Can We Always Obey God?
How Do We Respond to Difficult or Impossible Commands?
Our faithful and sincere obedience to God is far more crucial than most people will ever realize. If God truly is Lord of all, He must be obeyed. If Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, we must keep His commands. We must do His will if we are to be pleasing to Him.
Again and again in Scripture this theme is repeated. Peter said it well: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). He further referred to the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him (5:32). The Hebrew writer added that only if one has done the will of God will he receive what was promised (10:36). John makes the same sobering point: The one who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17). He further writes, The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him (3:24).
The Lord Jesus stressed this same obligation of obeying Him and doing the Fathers will. If you love Me, declared Jesus, you will keep My commandments (John 14:15). Again He said, He who has My commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him (John 14:21; cf. vv. 23-24). Our Lord issued the solemn warning that only the obedient will enter Gods kingdom: Not every one who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).
From these passages we should be deeply impressed with the necessity of obeying the Lord Jesus and submitting to His revealed will. Only obedient believers will be eternally saved; the willfully disobedient will be lost.
We can understand, therefore, that the issue of obedience seems plain and unequivocal. Uncompromising and complete submission to the will of God is necessary, However, when we examine this question more carefully, we discover a perplexing problem. You personally may have encountered this dilemma and are wondering how to explain it. The question may be posed in this way: What are we to do when seemingly we cannot obey one of Gods commands? How do we proceed when it seems that circumstances prohibit our doing the revealed will of God?
I do not refer to difficulties in obeying God. In such cases, we are required to obey His Word–regardless of consequences and in spite of personal sacrifice. Jesus said, If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me (Luke 9:23). It is not easy to deny oneself, to take up the cross of suffering, and to follow Jesus in the practical affairs of everyday life. Yet our Lord requires it, without compromise. Jesus declared, A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another (John 14:34). Surely this love command is difficult and requires great sacrifice; yet Jesus demands our explicit obedience and offers His supernatural power to carry it out. The Lord Jesus also said, Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth . . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21). Again, this lifestyle that Jesus demands is not simple or easy, yet He gives no other options.
If we do not refer to the difficult teachings of Christ and the apostles, what is the point we are raising? It is this: What is the sincere follower of Christ to do when it seems impossible to obey the revealed will of God in Scripture in a given instance–regardless of how greatly he or she desires to be obedient?
Let us examine a number of these commands, taken from the words of Christ and the teaching of the apostles and prophets. In each case, we shall offer some explanation and a proposed resolution. After this, we shall offer a number of observations to this perplexing matter of desiring to obey God but not being able to do so.
(1) Confess with Your Mouth
Let us begin with a clear command that some are unable to obey: If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved (Rom. 10:9). We shall not explore the aspect of this verse that applies to those incapable of belief (such as those who are young children or those who are extremely retarded), but let us deal with the requirement of an audible, verbal confession of Christ as Lord.
We know that not everyone has the power of speech. Some are mute from birth. Others do not have vocal cords because of throat cancer or other disease. Such people cannot literally obey this command which, Paul says, is necessary for salvation. Does this mean that such people are excluded from the kingdom of God? While we cannot presume to speak infallibly for God, most of us recognize that God is infinitely understanding. He does not require the impossible. Surely if one cannot literally confess with his mouth Christs Lordship, God knows the persons heart. The believer could confess through writing that Jesus is Lord. He could do so through sign language. He could acknowledge that Jesus is Lord by agreeing with another who has verbally, audibly confessed Christs Lordship. However, those who do have the ability to speak are yet under the obligation to confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, just as Paul clearly declared (cf. Col. 2:6; Phil. 2:9-11). In other words, the exception must never become the rule!
(2) Have Your Own Spouse
Paul the apostle writes, Because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. . . . If they do not have self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn (1 Cor. 7:2,9). The apostle says that believing men and women should generally marry because of the sexual pressures in the world and because of our own created constitution, nature, and needs. If one does not have the gift of contented singleness (v. 7), he or she should seek a life partner. Similarly, in another context, Paul writes, I want younger [widows] to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach (1 Tim. 5:14).
