I think most of us know what obedience to God is supposed to look like, but what is it supposed to feel like in our hearts? We know God isn’t down with mere lip service (Isaiah 29:13); he sees right through the pretense of people who outwardly portray themselves as “moral” but inwardly don’t give a flip about him. God wants people to obey him from the heart. He wants our submission to be fueled by affection. But the problem is that every Christian has a set of affections that are opposed to God. We have cravings for God and also have cravings for sin; we want to know Jesus more deeply and also want to be spiritually lazy; we have sincere love for the Lord and also have tendencies to be apathetic about the Lord. Our desires are in constant conflict!
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” – Galatians 5:17
So what are we to do? Should we only obey when we “feel like it,” since God wants us to obey from the heart? Some Christians think that, in order for their obedience to be sincere, they must feel 100% like obeying. They believe, for their outward submission to a particular command to be legitimate, it must be preceded and accompanied by an emotional experience in which they wholly desire to obey God. They refuse to “white knuckle” their way through any temptation because they think refraining from sin when they really don’t want to refrain is inauthentic obedience. These folks tend to remain enslaved for long periods of time with besetting sins because they’re waiting on God to take away their desire to commit that sin.
And then there are some Christians who think feelings are totally obsolete when it comes to obedience. They make strong distinctions between faith and feelings, saying faith is doing what’s right despite how you feel about it. They believe submission to God is an act of the will in which emotions need play no part. These folks have no issue with “white knuckling”—in fact, they view the Christian life as one big “white knuckling” experience. They say our desires will be straightened out when we shed this sinful flesh, but until then, we will never really want to obey God. We must live “by faith”—always doing what we don’t want to do because we know it’s the right thing to do.
Bits of biblical truth shape both of these perspectives, but I don’t believe either of them fully represents what the Bible actually teaches.
It is foolish to let our level of external obedience be dictated strictly by how much or how little we feel like obeying. Our hearts are constantly bouncing back and forth between conflicting sets of desires—desires of the flesh and desires of the Spirit—and it’s just not realistic to expect ourselves to always wholly ‘feel like’ obeying God. In fact, I don’t know that we ever wholly desire to obey God. Because the Spirit and the flesh are both consistently present, there are always desires to submit and desires to rebel in every opportunity for obedience. That’s been my experience, at least! Even in the moments when my desire to obey is strong, there is always some vestige of the flesh wiggling about inside of me, luring me toward disobedience. Being that such a conflicting mix of desires constantly stirs about within us, it would be unwise to wait until we totally stop wanting to sin before we actually stop sinning—because we will never cease to desire sin, to some degree, in this life.
However, I also don’t believe the Bible teaches that following Jesus is supposed to be a long, miserable “white knuckling” journey. Yes, we say no to strong fleshly desires in our endeavor to obey God. We cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes (Matthew 5: 29-30)—figuratively, of course. Self-denial is the name of the Christian game. However, we don’t deny all of ourselves—only part of ourselves.
If we have been born again, we are not merely people who have intellectually assented to a set of facts about Jesus. We aren’t the same fleshly-only people who now just have a different perspective on life. The Spirit of God has brought us from death to life. He has opened the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6). He has given us desires—real desires—to love and obey God. Yes, we are still wrapped up in sinful flesh that still entices us to sin. But the Spirit of God has also implanted a new nature within us; he has given us new feelings and new affections. Though we still have desires to disobey God, we simultaneously have heart-felt desires to obey God. Even as part of us tends toward rebellion, part of us tends toward submission. The Christian faith is not a faith void of feelings. Sure, we have feelings that don’t line up with our faith. But we also have feelings that do.
So what does an authentic act of obedience to God feel like amidst this storm of conflicting desires? Messy. It feels messy. Quick personal example:
When I am tempted to watch pornography, I really want to watch pornography (flesh). That desire is real and powerful. But I also really don’t want to watch pornography (Spirit). That desire is real and powerful. Do I need to wait on God to totally remove my yearning to watch porn in order for an act of obedience to be authentic? No! But neither do I need to simply white knuckle it. Sure, a bit of white knuckling may be necessary. Everything in my biology may resist shutting my computer down or turning my phone off; yet I must do it. But I shouldn’t stay in that white-knuckly mindset! I should immediately focus on the other yearning within me. The desire to submit to God is a Spirit-wrought desire that I must set all my mind’s focus on (Romans 8:5-6). This desire is directing me away from the cheap thrills of sin and toward the deep and abiding satisfaction that is in Christ. After I shut my computer down or turn my phone off, I need to follow this desire of the Spirit to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). Turning my gaze upon Jesus will strengthen my affections for Jesus, and the strengthening of those affections will snuff out the intense temptation to watch porn.
Authentic Christian obedience is obeying despite some desires but according to other desires. You are denying part of yourself (flesh) while satisfying part of yourself (spirit). It can involve a bit of white knuckling, but it always involves latching onto desires of the Spirit and riding them to the all-satisfying Christ. It’s not a black and white experience—it feels a bit messy. But it’s an absolute miracle. The fact that there is even an inkling of desire in our hearts to obey Jesus means that God lives inside of us and is rewiring us to want what we should want. And as we nurture the new desires he is giving us, we will increasingly “feel like” obeying him. If we will walk according to the Spirit, our feelings will progressively conform to our faith over time. Our desire to sin won’t be totally squashed until we receive new bodies. But we can make progress in this life. Big progress.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” – Galatians 5:16