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The Liberty of Obedience to God

We often think that freedom means doing whatever we want, when we want. But true freedom comes from only one place: Obeying the Lord.

Introduction: An architectural wonder.

My husband and I had the opportunity to go up into the top of that great arch in St. Louis. I was fascinated to learn about its construction. I know nothing about architecture, but a few things sank into my thick head. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, the famous architect.

I was thinking about how he as an architect has perfect freedom to design any kind of building he wants, but he does not have the freedom to discard either the plumb line or the level. The mathematical calculations that had to go into the building of that "first of its kind" structure are staggering. The workers put up these tremendous stainless steel triangles one by one on two sides, and they had to bring them up to meet at the top with no other support than themselves. A mistake of of an inch at the bottom could have spelled disaster at the top.

That's a good illustration of my subject, which is the liberty of obedience. There is no freedom apart from obedience.

We have freeways in this country, but there would be no freedom for anybody to travel at high speed without interruption if most of the people were not obedient to the laws. You cannot travel any speed, any lane, any direction on a freeway. You must obey certain laws, and those are what give us freedom.

The great question is: What do you really want?

James 1:25 brings together three great words: law, freedom and happiness.

James 1:25 says, "The man who looks closely into the perfect law, the law that makes us free, and who lives in its company, does not forget what he hears, but acts upon it; and that is the man who by acting will find happiness."

I love this verse because it brings together three great words: law, freedom, and happiness. I believe that in God's economy those three things are inseparable. Saarinen was free to construct that amazing stainless steel arch in St. Louis because he obeyed the laws of the universe, the laws of gravity. He used the plumb line and the level.

My husband and I live on the ocean. I love the summer when we can watch hundreds of sailboats skimming along the horizon with the most wonderful freedom; but those sailboats would not have the freedom to skim along the horizon and stay on top of the water if they were not obedient to the laws of wind and wave and if they had not been constructed in obedience to certain laws such as the ratio between the beam and the keel.

In every area of life there is no freedom without obedience. The world tells us that freedom means doing what you want to do and not doing what you don't want to do.

I have a friend who's a wise mother. When her kids were about 8 and 10 years old, she told her son one Saturday morning that it was time to get up. He said, "I'm not getting up this morning." "Oh," she said, "aren't you feeling well?" He said, "No, I feel fine. But I've decided that this is going to be a free day."

"Oh," she said, "what does that mean?" He said, "I'm just going to do what I want to do, and I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do, and right now I don't want to get up." She said, "Do you think that would be a good way for the whole family to live?" He said, "Yes." So she said, "Okay. We'll try it."

At about 11:30 he came stumbling into the kitchen rubbing his eyes, and said, "Where's my breakfast?" She said, "Breakfast?"

"Yeah. You didn't fix breakfast?"

"No," she said, "this is a free day. I didn't feel like fixing any breakfast."

"Oh." He got his Cheerios out of the cupboard and managed to get something to eat. While he was eating breakfast, he looked out the window and saw his brother going out of the garage on his bicycle. "Hey," he said, "you can't take that. That's my bicycle." The brother said, "I thought it was a free day today. I can do anything I want to do, and I don't have to do anything I don't want to do."

So the day went. By supper, it was not necessary for the mother or the father to preach any sermons about the true meaning of freedom. They discovered the two boys had learned that freedom is not doing what you want to do and not doing what you don't want to do. Freedom requires limitations and laws.

When you buy a new gadget and plug the thing in and turn it on, and something goes wrong, the chances are that you didn't read the instructions. When all else fails, you read the instructions. Unfortunately, that's often the way we conduct our lives. We assume that we know how to handle things, and we plunge in. We make a mess of things, and then we wonder what went wrong. When all else fails, we might go back to the Book of instructions.

Jesus said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:3132). We often hear just that last phrase quoted, but it's a violation of the prerequisites. He says, "If you continue in my word"'s where you start, "then you are my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

My second husband was the dean of a college. He discovered that the happiest kids on the campus invariably were the musicians and the athletes. He pondered that for a while, and he came up with the reason: It's because they are kids who have put themselves voluntarily under discipline. Everybody else is in college with more or less an unmixed desire to get a college degree, but everything about the process of getting that degree is odious to them. They're not convinced that it makes sense to do this particular assignment for this professor, or they don't see that this course is necessary in order to be a ba. When it comes to writing a paper or taking an exam, they hate almost everything about it. But the athletes and the musicians are there because they want to be, because they want to play the game or they want to be in the orchestra.

