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Risking Obedience

September 17, 2020
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Risking Obedience

The ‘OH-NO!’ Principle

For parents, and anyone who disciples others: What’s one, sure-fire thing you can do to help root the faith in those you are leading . . . to protect them from falling away later in life?

I learned the oddest statistic a few years ago. Research was conducted over several decades to discover which factors led kids who grew up in Christian homes to keep the faith as adults.* It turned up many surprising and strong common elements. One in particular struck me: Kids who were part of a family that embraced some level of risk for the Gospel, or who had to pay a price for their faith in adolescence, were far more likely to hang in there as disciples in adulthood.

What? Isn’t hardship exactly what we want to protect them from?

For most of us, it is, but the Scriptures lean in the opposite direction from that of our Western therapeutic culture. Jesus was clear that following his lead would be costly (Luke 9:23). And the narrative of the Scriptures is full of the stories of saints who, at God’s direction, were called to embrace what often seemed like radical risks. Taking those risks deepened, rather than wrecked, them.

Ask yourself who in the Scriptures was asked by God to do something they were loath to do? Start a mental list. The more you think about it, the longer the list becomes! Abraham readying his son for sacrifice in the area of Mt. Moriah. Moses at the burning bush. Joshua facing enemies with nothing but musical instruments. Gideon hiding in the winepress, but called out to battle. There are so many. Supremely, Jesus in Gethsemane.

I love the tiny story of the widow of Zarepath from 1 Kings 17. It is a time of drought and famine in Israel. She is collecting sticks so she can cook the last of her food for herself and her son, and then she expects to die. When the prophet Elijah encounters her at the gate of the city, the Lord directs him to ask the widow to give Elijah the meal instead. In turn, he promises that God will supply her need completely, day by day, from then on. Picture her thinking over that enormous request . . . how would it have felt to her? 

Question: What kind of God asks you to relinquish your last meal?

Answer: The God who knows that if you can trust him and release your grip on your imagined control, he will fill your open hands, supplying what you need without measure.

In our family we began to call it ‘the oh-no!’ principle . . . that instant resistance we so often have to the seeming risk of a suggestion from the Holy Spirit. That ‘oh-no’ inclination is dangerous, and we have needed to remind each other that just as Jesus obeyed the Father in taking up a cross, obeying God would sometimes mean embracing the possibility of loss for us as well.

As a new believer in my early adulthood, embracing the cost of discipleship threatened to cost me big. God showed me clearly that I could not both follow him and marry the man to whom I was engaged, a man who would not/could not imagine following Jesus. Ending that relationship felt like dying, but all that God did to fill my empty arms deeply rooted my confidence in him, preparing me abundantly for the path of discipleship before me. 

For children, walking out the faith by apologizing to a neighbor, or sharing a treasure with a friend, or braving mean kids without retaliating, or befriending the friendless at school when it means social suicide, or simply obeying parents when obedience is deeply counter-intuitive . . . all these things are experienced as risks, and yet all of them turn out to be rich opportunities for God to demonstrate his love and character in ways they would not experience otherwise.

In her book, Almost Christian, Kendra Dean, one of the researchers for the study referenced above, noted that kids who are part of families that are willing to “get radical,” embracing the risks of obedience together, have staying power. In our family many of those risks came in the form of seasons of practicing radical hospitality: embracing foster children, sharing life with some hurting people, harboring a refugee. More than once Neil and I wondered if we had exposed our kids to more uncertainty, even pain, than was good for them. Wasn’t our job to line the nest and keep it safe? But what our kids saw and experienced of the grace of God in those Gospel adventures was timeless and abundant, fueling the fire of their own faith.

How does this principle work for those of us leading faith communities or sharing life with adult disciples? How does a whole family of faith get radical? First, consider asking some fellow saints to join you, help you, in a challenge you are facing. What God does will shape you all together. Secondly, help people tell their stories! One of our churches has begun a testimony project, sharing short videos of parishioners week by week in their Zoom services. The effect is profound. We give one another courage as we share how God has met us in what seemed a fearful time.

I love the book of Daniel. There’s nothing subtle or nuanced about its illustrations of the shape of a faithful life. This series of articles, Fine Fire, takes its name from the scene we considered at the outset: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s risky obedience to God in the idolatrous culture of Babylon. Obedience led them to a furnace door. When the king looked in and saw ‘One like a Son of Man’ with them in the furnace, I don’t believe the men were standing still looking back out like zoo animals. I believe they must have been leaping and laughing together with the Son. That’s the far side of obedience, and it’s a fine fire indeed.

Do you see the ‘oh-no!’ principle at work in your life? Where are the challenges of obedience for you? Is there any way you could welcome the help of other saints, even in asking for prayer? When you see God at work, “tell the marvelous deeds of the Lord”! (Psalm 9:1) 

*The National Study on Youth and Religion was conducted over several decades, and several books have been written about its findings.