One of my sons likes battles. He has just over a gazillion little robots, space ships, monsters and army men, and he sets up his whole room in these elaborate battle scenes that take days to play out. While he’s in the middle of one, he doesn’t want anybody to clean it up. I am ok with that. However, in between the battles I would prefer that he at least make a wide enough path that he can get to his closet and dresser so that he can put his clothes away. He doesn’t really see the point.
Yesterday I was once again encouraging him to clean his room. The discussion we had about it would probably seem familiar to you if you’re a parent, or can remember being a kid. I would tell him he needed to clean his room, and he would disappear and then be “done” in maybe three minutes. I’d look, only to find that his definition of “done” and mine were still not fully aligned. He managed to spend much of the day like that, mostly not clearning his room, but feeling like his whole day was being unfairly taken up by cleaning. There were basically two problems preventing him from accomplishing the job. One was that he doesn’t really see the need. He was not intentionally disobeying, but its difficult to work hard at something that you don’t see a need for. In the end, in order to finish the work he was going to have to surrender to my definition of clean. The other problem was that it was going to take some real work to get it cleaned. He wanted to be done with cleaning, but he didn’t want to commit to doing what was needed to get it done.
Eventually I told him I would be happy to clean his room for him. I went in with a couple of garbage bags, and in pretty short order his room was clean. It turns out that it is a lot easier to clean up without all of the toys. By supper time his room was very tidy and nicely vacuumed. He took this development well, partly because he knew it was coming by then, having heard about it for a good part of the day.
All of this got me thinking about our interactions with our Heavenly Father. I think that a lot of times our vision of what should happen in our lives, our idea of what obedience and righteousness mean, and in fact our idea of what it means to have no other gods, don’t match with God’s definitions. We must surrender our right to define what holiness and righteousness and obedience mean and submit to God’s definitions. This isn’t easy to do. In reality of course we don’t have any right or basis to tell God what righteousness means, but we often try to insist on our definitions anyway. It doesn’t work. My son wasn’t going to be done with cleaning his room until it matched my definition of clean. To a much larger degree, there is no righteousness other than what God says is righteous.
We, of course, have no chance of righteousness on our own. Once we submit to God’s definition of righteous this becomes painfully clear. I can’t reach that level of clean. No matter how much I scrub at my heart, it is still fallen. God, on the other hand, can make me clean. And once he does that, I am clean forever. He has guaranteed it. All that I have to do is agree with him about righteousness and sin (that’s what confession and repentance are), and accept his offer to do it for us and give us life. That takes surrendering my definitions and replacing them with his. Many days I just don’t want to do that.
The other half of my son’s dilemma is that he didn’t want to do the work. The analogy with my relationship with God here is weaker, because of course there is nothing I can bring to the table in my relationship with God, other than surrender. Actually, I can’t even bring the surrender. Not only don’t I want to surrender most of the time, but I can’t even do it on my own. I need God to continue to work in my heart to show me the places that I haven’t yet surrendered to him, where I am still holding onto my own failed beliefs about myself and life. But even though I can’t do it, and must rely on God to do it for me, I still have a part in the process. That part is in continually placing myself back under my Father’s guidance and hand. God does not force us to surrender ourselves and follow him. He never forces love and obedience. Before we are adopted as his children, he lets us choose. If we choose not to turn to God, he lets us do that. Eventually when the time of choosing has run out, he will give us what we have chosen by permanently removing us from his presence. At that point the choice will have been made with finality. It is our choice. God never forces his love on anybody.
The same general principle applies even after we are saved. God does not force himself on his children either. Forced submission is not what he’s looking for. He wants us to choose him. All the days of this life that is an ongoing daily choice. Will I love God, and keep him as my Father and Lord? Or, will I reach back for the deception I once lived in? Submission is hard. We are constantly being lied to and enticed back into the darkness. That can’t remove us from God’s hand, but it can prevent us from accepting the things he will do in our hearts and lives if we let him. Paul reminds us repeatedly to remember where we came from, and to push and strive for what God calls us into. This is not striving to do what only God can do, but a reminder to turn each day again to our Father in submission and love. We cannot lose our family relationship, but we still must choose God each day in order to allow him to work in our lives and hearts. He will not force us.
This is not something we can do by force of will. Its about our relationship with our Father. That takes time and attention. It takes making a deliberate choice each day. If we choose him each day, he will do the rest.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:17-24 (NIV)