Take a moment to call to mind the people and things you value most, then go wider and deeper to your sharpest disappointments and wounds. Now imagine that you are gathering them all up and placing them in your hand. Now close your hand and keep them in there while we talk about something else.
For many in our society, words like 'obedience' and 'surrender' invoke feelings of outrage and contempt. They belong to the discarded world view of tyrants and religious fanatics, which may have served some use as a kind of 'noble lie' to tame us in the youth of our civilisation—kind of like training wheels—but we have outgrown that stage. But what of those who argue that 'obedience' is in fact a beautiful, eternal and compelling law of the spirit world that can unleash power and joy and at the same time launch you and your family into a disturbing and terrible battle between good and evil?
Jesus' mother for example, who, having been given an unusual message from an angel, asked for an explanation and was told: 'You will conceive in your womb and bear a son … The Holy Spirit will come upon you.' Mary then said, 'Let it be to me according to your word,' and abandoned herself to a mysterious virginal conception. The ensuing pregnancy aroused suspicion, jealousy, and in the end the rage and murderous schemes of a King. Then there were Jesus' disciples who followed him all the way to their deaths; and then there is us in our own daily experiences of having to 'go and see' someone to make a confession or offer forgiveness.
The interesting thing about these moments is that those who have been in the habit of obeying for many years, frequently talk of—often through painful mistakes—acquiring an ear for the voice of the true Shepherd and learn to treasure common sense, reason and the advice of wise friends. Luke's gospel tell us that Mary 'was troubled' and 'considered in her mind' and James tells us that the wisdom from above is 'first pure, then peaceable; open to reason and full of mercy and good fruits; without uncertainty and insincerity.' (Js 3:17). And Jesus said: 'My sheep hear my voice.'
So, having run these authenticity tests and established that this is in fact a message from The One, the obey-er understands that they are cooperating with The Author of one big and living story who is not only thinking of them and being influenced by them, but is also thinking of and being influenced by dozens and even hundreds or thousands of others (past, present and future) and is unable to explain the full significance of this one act of obedience.
We see hints of this in the crucifixion story where The Messiah makes a lot of unexpected statements: 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; If it be your will let this cup pass; Behold your mother; Father forgive them; You will be with me in paradise.'
These statements impled that Jesus had not at all been taken by surprise, which un-nerved Pilate and the soldiers. They saw their life in this world as the main event, but Jesus knew that his life was a two-stage quest: Stage I, where we do deeds in this life that follow us into the next (as in any quest). Stage II, where—after an intermediate stage of disembodiment—what we have grown and built in Stage I (homes, lives, friendships, families, work) is somehow caught up in a great physical resurrection and made deathless and eternal— a vindication of innocence and of those who have been loyal to the innocent.
There is much in this for believers to think about. For, if on the one hand it is true that Calvary has already absorbed the judgement of even the most terrible of sinners, leaving no obstruction barring their entry—if they wish—into the blessings of eternal life; what of their past and present behaviour?
Is this merely about getting there, or do we need to think about what might be left of us when we get there? Could it be that, although we belong to Christ, part of us may have already been lost to the cancer of evil? It says in Corinthians: 'Your deeds will follow you into eternity,' and, 'The fire will prove what sort of work each one has done. If the work that a man has built upon the foundation stands the test, he will be rewarded. But if a man's work be destroyed under the test, he loses it all. He personally will be safe, though rather like a man rescued from a fire.' (1Cor3:12-15).
Take a moment to think again about what you are holding in your closed hand. You have closed it on what is not in fact yours. According to the teachings of our Messiah, if we choose to continue holding on to what is not ours, the hand in fact is in a fire which could devour not just the 'hand' but our entire self. If you have left your arm in the fire for too long you may find that only the arm is redeemable and not the hand. 'We shall be rewarded for what we did when we lived in our bodies, whether it was good or bad.' (2Cor 5: 10).
In other words, there is forgiveness and even redemption, but 'you reap what you sow.' As Boethius says in De Consolatione: 'The reward of the good is to be what they are; the reward of the evil is to be what they are.' And George Macdonald: 'In the end, the only cure of evil is to have to live with itself.'
George MacDonald's story Lilith implies that this problem of 'wanting to have it both ways: to be in heaven and to have our own way', could take us on a long journey of procrastination during that in-between disembodied state after we die. When Lilith finally comes to Adam and Eve's house to go to sleep, Adam says to her, “You will not sleep—even if you lie there a thousand years—until you have opened your hand and yielded that which is not yours to give or to withhold.” The problem for her was that, having had this hand closed for so long, she had lost the ability to open it, which meant she was going to have to consider a desperate measure (I won't spoil the story and tell you what Lilith does).
So what might happen if you open that hand now and let it all go? Anything could happen, but at least that 'anything' will now be in the hands of your loving Father and that's a relief.
Joseph knew about this and a great secret-revealing moment happens in his story when his father dies and his brothers are immediately terrified that he will now exact revenge, but he says to them: 'You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.'
Lewis tells us: 'They wanted as we say, to make their souls their own, but that means to live a lie, for our souls are not in fact our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, “this is our business, not yours” – but there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were and eternally shall be, mere adjectives.’(5 CS Lewis – Problem of Pain – Ch 5)
Remember that closed hand? If you haven't already, I'd like to invite you to open it, and while you are doing that, tell God exactly what this means. You may even want to write it out as a prayer.
Maybe Lilith's story is not you today, but before you give yourself an all-clear, think about this: Two people can be doing the same work and claiming to walk with Jesus, but one of them is not actually resting in God. Their posture, as it were, is like someone almost sitting comfortably in a chair but kind of crouching with their bottom a few centimeters above the cushion. They will get 'spiritual arthritis in the knees of their soul' so to speak. What they need urgently is a 'trust-test', a kind of heavy weight dumped on them—which could be quite brutal by the way—but still a gift, because now they now know the truth.
The other, who actually does trust, enjoys the chair and on top of that they experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them. The mystery of evil here is that this life-time habit of self-protection means that this person, who is thinking that they are living the Christian life, will in fact have what has been referred to as a 'life half-lived' because they are ruled by fear. In thirty seconds they could have changed the next thirty years of their life by confessing their sin and being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Obedience to God—in my experience—is the greatest wrongness-crushing, despair-crushing and redeeming thing that I know of because of the way that it constantly unleashes this mysterious cleansing power, which may not necessarily change the circumstances, but which changes me and fills me with hope and grace when I should have been a write off and—thankfully—is no respecter of my desire to make my life my own.