In a culture that prizes independence and freedom from restraint, obedience sounds confining, even oppressive. It implies doing something I don’t want to do just because of a command from a person in authority. Children know that the most unsatisfying answer to the question “But why do I have to?” is “Because I said so.” As parents, we wish for that answer to be enough; we wish that our children would trust in our wisdom and love for them and know that obedience is for their good.
Those of us who have known and experienced Christ’s transforming love long to respond with a glad, eager “yes” to all He asks. We follow the good shepherd because we know His voice and trust that He leads us in ways that are for our flourishing (John 10).
It is no secret that obedience is often difficult, even costly. But after almost four decades of walking with Christ, I’ve learned that the cost of disobedience is always greater than the cost of obedience. Twenty-five years ago, I said “yes” to following my husband to Hungary to serve with EMM one month after we were married. I had little idea what awaited us or how long we would stay. But that first step of obedience into the unknown led to 12 years of fruitful ministry, along with our share of difficulty, sorrow, and blessing. The testimony of centuries of God-followers, including readers of Missionary Messenger, would undoubtedly be the same.
We often think of obedience as a choice made in dramatic, life-altering circumstances, such as when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, when Daniel prayed in defiance of the king’s decree, or when the early Anabaptists chose martyrdom over compromising their convictions. And while such moments provide us with the mountaintops of obedience, most of our life of discipleship is not comprised of such drama. It is in the plains and valleys of daily life that we make choices to follow Jesus or go our own way. If, by grace, we are found faithful at the end of our days, it is because our lives have been characterized by what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.” It is the daily choice to say “yes” to Jesus that prepares us for the once-in-a-lifetime tests of faith. Forgiving a family member who has hurt me feels mundane and insignificant. But obedience is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. With disuse, it gets stiff and difficult to move. With daily practice, obedience becomes, if not easy, at least a more natural response to Jesus’ voice and the commands of scripture.
The first “yes”
I’m encouraged and inspired by the way EMM workers around the world, arm-in-arm with brothers and sisters in the places they serve, demonstrate this everyday obedience. In response to a nudging of the Holy Spirit, they said “yes” to leaving family and friends to go where God was leading. That first “yes” led to many other steps of obedience — asking people for financial and prayer support, saying goodbye, and entering a world where everything is unfamiliar. One family took this step just last summer and moved to Europe with their three young children. Obedience for them has come with the pain of watching their children struggle to learn a new language and make new friends. Another family, with teenage children, is making preparations to serve in Southeast Asia, in a country none of them has ever visited. These steps of obedience reveal a deep trust in Jesus’ care and wisdom.
Because Christian obedience is relational, it does not look the same for everyone. I expected all my children to follow the general values and rules of our household, but the details of what I asked of them looked different depending on their age, gifts, and capacity. My aspiring teenage chef was given dinner duty while her younger sister mowed the yard or walked the dog.
In John 21, after Jesus gives Peter a glimpse into the fate that awaits him, Peter asks Jesus what His plans were for John. Jesus essentially tells Peter to mind his own business: Jesus’ call to John would look very different than His call to Peter (John 21:20–23).
For some EMM workers, obedience has meant serving for decades in a location where Christians are often persecuted. For others, it has meant returning to the U.S. when security threats increased. Both are responses of obedience and faith. There are EMM workers who, in obedience to Jesus, live in a village in Southeast Asia without many of the conveniences most of us find necessary. Others, also in obedience, live in high-rise apartments in sprawling urban centers. For an intern in Europe, obedience means leading the youth group even though that’s not his primary interest or gifting. For another worker in Europe, obeying Jesus’ voice has meant laying down one part of his ministry in order to wisely steward his health and family.
Of course, it’s not only EMM workers who have daily choices of obedience to make. Recently, a young man in my congregation asked for prayer for what he senses Jesus is asking him to do: preach the gospel in the main quad of his secular college campus. He’s done it once already, and while he reported feeling terrified, the joy with which he recounted the experience testifies to the reward of obedience.
The work of making disciples around the world is possible only because of the lifestyle of obedience that is beautifully demonstrated not only by those who are sent, but by those who give and pray. One worker recently told of an unexpectedly generous contribution they received along with a note saying, “God reminded me it’s His money and not mine!” There is sacrifice in a gift like that, but there is also an indication of great love and obedience.
Lorri Bentch serves as EMM’s Mission Team director. She is married to Timothy Bentch; they served as EMM workers to Hungary from 1994 to 2006. She also served as the 1993–94 YES team leader to Russia and as a 1991–93 YES team member to Mexico. Lorri and Timothy are parents of three daughters.