Is it always possible to obey the apostles instructions? Ask some of those who have remained celibate all of their lives while seeking an eligible companion! They may want to obey the apostle; they may yearn for the blessing and companionship of a spouse; they may see the benefits of this marital state. Yet, regardless of incessant prayer and earnest seeking, they find no suitable companion . . . and remain perpetually unmarried. These commands have often perplexed singles who earnestly desire marriage but seemingly cannot find a suitable husband or wife. (There may be many reasons why this is not possible, but this is not the occasion to explore these.) Since some singles seem to be unable to obey explicitly these instructions, through no fault of their own, we suggest that one seek God and pray that He would provide contentment (Phil. 4:11), self-control (1 Cor. 7:9), and Gods special gift of celibacy (v. 7). Then, one should diligently apply himself or herself to the kingdom of God and His work on earth (cf. Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:32-35).
(3) Continue a Sexual Relationship
Certain privileges and responsibilities belong to the marital relationship. One of these is the conjugal intimacy between a husband and wife in a God-approved marriage. Paul writes, Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (1 Cor. 7:3-4). The apostle, therefore, enjoins a continued, reciprocal relationship within marriage. However, the next verse qualifies this: Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (v. 5). The exception to the sexual relationship prevails when the couple agree to cease intimate union for a special time of prayer.
Could there be other exceptions to this, when obedience would be impossible? There must be. What if a husband with serious cancer is confined to a hospital for a month? What about a wife just before delivery of a baby or immediately after a child is born? What if a believing husband is married to an unbelieving wife who refuses to obey Pauls instructions–or vice versa? (It takes two to have a relationship!) What if a brother goes on a preaching journey of two months and it is not feasible to take along his wife? The reader may think of other instances in which there may be some difficulty or even impossibility in obeying this passage precisely as Paul gives it. Later we shall discuss how to look upon such exceptions without minimizing the clear instructions of Scripture. For now, it is sufficient to acknowledge Pauls instructions which apply when one can possibly obey them.
(4) Submission to a Sinning Husband
Many passages of Scripture plainly state that a believing wife must submit to her husband, whether he is a believer (Eph. 5:22-24) or a disobedient unbeliever (1 Peter 3:1). Paul, for example, says, Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Col. 3:18; cf. Titus 2:5). As an expression of this submission, a wife should be willing to obey her husbands wishes (1 Peter 3:6). (We will remember that the marriage vows have traditionally promised that a wife will love, honor, and obey her husband.)
Is it always possible for a woman to obey this command to be in subjection to and obey her husband? Only if she chooses to disobey other commands that have priority over wifely submission. What if a husband requires his wife to forsake the gathering of saints and join the Mormon Church (Heb. 10:24-25)? What if a husband commands his wife to watch a pornographic movie (Matt. 5:27-30), go to a drinking party (1 Peter 4:2-5), participate in an illegal transaction (Romans 13:1-2), or lie (Acts 5:1-10)? A Christian wife is to submit to her husband–with one exception. She must first submit to God (James 4:7). If her husband requires her to sin, she should humbly seek to be relieved of his unrighteous request or seek a creative alternative to his wrongful requirement. However, if this fails, she must heed the principle which Peter expressed: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19-20).
(5) Submission to a Wrongful Government
Just as a wife must be in submission to her husband (in all things that are righteous), so believers must be in submission to civil authorities. Paul makes this clear: Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and those who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves (Rom. 13:1-2; cf. vv. 3-7). This command is quite plain and one that is repeated elsewhere in Scripture (Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:17; Matt. 22:21). On the surface, there seems to be no exceptions: Submit yourselves for the Lords sake to every human institution. . . (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-14). We must obey the government and every rightful civil regulation (e.g., traffic regulations, auto license, federal and state income tax, etc.).