What do you want? Aristotle said, "All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions." Would you agree? Everybody wants happiness, but the differences between individuals lie in where they seek happiness.

Jesus has given us the formulas for happiness. He said, "If you lose your life for my sake, you will find your true self. Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12: 2425). The principle of the Cross is a paradox. We bring him our sins; he gives us his righteousness. We bring him our losses; he gives us his gains. We are obedient; he gives us freedom.

Three things to think about: Desire. Dependence. Decision.

Let me give you three things to think about. Desire. Dependence. Decision.

The apostle Paul states simply what he wanted more than anything else in the world. He said, "All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). All I care for is to know Christ. I'm convinced that there is nothing that can happen to me in this life that is not precisely designed by my sovereign Lord to give me the opportunity to learn to know him. That's what life is about. Everything that makes up what you are God knows about and God knows exactly how to bring into your life the circumstances that are going to enable you to learn to know him, and in knowing him to obey him, and in obeying him to find the liberty of obedience, the happiness that only obedience can give.

When I was a college student, I began to admire from a distance another college student on campus. His name was Jim Elliot. My brother, Dave, was a buddy of his, and Dave had been talking about him for several years. They had been on the same wrestling team. Dave was always saying to me, "You've got to meet this guy Elliot." Dave's my little brother, and I wasn't excited about meeting my little brother's friends, so I didn't go out of my way to follow his advice.

But during my senior year, because Jim and I majored in the same subject, we had almost exactly the same classes, and I began to notice this man. I liked that he was a spiritual leader on the campus, president of the foreign missions fellowship, the kind of guy who was always going up to people and grabbing them by the lapel and saying, "Hey, buddy, how come you're not going to the mission field?" If they stuttered and said, "I don't know. I mean, like, you know, I don't really feel called," he'd say, "You don't need a call. You need a kick in the pants."

I saw that just about every qualification I was looking for in a husband seemed to be embodied in this man, Jim Elliot. But my chances of attracting his attention, I felt, were nil. However, when it came time to get autographs in our yearbooks, I did, with a certain amount of trembling and fear, ask Jim to sign his name in my yearbook, hoping that he might sign something besides just his name. He did.

He signed his sweeping autograph; then he wrote something else, shut the book, and handed it back to me. I quickly turned to the page and found a Scripture reference. I raced back to the dorm, got my Bible, and looked up 2 Timothy 2:4: "A soldier on active service will not let himself be involved in civilian affairs; he must be wholly at his commanding officer's disposal." I liked that, too.

I wasn't sure why he had chosen that verse, whether it was just for me, in which case I felt that I did have a little hope. Maybe he had thought of me more than once. But I liked the second part of the verse because it was clear that Jim had decided what he wanted. His desire was to serve his Master. He was wholly at his commanding officer's disposal. His message came across loud and clear that nobody was going to deflect him from that primary and supreme aim to please him who had chosen him to be a soldier.

You must, if you ever want to know the liberty and the happiness that obedience brings, make up your mind what you want, what you want above everything else in the world. It's tough to say, "I want the will of God," when I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of things in my life that may not fit into that.

We balk at that idea when at the same time we are glibly praying, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." If you pray that prayer, the chances are pretty good that God is going to take you up on that.

That was what happened to me when I went to Ecuador. Before I had been a missionary for one year, I had three major blows to my faith. The informant who was helping me with the native language was murdered. All of my language materials, everything that went into the writing of a language that had never been written down before, was stolen. The station on which Jim Elliot, who was by that time my fiancé, had been working went down the river in a flood. I don't know whether that fits your idea of how God helps a new missionary, but it didn't fit mine.

When I was 12 years old, I told the Lord that I wanted him to work out his will in my life at any cost. When he set about doing that, I was amazed. I didn't think it was going to be that way. We never do. The will of God is never exactly what you expect it to be. It may seem to be much worse; but in the end, it's going to be a lot better and a lot bigger. What is your desire?

The second thing I want you to think about is What is your dependence? Christians are people who know they can't make it alone. Christians are people who have accepted God's estimate of them, and the remedy. God's estimate of us is that we are sinners. We need a Savior. You wouldn't be a Christian if you didn't know you needed a Savior.

