the back room for some wood to fill the stove. Daniel was finishing his task, or at least he thought so. “Daniel,” I chided him, “That’s not near enough wood; you need to fill it up.”

“But I did fill it up to the window,” he replied.

I looked. Sure enough, he had the wood stacked up to the window. I laughed and told him, “That’s what you call legalism! Go fill it up right.”

Yes, he had stacked the wood up to the windows in a neat stack one piece wide. I think Daniel had to smile to himself.

He returned to the woodpile and I went for the camera to record a perfect example of legalism. Now before you dump this paper in the trash, thinking I am about to call discipleship “legalism,” hang on a minute. Heartfelt obedience is not legalism. However, heartless obedience is legalism. Daniel obeyed my command to fill the wood to the windows … legally. Look at the picture again. Is not the firewood stacked up to the window?

Legalism Defined 

But Daniel’s heartless obedience missed the point. Legalism can be defined as “trying to get by with as little as is legally possible.” It’s like my aunt, who proclaimed that police do not stop people until they are going at least five miles per hour over the posted speed limit. She wanted to be legal, so she would set her cruise control at 59 miles per hour in a 55 mile-per-hour speed zone. Trying to get by with as much as she could and still be “legal,” she was a legalist to the core.

Well, legalism runs in my family. I have been guilty of it too many times myself. For example: when we moved to Bolivia, South America in January of 2000 we knew that it was illegal to import guns into Bolivia. Since we planned to live in the country and get some wild game for meat, we wanted to take a .22 rifle along to do some hunting. But we also knew that it was not illegal to import gun parts into Bolivia. So, we took the rifle apart. I took some gun parts into Bolivia, and another family took some gun parts. Lo and behold, when we got into Bolivia we found we had enough parts to make a whole gun! Legal? Yes. Legalism to the core! While we obeyed the laws of Bolivia, we missed the point and made ourselves into hard-core legalists by our heartless obedience.

Heartless obedience to the letter of the law affects the whole human family, and the descendants of the original Christians in the Swiss territories were not exempt. Instead of fully surrendering to King Jesus in heartfelt obedience and obeying his teachings, people began to look for loopholes. As more and more people squeezed through the loopholes, the holes were made larger and larger. Finally, the holes were turned into large gates which everybody passed through without even realizing that the holes were never intended to be passageways. That is the way heartless obedience works.

For example: Jesus taught that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. But people began to say that revenge was fine as long as it was done “justly.” They argued, “You can kill someone in self-defense, as long as you love the person while you hack off his head.” From there it was broadened into outright warfare, as long as you were doing it in the name of Jesus. And by such reasoning or lack of it, people joined crusades to take back the Holy Lands. In fact, one could even get an indulgence for all his sins if he joined a holy crusade to murder and steal.

Strange, isn’t it, how heartless obedience can turn into a gate to the broad way. Yet it was this very spirit of fulfilling the letter of the law without living up to the spirit of it that Anabaptists stood up to. Anabaptism was a move away from heartless obedience toward heartfelt obedience where one does the will of God with a heart full of love.

Self-propelled or Belt-driven? 

A friend of mine told me of a father who commented on how the dishes got washed in his home. He said, “We have two types of dishwashers around here: self-propelled and belt-driven.”

First, let us consider the “self-propelled” dishwasher as demonstrating heartfelt obedience. Let us imagine that this model is female. When she does the dishes, she may sing from a song book propped precariously on the window sill above the sink. When the dishes are finished, she neatly places the towel on the rack to dry, sweeps the floor, and empties the trash can. Then with a smile of satisfaction she meanders off, looking for more things she can do to bless her family.

Now let’s look at the “belt-driven” dishwasher as demonstrating heartless obedience. This belt-driven dishwasher obeys the order out of fear and does only as much as he has to in order to escape punishment. It is not hard to picture this model as a boy under 15 years of age. When he is told to wash the dishes, his face contorts into a frown. Mumbled words slip out from between tight lips. His slow movements remind one of a sloth. But when the dishes have finally been washed and he has obeyed the letter of the commandment, this belt-driven model suddenly finds the energy to scoot out the door towards the bicycle lying in the yard, slothfulness forgotten.

But mother calls out after him, “Johnny! Come back and finish your job.”

“What do you mean?” he argues. “I washed all the dishes.”

“”But you are supposed to take out the trash, wipe the table, and hang up the dish towel.”

“But you didn’t say to take out the trash and do all that other stuff,” he growls. “You only said to wash the dishes.”

So it goes with heartless obedience—fear, complaining, technically obeying the order, evasive, unhappy, selfish. In contrast to the heartless obedience of the boy, is the heartfelt obedience of the girl—out of love, cheerfully fulfilling the spirit AND the letter of her order; kindly thinking of others.

Now let’s take a look at how we obey the Lord Jesus. When we find a command of Jesus—say, for example, Luke 12:33, “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old,” do we obey the commandment out of fear of punishment or are we stirred by love to do all we can?

Or, let’s consider the teaching of a woman’s head covering. When I Corinthians 11:7 tells us, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head …,” that indicates that a covered head is God’s calling for a woman that prays and prophesies.

Now the question for each of us to consider is: Are we obeying this commandment out of a heartfelt desire to please God or out of a heartless fear of punishment? Ask yourself the question in this way: Would the ungodly people around me say I am covering my head, or would they say it is half-covered or a quarter-covered? When we tell them what that thing on our head is, will they squint their eyes and say, “And that is a covered head?”

Heartless obedience means a focus on the letter of a command while trying to see how little one can do and still escape punishment.

Heartfelt obedience propels one out of selfless love to fulfill the spirit of the commandment.

~ MA, Baltic, OH

Practical Questions: 

  1. Should an Anabaptist stick to a posted speed limit of 65 miles-per-hour when everyone around him is going 75 miles-per-hour?
  2. Is it sinful to disassemble a gun and carry parts into a country if that is legal?
  3. Is it sinful to shoot a wolf if it is killing your sheep?
  4. What are some examples of heartfelt obedience in your life?
  5. What are some examples of heartless obedience in your life?

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