(Lead me Lord,) So that I neither dally nor disobey.
Saint Augustine of Hippo is famous for many things, one among them is his acknowledgement of a youthful prayer, “Grant me chastity and continency, but not yet” [Confessions VII. 17]. He feared that God might hear his prayer for chastity and he rather hoped he would have time to satisfy his impulses rather than having them extinguished. Nearly everyone chuckles when they see this Saint of the church admit his duplicity. We may also be chuckling because we know in our heart of hearts that we too sometimes want to work a deal with God.
Our pilgrim prayer includes a petition that we learn to neither “dally nor disobey.” This prayer asks for no small print escape clauses, like Augustine asking for a short-term disobedience-waver. It is a conundrum. Why is it that we claim to follow God, and yet, so often find ourselves engaged in a wide variety of disobedient acts. Jesus at one point asks the obvious question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” [Luke 6:46 NRSV] Even the apostle Paul writes of his struggles along these lines:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! [Romans 7:15-25 NRSV]
It is good that in Lent we come to a clear-eyed understanding of our circumstance — that we will likely endure to the end of our life attempting to be as good as we believe we can be. Following in the wisdom of Paul above we know that it is in our trust of Jesus our Lord that we find the solution to our troubles. When we hear the invitation to “Follow me” from Christ, it is good for us to set out immediately in pursuit of the one who holds our life.
It is easy to turn the question of our obedience into a rigid and calculating kind of thing — where we reluctantly relent and do what God requires of us but would rather do something else. I have seen this form of obedience in others and I have seen it in myself too. It produces sullen and resentful Christians. But we need not understand our prompt obedience to God’s instructions in that way.
I have been married to Sarah for nearly 29 years. Over a span of time like that you come to understand many of the expectations of your partner. In my case, Sarah expects that I not ignore her, that I participate in the weekly house-cleaning, and a host of other things. In a good week I am thinking to myself, “What is it that Sarah wants?” I am wondering that because I love her and I want to do the sorts of things that please her. In these good weeks taking out the trash, or vacuuming the floors, or sharing the cooking responsibilities are no cause for resentment or sullen compliance. I am “obedient” to her needs not out of obligation but because I want to please the one I love. The same process can be applied to our relationship with God. If we love God, then we naturally wonder, “What does God want?” Maybe we discern that God wants a workable human community — and that means we have to protect justice by no killing, no stealing, no bearing false-witness, no betrayals of our wedding vows. Maybe we discern that God wants a workable created order and that means caring for the environment and cutting back on how much trash we produce and throw away. Maybe God wants a meaningful relationship with us personally and that means we need to carve out adequate time to be with God and with God alone in order to build that relationship. All of these can be accomplished with joy and enthusiasm when they grow from a relationship of love. And all of them can feel like onerous tasks if we attempt to do them without love.
Lord of love, you chose obedience, even when that obedience led you to the cross. Help us who love you and follow you to take up our own crosses and live in ways that bear witness to your amazing grace. Guide us so that we never do anything that brings dishonor to ourselves or shame to your church. Bless the words of our mouths so that they remain faithful to you in private and in public discourse. In Jesus’ name. Amen.