One experience after another in our lives has to bring us to the point of stripping. We have to be stripped of all the veneers, all the shell, all the accretions that build up whereby we protect ourselves from reality. God has to peel away the layers the way you peel away an onion until we get down to reality, and we realize that we cannot possibly take our next breath without God. It's easy for us to imagine that what we're good at we've done all by ourselves.

The truth is my heart would not take the next beat if it weren't for God. No gift I have been given has anything to do with me. I'm dependent. He is my Lord and Master, and I've discovered that every job God has assigned to me has turned out to be too big for me, even things I felt capable of doing.

Do you remember what Moses said when he had that stunning encounter with God in the desert? He saw the bush that was burning and wasn't consumed. God told him that he was going to have to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses said, "Who am I?" God reminded him that it really didn't make any difference who he was. What mattered was who God was. Moses said, "How shall I speak to them? What will I say?" God said, "I'll tell you what to say." Then Moses had another objection. "But what if they don't listen to me?" God said, "Then I will arise and bear my holy arm."

The point was not who Moses was or what his gifts and limitations might be. He was to be dependent on the I Am. God said "I Am is sending you."

The same thing happened with Jeremiah. God told him that he was going to be a prophet, and Jeremiah immediately had his list of objections. "I'm just a child. I can't speak." God didn't argue the point. He just said "I'm going to tell you what to say."

The job was too big for Moses, but the men were obedient. Toward the end of Exodus, the children of Israel were between the Egyptian chariots and the sea, an impossible position. God told Moses to stretch forth his hand over the water, "and Moses stretched out his hand, and the Lord rolled the waters back."

Isn't that a marvelous picture of how man's will and God's will work in harmony? What could Moses' hand have done against that sea? Moses' hand was useless and futile by itself, but God worked in response to Moses' obedience. The liberty of obedience. The children of Israel would not have been freed if Moses had not done that seemingly useless thing. He stretched out his hand, and the Lord rolled the sea back.

Jim Elliot graduated from college with highest honors. He went to the jungle of Ecuador to be a missionary to the Quechua Indians. He had to start from the bottom rung of a language ladder. He had to learn Spanish as the national language of the country. Then he had to start at the bottom of an unwritten language, Quechua. He had graduated with highest honor in classical Greek, and he couldn't speak a word of one of the easiest languages in the world. The Indians could only reach the conclusion that the poor man was retarded, because they had never heard of anybody who didn't speak Quechua.

Then they discovered that he didn't know how to thatch a roof. They'd never seen a man who didn't know how to thatch a roof. Then they tried to get him to pole a canoe. He didn't know how to pole a wooden canoe up the rapids. To them, he was a bumbling idiot.

He was totally dependent not only on God but on these Indians who didn't know half of what he knew.

What's the job God has asked you to do? Do you feel qualified? Do you think you're adequate for the job? You're not. That has nothing to do with whether or not you must be obedient. If you are going to be obedient, you're going to have to trust God to do what you can't do. Dependence. It's time you declared your dependence. Nobody is ever adequate for any job that God has assigned. It's a cooperation between you and him to do the job in his strength.

When you have decided that what you really want is the kind of happiness that God offers, when you have declared your dependence, then you must accept his strength for your weakness. There was at least one thing that Paul had that he didn't want, that was a thorn. Paul said that he asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn, and the answer was no. The answer was, "My grace is all you need."

What is the thing in your life that you don't want there, that you feel hinders your happiness and is an obstacle to your freedom? Have you been asking God to change that thing? Perhaps he's saying that his grace is all you need. You have to make a decision. Are you going to do what God asks you to do? Or are you going to do your thing? "If you continue in my words, then you are my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free."

Jesus Christ chose to be weak so that you and I might be strong. He chose to die so that we might live. He chose to become poor so that we through his poverty might be rich. Do you want to be free? Do you want to be happy? The root to freedom and happiness is obedience.

Elisabeth Elliot hosts a daily radio broadcast, Gateway to Joy. She is author of Through the Gates of Splendor and Passion and Purity.

© Elisabeth Elliot
Preaching Today Tape #182
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


What holds up the St. Louis Arch?

I. James 1:25 brings together three great words: law, freedom and happiness.

II. We find the liberty of obedience through desire, dependence, decision.