The peaceful hills of Kentucky have been disturbed by flu season. Around my house and the homes of many of my friends we sit coughing, sneezing, running fevers, and--grumbling. You know the feeling: your body is sick and nothing else seems right with the world. Food tastes like cardboard, the best sitcoms can barely raise a laugh, and life seems pretty sucky in general.
But why? True, we’re sick. But we’ve been sick before and we’ll get better after a while. It’s not a big deal. Even in our sickness, the circumstances of our life are unchanged: we have a job, we have food, clothing, money, and shelter in abundance; our dreams and aspirations remain intact. The sun will rise again and in a few days the memory of the illness fades. But in the moment, while we a are sick, our mood is sour and the pleasures of life are lost to us.
Likewise, the beauty of a spring day coupled with the blessing of good health can cause us to embrace the world with hope: we may still have bills to pay and relationships to settle, but sometimes shear goodness forces its way through our pores and into our souls. Try this sometime: give an extravagant and unexpected gift to someone in need, and watch your own personal joy burst through the happiness meter.
Our momentary sickness brings to the surface a lesson about our nature. In these moments we can discover reality of how the Creator designed human life: we are not people who have a body, we are people comprised of body, soul, and spirit, inseparable and united, each part exerting its influence on the whole of our lives.
In Monday’s Meditation I sang a hymn in praise of mindless obedience. Today, with the able assistance of cold and flu season, I would like to suggest that transformation into the likeness of Jesus does not flow solely from the inside out, but we can also participate in his destiny for us by squeezing ourselves into an outward mold, even if it means our hearts are not fully on board with the process. I would like to suggest that while transformation of the heart is paramount, the outward actions of body can promote our inward health.
Our bodies are important, and how we choose to use them--even if it sometimes means “mindless obedience”-- can determine the condition of our souls.
Like the foolish teenager from Monday’s post we might think that the only obedience that “counts” for anything is the free-flow of heart obedience. We think that to obey God against our inner will is somehow inauthentic. But what if obedience can effect change from the outside in, as well as our heart’s ability to effect obedience from the inside out?
For example, when humanity first contemplated jealousy and murder, God came near with important revelation about the interplay of body and spirit. Yahweh expressed a preference for the sacrifice of Abel instead of the one brought by Cain. Cain became angry with God, his brother, and the whole world. Then Yahweh approached him:
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will not your countenance be lifted up? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4: 6-7 NASB)
In this passage (the first in which the word “sin” is used in the scripture) God reveals the power of doing right, even in the face of our own anger or disappointment. That is, obedience has the power to lift us out of anger and rejection. It’s not a formula: it’s a revelation of how we are made: external choices, even through the struggle of an untoward heart, can lead us out of the pit. Obedience brings the reward of a lifted heart.
The news is even better--to a degree, we can rule over sin. Even when our hearts are angry or hurting, we have the capacity to choose well. The strength comes from Him (after all, the presence of God certainly came near to Cain) but we make the final choice of whether to obey or go our own way. He provides the strength, but we must choose to act in his presence.
All types of obedience, including worship, require the cooperation of his empowerment and our choice. King David looked toward his own heart and commanded himself to praise: “Praise the LORD, my soul . . .” (Psalm 104:1)
The prophet Habakkuk determined to praise God (a response of obedience) simply because it was the right thing to do, regardless of the circumstances. Crop failures, foreign invasion and despair as deep as his bowels do not block his choice:
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior (Habakkuk 3: 18)
It is God who responds with divine empowerment toward those who have turned his way:
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (verse 19)
What we know intuitively through everyday sickness and health in our bodies can also be true for our developing the life of a disciple. Outward choices can shape inner realities just as much as inner motivations can generate outward responses. Choosing well is within our grasp, and when our grasp fails he is there to help us do what we cannot. Our will, in partnership with his grace, can lead us toward the image of Christ.