Are we always able to obey the government in all of its demands? No, sometimes it is not possible–because of our prior commitment to God. We must obey civil authorities unless this causes us to disobey God (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29). Then we must refuse to obey the unrighteous demands of governmental authorities. It should be pointed out that in this and every other point we make, we actually are not disobeying God. We are reluctantly unable to obey the government which we normally obey because to obey would cause us to disobey God!
(6) Preach the Good News of Christ
Surely a chief priority in the life of every believer is obedience to Christs commission to His followers after His resurrection. He commanded: Go into all the world and preach the gospel [good news] to all creation (Mark 16:15; cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-47). There seems to be no exceptions to this requirement. The early Christians, young and old, male and female, went about preaching the word (Acts 8:4).
However, there must be some instances in which it is difficult or even impossible to obey this instruction. Consider the person who is thrown into solitary confinement in prison in Communist China because of his faith in Christ. Consider the person who goes away to a wilderness area for a period of spiritual refreshment, seeking God for a month or longer (Jesus went away for 40 days). Consider the convert from the Watchtower Witness cult who seems to need time to unlearn all of his former false teachings until he can understand and affirm truth clearly. Perhaps there are others who have been so confused about Scriptural teaching and the will of God that they need time to work things out until they are confident in what they actually believe and can share the gospel with assurance. Thus, there may be temporary occasions when even the great commission is difficult to obey fully. Of course, this does not deny the general will of Christ that the commission to share the good news of Christ and the word of God must be obeyed as a priority in the Christian life.
(7) Appoint Elders in Every Assembly
Gods ideal will is that every fellowship of believers meeting in a given location should have older men (elders) who shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:17,28). They are to oversee Gods people or take care of Gods assembly (1 Tim. 3:1,5). You may remember that Paul appointed elders in every assembly (Acts 14:23) and instructed Titus to appoint these overseers in every city (Titus 1:5). Elders, overseers, and shepherds are various terms designating the same men in the believing community (compare Acts 20:17 with v. 28; Titus 1:5 with v. 7; and 1 Peter 5:1 with v. 2).
Is it always possible for a group of saints to obey Gods ideal will in this matter? Some attempt to appoint leaders to fill a congregational work and office unknown in the Scriptures. Others compromise Scripture by ordaining men who are not qualified to serve (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Still others compromise the Scriptures by appointing women instead of men (1 Tim. 3:2) or appointing a singular bishop rather than a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; James 5:14).
It is better for a community of Christians to acknowledge the Scriptural teaching on this subject and grow to the point that qualified men may be appointed to serve in this capacity. In the meanwhile, an evangelist who brought the Word to a given assembly may give direction, and knowledgeable teachers may offer leadership. Even the more mature and spiritual men of the believing community may be able to exercise some guidance and direction in the body (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6-16; Acts 13:1-3; 1 Peter 5:5). We cannot obey God in this matter by disobeying Him.
(8) Call for the Elders
This point is directly related to the previous one. James writes, Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (5:14). The command seems to be clear enough. But what if the community of believers has no elders because no men are qualified for this position? This may have been the condition in the assemblies of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe before elders were appointed by Paul (Acts 14:23). It would have been the situation in the Cretan communities before Titus appointed elders (Titus 1:5). We must remember too that some assemblies are composed of younger men rather than older men who would be appointed as elders.
How is it possible for a sick person to obey this command if there are no elders/overseers/shepherds in the local community of saints to call because the assembly is not mature enough to have such men? It would seem that the passage cannot be literally obeyed at such a time. Prayer, of course, can and should be offered for the sick and afflicted saint by all of the local believers–including any preachers, teachers, or servants among them. Each Christian can pray for those who are physically sick as well as those who are repenting of their sin and confessing their waywardness (cf. James 5:15-16,19-20; Gal. 6:1).
(9) Partaking of the Bread and Cup
We are all aware of the Lords will that we remember Him and His death by partaking of the bread and cup with other true Christians. Paul writes, The Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me. In the same way the cup also, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me (1 Cor. 11:23b-25). The cup, of course, contained fruit of the grape vine (Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18) and the bread consisted of a loaf (1 Cor. 10:16-17) of unleavened bread (Luke 22:1,7,15; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7).
