Obedience from the Heart
Many people think God changed in-between the testaments. In the Old Testament, God was mean, vengeful, and only interested in rote obedience to his legal code. In the New Testament, God cares about love, compassion, and mercy – commandments are optional for the most part. However, this isn’t true. God “does not change” and is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Malachi 3.6 & Hebrews 13.8). God is the same in both the Old and New Testaments.
The Heart Keeps Commandments
Proverbs 3.1 makes an interesting statement: “…let your heart keep my commandments…” God’s focus, in both testaments, is the heart. God wanted Israel to obey him from the heart, and he wants everyone today to obey from the heart, too. While there are certainly more commandments and physical commandments throughout the Old Testament, God’s focus was never on the external and physical. God focused on the hearts and minds of Israel.
What does it mean for the heart to keep a commandment? Our heart is our inner desire, our “want to” in life. People are usually going to do whatever it is they “want to.” Professional athletes want to be good at their sport, so they put forward the effort to train and practice. Students who excel in academics typically do so because they “want to” and put forth the time and effort to learn. Likewise, the people who are obedient to God and who have a deep spiritual knowledge are the people who want to.
Obedience comes from a heart that has determined to obey God in every circumstance. A heart that has decided beforehand to obey God will stand faithfully in the face of temptation. Temptation gains a foothold in our minds when they aren’t prepared for obedience. That is when we find ourselves struggling to do what is right.
Love and Faith Make Obedience Possible
It is our love for God that makes obedience possible in the long-term. Anyone can scare another person into compliance, but that only lasts until they aren’t afraid anymore. Love motivates people for a lifetime.
God was never interested in scaring Israel into obedience, and he isn’t interested in doing that today, either. Having a healthy understanding of God’s holiness and power is a good starting place for faith, but that can’t be where we stay. God is not a terrible king, waiting on high to smite the slightest offender. He is our Father, and he wants us to love him as his children and obey because of that love.
If faithfulness only involved giving the right sacrifice at the right time, then God could program faithful robots. It is our love for God that enables true devotion – at least the kind of faithfulness that God wants. God has never desired robots, but faithful and loving children.
When we sin, it’s because we didn’t love God as we should. We loved ourselves, our will, our pride, our whatever more than we loved God. Usually, we fool ourselves into thinking sin is good for us. We believe cheating on a test will be good for us as it boosts our grade, an affair will bring adventure and romance into our life, or cheating on taxes will increase our money and happiness. I’m certainly not arguing that sin brings no perceived good, but we only find true goodness and happiness in God’s will.
What about the Exceptions?
The promise in Proverbs 3.4 is that we’ll find success and favor through loving, faithful obedience to God. What about all the people who don’t do that but still get those things? That’s a great question, so let’s talk about it briefly.
First, God doesn’t promise that people won’t be successful without him. That’s never a blanket statement made to all people by God, so, we shouldn’t make it for him. It’s entirely possible to have great, worldly success without being faithful to God. Our promise from God isn’t about worldly success, but spiritual life.
Second, God’s word promises persecution to those who follow Jesus. Satan has enveloped the world in darkness, tricking many people into following him. Once people get used to living in the darkness, the light hurts their eyes. Like everyone first waking up to a bright light, the initial reaction is to turn the light off. When you shine your light before others (Matthew 5.16), expect that people will want to turn it off. Paul warned Timothy that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ would suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3.12).
Third, if you’re following Jesus for the hope of material success, then you’re following him for the wrong reason. Jesus wasn’t physically successful by any measure. Rome executed him as an enemy of the state, all his followers abandoned him at his death, he died a pauper, and his family hated him. That’s not a recipe for success – at least not from a physical standpoint. If you’re following Jesus to find health, wealth, and easy living, then you’re not following the Jesus of the Bible.
The Promise of “Good Success”
This passage does promise “good success.” If it’s not talking about physical success, then what does it mean? First, it’s talking about victory over death. Jesus promised abundant life to those who would faithfully follow him (cf John 10.10). If living a good life defines success, then those who follow Jesus home to heaven are the ultimately successful people.
Second, “good success” is the victory over sin. Jesus doesn’t merely promise the ability to resist temptation; he promises capacity to overcome temptation. It is possible to change how we think and who we are in Christ. By transforming our minds and learning to think like God, we can remove something entirely from being a temptation (cf Romans 12.1-2). This is an incredible promise! We aren’t merely promised the strength to resist temptation; God promises the ability to overcome a temptation altogether. This mark of spiritual maturity may take a lifetime to accomplish – if ever. But ultimately, in heaven, there will be nothing that can tempt us any longer.
Third, “good success” is bringing glory to God. Successful people are good at marketing themselves. They get people to like them, and their livelihood often depends on it. What would happen to all the celebrities if people woke up tomorrow and decided they didn’t like them anymore?
Our desire is to know God and to make him known. We want as many people as possible to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2.4). We learn about Jesus and introduce him to others for that very reason. What if people don’t like Jesus? Here’s the difference between God and people: God gets glory even when people reject him. The gospel of God is intended to save or judge. If people accept it, God delivers them through it. If people reject it, they are judged by it. In either circumstance, God gets the glory.
Since success is guaranteed, there’s no good reason not to share the gospel.
Let’s be people who obey God faithfully from the heart. We should be learning why and how to love God better every day, and, from that love, will spring forth an obedience that truly glorifies God. Our faithful obedience to the Lord will bring “good success” – something that only God can truly give. Let’s put our faith, hope, and trust in the God who alone can save us and deliver us eternally into the heavenly places!