The Nowness of Obedience

Have you ever noticed that obedience is actually only possible in the present?

I’m not trying to be overly philosophical here — because to be perfectly honest, philosophy class bored me out of my mind. I have no interest in speculating about the nature of time, or the reality of the future, or whether it’s all an illusion, or anything silly like that.

I only mean to point out that it’s flatly impossible to obey God in any other moment than the present. The past is done, and can’t be changed (although it can be forgiven, thank God). The future is only applicable, and obedience is only possible in it, once it’s been turned into the present. Fairly obvious, right? “Why does this matter?” you may be asking. “What is she blathering on about?”

I think this is a decently important point to make, because as it turns out, we may all frequently trip up on this very point. It’s very easy for us to do a quick “pea and thimble” trick in our minds in order to deceive ourselves into believing that we’re being obedient when in actual fact we’re doing nothing of the sort.

For instance, have you ever found yourself thinking something like this: “Once I get that promotion, I’ll be able to start tithing,” or, “When we get that bigger house, I’ll be able to be much more patient with the kids,” or, “After I lose the weight, I’ll be sexually responsive to my husband.”

And then, after having thought something like this, have you noticed how perilously easy it is to then congratulate yourself on your obedience? After we imagine ourselves being righteous in the future, we then think of ourselves as actually being righteous. We pat ourselves on the back as if that obedience was a reality, when in actual fact, we’ve not done any such thing. And if we’re perfectly frank, we’re actually stinking it up a bit.

This is how it’s possible to actually be selfishly greedy and think of yourself as open-handed; to have a wicked temper and think of yourself as patient; to be coldly frigid but think of yourself as sexually generous.

We somehow manage to console ourselves for our past and present failures by imagining up brilliant future successes. Hopefully the problem with this is self evident. Imaginary future obedience can’t atone for real live, present-tense sin; only the blood of Christ can do that. But sometimes we’re so busy with our pretend obedience that we forget to notice that we should actually be on our knees asking for forgiveness. And of course, while we’re at it, we should also repent of our self-deception.

I think this is why the Bible always emphasizes the “now” of obedience. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7–8). “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Because, as it turns out, obedience is always in the present tense.