Is it always possible to obey these apostolic instructions? Probably not. There are places on earth where grapes cannot be cultivated. If a preacher is traveling through the Philippines, New Guinea, Alaska, or parts of Africa and he brings some to Christ, it will not be a simple matter to obtain fruit of the vine. It cannot be purchased at the local food market! It will probably need to be imported or grape vines may need to be planted. Unleavened bread may pose a similar problem. One missionary described this problem and told of the solution another missionary found: they used fruit or vegetable juice of some kind and sweet potatoes for the communion remembrance! Some American groups have even been known to use regular tap water and store-bought leavened bread! These are questionable solutions indeed! If faced with this problem of not having the elements that Jesus designated, it would be better to postpone the observance of the meal rather than disobey the Lords instructions.
(10) Remembering the Lords Death
In the main passage quoted in the previous point, you will notice that Jesus said, Do this in remembrance of Me (1 Cor. 11:24-25). There is evidence that the early believers did remember Jesus by breaking bread whenever they would meet together (1 Cor. 11:20; cf. vv. 17,18,33,34). Luke fixes this remembrance on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Since Jesus suffered and died for us, that our sins might be forgiven (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 15:3), it is only fitting that we regularly remember Him and His redeeming sacrifice by breaking bread and drinking of the cup.
But what if we cannot obey this because of the circumstances in which we live? There are saints confined to the hospital because of illness. Others are homebound or bedridden because of handicap or disease. Still others may be traveling far from home and do not know of saints in their area. Some saints are confined to prison because of their faith–or because of previous crimes. Since the communion meal is a part of the corporate gathering rather than a private, individual act of worship, when the Christian is unable to meet with the saints, he is unable to break bread. Here is another instance in which the believer is confronted with our Lords clear command but he is unable to carry it out because of circumstances beyond his control. He may want to obey this. He may pray for it. But he simply cannot break bread for a week, a month, or longer.
(11) Meet with the Saints
One of the leading themes of the new covenant Scriptures is the body of Christ. Many of the New Testament letters are written to saints in local communities to teach them how to relate to each other in Christ Jesus. Christians are to love one another (1 Thess. 3:12), teach and admonish each other (Col. 3:12), and encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18). They are to be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10), build up each other (Eph. 4:16), be hospitable to each other (1 Pet. 4:9), and forgive each other (Col. 3:13). Much, but not all, of their relationship is expressed in the context of their regular gatherings.
The Hebrew writer encourages those who were forsaking these gatherings of the saints: Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, nor forsaking our own assemblying together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near (Heb. 10:24-25; cf. 3:13). Scripture clearly says that the saints are to gather with other saints for worship and mutual edification. They gather to receive encouragement themselves and to give encouragement to their fellow-saints.
Although this definitely is Gods revealed and ideal will, are there any saints living in circumstances that would make this difficult or impossible? We think of the disabled person confined to the house or the sick person in a hospital or nursing home. Think of the saint in jail or prison. Paul himself was confined for two years and could not go to the gatherings, although his friends could visit him (Acts 24:23,26-27). Later, in Rome, he may have been even more confined during his last restrictive imprisonment (2 Tim. 1:8; 2:9). It is also interesting to note that Paul and his companions took a long journey to Rome, encountering a raging storm that eventually destroyed their ship (Acts 27). Here, again, it would have been impossible for Paul to gather with a regular body of believers for worship–although he did have fellowship with a handful of saints who were fellow-travelers (at least Luke and Aristarchus, Acts 27:1-2).
Further, in our day when numbers of people forsake compromising denominations, false sectarian groups, and unscriptural cults, they may actually be on their own without close fellowship. While we would like to think that these come out people are true Christians and that God will bring these scattered devoted people together into one body, we yet realistically know that some remain alone and isolated as they seek acceptable and Scriptural fellowship. They want to meet with the saints, but do not know who the saints are! They want to gather with other true believers, but they search the area surrounding their locality in vain for other come out people who share a common faith and are walking the same narrow pathway of life (Matt. 7:13-14).
