“If I disobey, God will burn me for it.”
That was more or less what my grandfather — a self-described “West Texas Gospel Preacher” in the Churches of Christ — said to me in the doorway of my parents’ home in my mid-twenties.
He had visited my parents’ house over the holidays to admonish us about our perceived unfaithfulness to God concerning some doctrinal differences. Some time before that he had written a letter to my father, also a minister in Churches of Christ, disowning him and our family (myself included) and offering to welcome us back if we would repent. (I have my father’s consent to share this.)
So when he said to me, “If I disobey, God will burn me for it,” the subtext and real message was, “God will burn you, too, if you don’t change your ways.”
I don’t doubt my grandfather’s sincerity or love for us. I believe he was genuinely afraid that God would eternally punish us because of some of our beliefs and practices and that he was trying to help us in the best way he knew how.
Experiences like this are why I, and many others who have experienced spiritual abuse and trauma, come to the subject of obedience with some difficulty. Because obedience has been wielded upon us as a weapon meant to terrify and coerce conformity. More than that, the divine recipient of my grandfather’s obedience is terrifying and coercive. This deity is not unlike the god described by Jim Carrey in the movie Bruce Almighty, who is imagined as a kid peering over an anthill with a magnifying glass on a sunny day trying to burn up the ants.
This is not the God of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conceptions of God reflect diseased theological imagination that are inconsistent with way of Jesus. For survivors of spiritual abuse and trauma, embracing obedience requires alternative imagination about the God who asks for obedience — imagination not foreign to our Scriptures but rather which travels deeper into them.
The God of Jesus does not enact abuse and trauma upon humanity. And neither does God enact abuse and trauma upon Jesus in the place of humanity. On the contrary, our God, present in the person of Jesus, experiences with us the weight of spiritual abuse and trauma at the cross. Jesus was himself abused by those who used obedience as a weapon. God in Jesus willingly entered into such trauma so as to allow the powers of darkness to exhaust their power and to overturn them through resurrection from the dead. God the Creator, Messiah, and Advocate entered into this suffering out of great love for humanity and the cosmos, and for the sake of its liberation and flourishing.
This is the God — the one who suffers with us — who invites us to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. This is the one whose yoke is easy and burden is light and who offers rest for our souls. This is the one who would not ask us to do anything which God is not already doing.
The most common word for obedience in the New Testament (hupakouo) literally means “to listen under,” the sense of which is both understanding and responding to God’s voice. Perhaps that is a healthy way to understand obedience, that as we listen to God’s loving voice — through the Holy Spirit within us, through the Scriptures, and through our spiritual community — we respond in ways that are consistent with God’s promptings.
But what about when we fail to respond to God’s voice? When we disobey?
God will love us.
Because that is who God is.
This is the truth from which joyful obedience is born.
I believe that my grandfather, who has since gone on to be with the Lord, is now delighted by the loving presence of God just as I am delighted at the thought of it.