In John 15:10-11, Jesus reveals this equation: Love = Obedience = Joy:
When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!
To believe in Jesus is to love Jesus; to love Jesus is to obey Jesus; to obey Jesus is to have joy. To love Jesus and obey his commandments is to be connected to that source of true life—and joy follows. In our culture, we tend to think freedom equals joy rather than obedience; Jesus’ message is the opposite.
In the account of Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), God’s angel spoke to Philip and God’s Spirit told him to go to a specific place and do certain things. God’s Spirit can speak to us through his “still, small voice,” through Scripture, through experiences, through prayer, through the words of Christian friends, and even through our thoughts or feelings.
God placed Philip directly on the same path of the Ethiopian man. This was no accident; it was part of God’s plan. Philip didn’t start from scratch with the Ethiopian; God was already at work in the man’s life! The Ethiopian was already seeking out spiritual truth. God is at work in people’s lives today too—he is drawing people to him (see John 6:44).
Faith isn’t just a matter of being available; it’s a matter of making yourself available. Philip did more than just listen for God. He was diligent in his pursuit of God prior to this specific assignment. He knew how to interpret and explain the Isaiah passage to the Ethiopian; this shows us that Philip was prepared. He’d already been studying Scripture, expecting God to move through him.
Consider these questions:
- Are you available—like Philip was—to go where God leads you? to change your plans and do things his way?
- Are you attentive? Do you notice who God has put in your path? Can you spot where God is at work in others’ lives?
- Are you prepared? Are you ready to point others to God?
Saul, a Jewish leader, was passionate in his persecution of Christians because he felt they were leading God’s people away from the truth. His persecution included murder, beatings, and imprisonment. So it’s understandable that Ananias, a Jesus follower in Damascus, was shocked when God told him to lay hands on Saul.
In Acts 9:15, God told Ananias: “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel.” Ananias obeyed, and Saul, later called Paul, became one of the greatest apostles and wrote many of the New Testament books.
Mother Teresa put it this way:
It is [God’s] work. I am like a little pencil in his hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used.”
Imagine yourself as a tool in God’s hand. He placed you exactly where you live and has given you your specific family, friends, and role. He desires to make you his instrument.
St. Francis of Assisi wrote:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Peter has an interesting dream in Acts 10:9-17a. As a Kosher Jew, he would have never, ever eaten or even considered eating any of these animals. It was forbidden by his religion. This request in his dream goes against Peter’s entire identity as a Jewish person. For Peter, this went against both this culture and his deepest-held religious beliefs. So, understandably, Peter was confused. His understanding of his faith was being seriously altered. God’s plan was bigger than his own.
Just as with Peter, God may call us to do things that are really uncomfortable for us, that push us way outside our comfort zone.
Obedience in Crisis
Acts 20 can be seen as Paul’s crisis. After many years of traveling and proclaiming the gospel, here Paul says goodbye to the Ephesian church leaders. In verses 22-24 he writes:
And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.”
Paul epitomizes faithful obedience. Pray that you—and your students—will have the courage, perspective, and faithfulness of Paul as they live the Christian life in their own world.
Conventional wisdom says, “Make it easy for young people to show up to church.” But in the words of the great theologian Dwight Schrute: “False!” If rules keep kids from coming, you probably never really had those kids in the first place.
Jesus wasn’t about making the walk easy. It wasn’t easy when he told people they needed to eat his body and drink his blood or they would “have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53). It wasn’t easy when he commanded us to love him more than our own families. And it definitely wasn’t easy when he demanded self-sacrifice for God’s kingdom.
That doesn’t mean your ministry is a legalistic, rule-driven, pharisaical launch pad for the young. But asserting that rules are obstacles to ministry is an immature view of the sacrifice Jesus requires of his followers. And we propagate that philosophy when we provide a limitless world for people who follow us.
If we say, “I don’t want to set too many rules because kids might not come back,” our only philosophy is a cheap gospel requiring no sacrifice. Suggesting that life can exist without rules is an affront to parents. The church is short-changed when we allow kids to move unfettered in unsuspecting disrespect. We do ourselves a disservice by allowing teenagers to hold our ministry hostage to their whims. And they’re led astray by the subtle suggestion that following Jesus is easy, self-serving, and dictated by them.
When we pursue a “too many rules” philosophy it will quickly devolve into an unmanageable culture—one that forces us to set some guidelines. And when we do that we’ll truly scare our students away from Truth because they’ve been experiencing only a truth-mirage.
Are you worried you don’t have this same forthrightness? No worries. Few people do. But you don’t need that kind of mentality or personality to make guidelines work. Most important, don’t set them all yourself. Kids won’t respect or follow those nearly as unswervingly. Allow a team of young people to create guidelines (with input from you and/or other adults). Their ownership will help them follow the rules and, more important, will encourage others to follow, too.
Rules help model a gospel that’s free but not cheap. So maintain guidelines and bind them with strong, loving relationships. Then let the chips fall where they may. God knows what he’s doing, and he’s quite big enough to draw teenagers to himself—even if you don’t let them bring cell phones to worship or wear bikinis to the beach.
In a legalistic Christian school setting, teachers might argue that drinking alcohol is a sin because the wine that Jesus drank was unfermented. Never mind that Jesus’ first miracle was making six vats of wine out of water at a party where many of the wedding-goers were probably already tipsy. Never mind that the command to avoid getting drunk (Ephesians 5:18) is hard to break when all you drink is unfermented wine. Never mind the God-inspired biblical reality if it doesn’t fit our man-made legalism.
But, of course, legalism isn’t confined to issues related to alcohol—there are legalistic arguments against all forms of rock-n-roll, for example. According to some, all rock-n-roll is of the Devil, even Christian rock-n-roll. Why? Because the music itself is evil! According to them, the actual beat of this genre of music is in stark contrast to the beat of our heart. Therefore, they argue, the music is unnatural and therefore sinful. Ridiculous. Legalism produces lame and, as it turns out, unbiblical arguments.
Getting It Right
We all want to get this “life” thing right. This way of thinking is based on the belief that there’s a way to get it right, and if we find that way, then things go along nice and smooth.
This also leads to an underlying belief that when it doesn’t go right, then of course we must have done something wrong. People who are caught in this pattern have to constantly crank up the try-harder machine. When it works they may feel temporary relief, and when it doesn’t they feel tired, guilty, or cheated. Young people fall into this kind of thinking quite easily, and when it’s subtly taught from the church it’s even harder to combat.
Another problem with the get-it-right way of thinking is that it’s chock full of half-truths. One of the most powerful half-truths is the illusion of control. At some level we all want control, and so to think we’ve got it gives us an intermittent sense of peace. But this kind of control also brings with it a tremendous amount of pressure to keep getting it right. So the very thing that brought us peace also brings anxiety.
Adolescents start to realize the if-then equation doesn’t always add up: They did great on the test they didn’t pray about and lousy on one they did. Get-it-right theology leaves kids feeling that the God-machine doesn’t work or they don’t deserve him to work—or he works only as long as they follow the right set of rules. The central problem with this kind of thinking is that we’re going to God with the goal of getting life to work on our terms.
One of the main ways to challenge this mentality is to live out your life in a way that defies the vending machine—we do this, God does that—kind of theology. Expose that under this way of thinking the goal is usually to make life an equation instead of a mystery, to replace faith with effort. The key is teaching that we don’t go to God to get him to perform; we go to God to get to know him. Doing it right and being in control are overrated, not to mention exhausting.