From time to time members of conservative denominations may confront these come out people and ask why they are forsaking the assembly by not placing membership with their church or fellowship. They do not realize that the Hebrew writer had Scriptural meetings of saved, sound believers in mind (cf. Heb. 10:19-23; 3:1). The point is that the Scriptural instruction to assemble, encourage, and stimulate (Heb. 10:24-25) presupposes that there is a faithful assembly of saints to which one may belong and a body to which he or she may be a member (1 Cor. 12:13-27; Eph. 4:11-16). We can only gather with the saints if we know of faithful saints and are physically able to meet with them.
(12) Be Baptized
The command to be baptized is much more prominent than many may realize. Jesus said, He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16a). Peter, on the day of Pentecost, declared, Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Ananias commanded Paul, And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name (Acts 22:16). If these were the only passages on the subject, we could still see how extremely vital baptism is in ones initial response to Christ. Yet there are other scriptures that relate baptism to forgiveness, salvation, entering Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 28:19; Rom. 6:3-7; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:20-21; etc.).
Although baptism definitely is prominent in conversion, sometimes we discover that the command is compromised. Let us notice two ways. First, some may point out that on certain occasions it is very difficult to obey God precisely because there is insufficient water. The term baptize comes from the Greek baptizo and denotes to immerse, dip, plunge, sink, or overwhelm. This means that one must be lowered into the water and raised from the water (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12; cf. W.E.Vine explains that baptism (baptisma) consists of the process of immersion, submersion and emergence (The Expanded Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, s.v. baptism). God requires that one who comes to Christ Jesus must repent and turn from his sins (Acts 3:19,26) and fully trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus (John 3:15-18). This repentant believer must then be baptized (immersed) in order to enter a living relationship with Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:3-4,11; Col. 2:12-13; 2 Cor. 5:17).
But what if there is not sufficient water to actually be immersed? Some answer this by saying that in the middle of a parched desert, or in the Siberian wilderness, or in a jail one is justified in being sprinkled or poured with a small amount of water instead of being literally baptized (immersed). One preacher expressed how thankful he was that his denomination practiced pouring since it was so much more convenient in prison work. Others point out that sprinkling or pouring is much more convenient in hospital visiting, particularly when there is a so-called death bed conversion. In the second century church, one document stated that if there was not enough water to baptize a convert, he should have water poured on him three times (Didache 7:1-3; two separate Greek words were employed).
Granted, there does seem to be rare occasions (one in a hundred? one in a thousand?) when it appears to be impossible to literally obey the Lords instructions immediately. But instead of actually disobeying God in the matter by contriving our own convenient substitutions, how much better to commit oneself and ones future to God, trusting Him to provide the opportunity to complete ones obedience to Him by actually being baptized (immersed) into Christ. We can be confident that God understands and will provide, if He chooses. After all, Jesus made no provision for substitutions.
A second compromise is the case in which one says that he does not know anyone who will baptize him. Therefore, he may choose to baptize himself! Scripture, of course, reveals that baptism is a passive act in which something is done to the subject, not by the subject. Peter said, Repent, and let each of you be baptized (Acts 2:38). Later, Luke says of Peter, He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:48; see also Acts 8:12, 38-39; Mark 16:16; Matt. 28:19). Since a burial and a resurrection is denoted in baptism (immersion), we can see that one must be passive, yielding himself to another. He is lowered into the water rather than lowering or dipping himself into the water. He is raised from the water rather than raising himself. However, some may want to be immersed but do not know of anyone who would be inclined to do the baptizing; thus, they baptize themselves. How much better to wait a few hours or days until someone may be found for this meaningful act rather than change the act as described in Scripture. Instead of falling for these compromises, we should be content to commit our obedience to God and pray that He will enable us to experience a genuine, literal baptism–an immersion into Christ Jesus.
(13) Submit to the Overseers
Elders do have a responsible position in the body. Saints are to submit to them and their wise judgments: Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give account (Heb. 13:17a). The term for obey is peitho which means, to be persuaded, to listen, to obey, and W.E. Vine adds, The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion. However, most translations do use our English obey in this passage, and there seems to be a proper element of submission due to community leaders (although elders are not mentioned in this verse, probably they are included). Thus, individual sheep in the flock of God should follow and submit to Scriptural shepherds.
We would like to think that all of the men who are appointed to the position of overseer are righteous, Wise, virtuous, mature, and Scriptural in belief, behavior, and in their decisions. This is not always the case. Sometimes overseers sin (1 Tim. 5:19-20) and go astray (Acts 20:29-30). If elders in this condition should require something wrong of the saints, are they still under obligation to submit and obey them? No, the saints are to be submissive only as far as the leaders are content to remain within sound teaching. If they no longer hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching (Titus 1:9), the saints must refuse to obey. If an elder begins to teach perverse things and seeks to draw away the disciples after him (Acts 20:30), true believers must not submit but resist. For instance, if the elders want to seek denominational affiliation, if they want to break bread quarterly rather than weekly, if they want to practice sprinkling rather than baptism, if they want to adopt a sectarian name, if they want to promote infant baptism rather than believers baptism, if they permit remarriage after an illegitimate divorce, if they permit worldly influences to corrupt the body, if they permit or encourage womens participation in the public assembly, if they do not require repentance of those they baptize–then the saints must say they will obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). It is not wrong to oppose elders who are clearly wrong (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19-20; 3 John 9-10).
(14) Read and Hear the Word of God
Surely no one will deny that God wants His people to read and study His written word. Paul wanted his letters to the Colossians and Laodiceans read to the assemblies (Col. 4:16). He commanded the Thessalonian saints: I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren (1 Thess. 5:27). He instructed Timothy to give attention to reading (1 Tim. 5:13). Revelation pronounces a blessing on those who read this apocalyptic letter (Rev. 1:3). Even more frequently, we are directed to hear Gods word. Many of the letters to the assemblies were meant to be read by one and heard by the saints (cf. Rev. 22:18-19). Christs own words were meant to be head as well as obeyed (cf. Matt. 7:24-27; 11:15; Luke 8:8; 9:44; 14:35).
It is quite clear, however, that some cannot see; they have been blind from birth or through eye disease or injury (cf. John 9:1; Matt. 20:30). Others are deaf; their handicap was either congenital or came during their life. Obviously, apart from a miracle of God or medical treatment, people like this cannot read Gods word for they cannot see it or hear it. Therefore, they cannot literally obey God in this way.
God understands the handicap of these physically limited saints. He knows whether they really want to read and hear His word. In fact, there may be something they can do! A blind person may be able to learn braille and, in a sense, read the Scriptures apart from true sight. Further, in our day, the blessings of recorded Scripture on tape and records may be another avenue to truth. Sighted Christians may also be able to read to the blind brother or sister. The blind person, of course, is able to listen to the taught and preached word in the assembly. As for the deaf, they can read the word even if they cannot hear it. Those who simply do not know how to read can make the effort to learn this skill for their own benefit and the benefit of others who will be blessed by their teaching (such as family, fellow-saints, and outsiders). Therefore, while some are limited to an extent and cannot literally obey the scriptures to read and listen to the word, God may provide alternatives to learning His saving and edifying truth.
(15) The Glory of the Woman
Paul asks the provocative question, Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering (1 Cor. 11:14-15; cf. v. 6). Simply stated, it is a dishonor or shame for a man to have long hair, but it is a glory for a woman to have long hair. It seems evident that God wants women to have long hair long rather than short hair. Other passages in Scripture show that women wore their hair long–whether it be the repentant sinner who wiped Jesus feet with her hair (Luke 7:38,44) or the devout Mary of Bethany who did the same (John 12:3).
When sinners come to Christ, is it always possible for them to conform themselves to this aspect of Gods will? If a man comes to Christ in repentance and has long hair, it is a simple matter for him to have his hair cut short. His greatest battle will be with the motivation to take this step. On the other hand, if a woman comes to Christ and has short hair, no amount of repentance on her part can immediately make her hair grow long! It will be a long process requiring great patience (studies show that hair grows on an average of only one-half inch per month). It simply will be impossible for a newly-converted woman to have the long hair that is a glory to her. Yet, she can have the confidence of knowing that she is pleasing to the One she seeks to obey to the extent of her ability at the time.
Now that we have examined a selection of examples, it would be wise for us to make a number of observations on them. You have probably noticed that not all of these examples are alike, although, in some measure, we can see that it is impossible for a Christian to fulfill some commands at any given time. Maybe other concerns have come to your mind and you think of various passages that bear upon this subject. You may also think of instances in which it seems impossible to obey the revealed will of God. Be very, very careful in this area! We are so very prone to err in this, with the result that we become disobedient to God. Consider, therefore, the following points:
(1) Some Scriptural instructions show us Gods ideal will rather than His specific will.
Although Paul could write that younger widows are to get married and bear children (1 Tim. 5:14), we must remember that this is not Gods will in every instance. God may not provide an eligible partner or He may not perform a miracle to heal any infertility that she may have. Such a widow must not think that somehow she is outside the will of God if He does not provide her with a husband or give her children.
(2) Some Biblical directives give us Gods general will but this will is qualified.
We must recognize that God reveals His general will for Christians, but this is qualified by other aspects of His will. For instance, the Lord reveals that He wants a plurality of elders to shepherd each local community of believers (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Yet, we know that not every assembly has a plurality of mature men who are qualified to serve in this capacity (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Therefore, we must see elders as Gods general will for His saints, a will that is qualified by the availability of men with the age, character, and family traits that Paul reveals. A believing community is not outside of Gods will if they recognize Gods general will and are seeking to develop qualified men to serve as overseers.
(3) God does not require the impossible of us.
There are some women who sincerely want to obey their husbands, but simply cannot do this when the husband commands that which is immoral, offensive, compromising, and sinful. In circumstances like this, God does not require that which is impossible for a sincere woman to conscientiously fulfill. Likewise, a recently-saved Christian woman may want to have long hair as a glory given by God, but she must simply await Gods timing in providing this through the course of nature. God is able to perform a miracle by giving her long hair immediately, but we know of no instance in which God has chosen to do this. God knows our hearts and does not require the impossible.
(4) God requires us to obey when we can.
Although we have examined a number of instances in which the Christian may not be able to literally obey the general will of God at a given time, we must never look for excuses or loopholes in the will of God! Some people simply do not want to obey God in some particular way and try to find some way of avoiding this obedience. God requires obedience, and this obedience in almost all cases is possible.
(5) Do not substitute what God requires.
Some persons are likely to reason in this way: Since I cannot obey exactly what God has commanded, I am at liberty to find my own substitutions to Gods will. This is the reasoning that many use as they read Scripture. For instance, some people see that God requires that males oversee the assembly (1 Tim. 3:1-2) but there are no mature men able to teach in a given locality. Therefore, they choose women to lead the group! No, we are not justified in devising our own ways when we cannot, at the time, carry out Gods ideal will.
Another example is that of the Lords supper. If unleavened bread and fruit of the vine are not available, surely we should not substitute leavened bread and orange juice! Consider a further example. Some people recognize that God ideally wants people to believe and be baptized (immersed), but they begin to realize how inconvenient, difficult, and even impossible this is under certain circumstances. Therefore, they feel justified in finding a substitution–such as moistening, sprinkling, or pouring–which requires minimal amounts of water and can be performed under nearly any circumstance. It is better to recognize Gods will and commit oneself to obeying it carefully and fully–when God provides the way.
(6) If you cannot obey, do not disobey.
Sometimes we may not be able to precisely obey certain instructions because of our present circumstances. For example, one may not be able to obey Pauls instructions to have ones own spouse (1 Cor. 7:2). This inability to find an eligible partner does not justify our clear disobedience to other aspects of Gods will. For instance, one is not justified in reasoning, Because I cannot have an eligible partner, I will marry Jan (Debbie, Susan, Beth, etc.) who has been divorced by her husband. One is not justified in disobeying the Lords will, by entering an adulterous relationship (Romans 7:2-3; Matt. 19:9), when he is not able to obey the legitimate general will of God. Another case: If it is impossible to meet with faithful saints in your area because you do not know of any, do not acquiesce to denominationalism by joining the local sectarian church even if the members seem so kind and friendly.
(7) Obey to the extent that you can.
While it may be impossible to obey completely because of circumstances, be willing to obey as fully as you can. For example, if a man steals $1,000,000, spends 10 years in prison for his crime, and is then converted to Christ, what shall he do? It may be impossible to make restitution for the entire amount if it was lost through gambling, but the repentant Christian can pay back as much as possible during his lifetime (cf. Luke 19:8). We are responsible to do what we can do, not what we are unable to do. It is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have (2 Cor. 8:12).
(8) Have an attitude of obedience even when you cannot overtly obey under the circumstances.
God delights in people who are obedient from the heart (Rom. 6:17). He seeks those whose heart is completely His (2 Chron. 16:9). Although it may not be humanly possible for us to fulfill the ideal will of God, we can have the comfort in knowing that He looks at our heart and our desire to obey Him. He sees the faith and the love and the will to do His will (John 7:17) even when this is not within our grasp at the time.
For example, if one is a prisoner and is stripped of all earthly possessions, he may earnestly desire to read and study Gods Word (Acts 17:11), but the prison officials may not provide a Bible for his use. God sees the prisoners desire rather than simply his performance. Again, a come out person in a certain state may desire to meet with the saints (Heb. 10:25), but, because of circumstances, he may not be able to locate others in his area. God notes his desire to be in fellowship rather than simply his inability to find it. And again, a man may desire to bring up his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), but he may be prevented from doing so by a hostile, alienated, unbelieving spouse to whom the state has granted child custody. In cases like this, God examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4b) and knows when we sincerely want to obey even when we cannot overtly obey because of present limiting circumstances.
(9) Realize that some obedience is contingent.
The obedience that God expects is sometimes contingent on the circumstances. For example, the command to meet with saints is contingent on the availability of the gathering of saints (Heb. 10:25). The command to have ones own husband or wife is contingent on ones eligibility to marry–and the availability of someone to marry (1 Cor. 7:2). The requirement to read the Word is contingent on the ability to see and read (1 Tim. 4:13). Many commands depend on ability, availability, or eligibility.
(10) Do not seek excuses for not obeying the Lord God.
Exceptions to the obligation of obedience must never be offered as excuses for a lack of obedience that we can render. Some people simply want to find ways of avoiding the need to obey the Lord. The excuses are many:
· I didnt have the time.
· I didnt know it was Gods will.
· I was too sleepy.
· I couldnt afford it.
· I had other priorities.
· I have a family, a job, and a home.
· I was too late.
· I forgot to do it.
· I had other things to do.
Excuses like these will seem very empty on the Day of Judgment. We must not allow them to negate Gods will for our lives. God calls for obedience and He expects it–when we can offer it.
Are you an obedient believer? Only those who are obedient to God and His revealed will may enter the glories of Gods kingdom. Scripture says that Christ became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9). The person who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36). Is your heart set on obeying our blessed God to the fullest extent of your ability?
Do not allow your inability to carry out certain passages to detract you from the vast amount of Scripture that is within your ability to obey. The Lord will not hold one guiltless if he can obey His will and refuses to obey. Let us be a people characterized by faith, love, and obedience to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us!