Putting Our Obedience First
One evening not long ago we had just settled our family down for dinner, hushing our four kiddos and instructing them to close their eyes and fold their hands for prayer. My husband had barely finished blessing the food when one of our children blurted out, “Javan had his eyes open while you were praying!” (Javan is our two-year-old). “And how did you know his eyes were open?” I inquired, trying hard to suppress a smile over the irony of the statement. The older child just stared at me with wide, sheepish eyes, knowing they had been caught by their own words.
Spotting a prime teaching opportunity I said, “You need to be more concerned about your own obedience than the obedience of your little brother.” The child nodded in understanding, apologizing for their disobedience. Our dinner then reconvened with happy noises and the occasional comment to keep their forks over their plates and their feet down where they belong.
This scenario is a fairly common one in our home full of little kiddos: the declaration of another’s sin when the declarer is just as much at fault. And it always makes it glaringly obvious to me just how hardwired all humans are to highlight the sin of others while downplaying our own. Sure, we adults might be a bit more subtle about it (sometimes), but it’s our tendency nonetheless. One example of this is in the world of online spaces. People seem to revel in pointing out the ways that others are falling short with either a defensive spirit or no seeming concern about areas of fault in which they are being questioned.
As Christ-followers, however, we are called to a higher way.
We are responsible first and foremost for our own obedience to God. We won’t stand before Him one day and be held accountable for how others in our lives sinned or obeyed; we will only be held accountable for ourselves. In light of that, are we setting an example for those around us by our own joyful and willing obedience, or are we so concerned about others doing what’s right that we overlook our own faithfulness to God’s commands?
Jesus speaks to this very issue in Matthew 7:3–5:
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (ESV).
Take a moment to visualize what this kind of conversation would look like: a person with a log stuck in their eye criticizing another person with a speck stuck in theirs. It’s rather hilarious and absurd, isn’t it? But that’s exactly what we do when we get hyper-focused on other people’s sin issues and neglect to take care of our own.
Now, does this mean we never address the speck? No! Jesus actually states that taking the log out of our eye helps us see clearly to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. Our brother can be anyone whom the Lord has placed in our personal sphere. If we lean in close, we can hear the heart of what Christ is expressing: when we focus first on our own repentance of sin and obedience before the Lord, we will then be able to know how and when to address an issue we see in someone else with truth and love.
So, how does this play out practically? Here are three ways I’ve found to be of such help in this sphere.
1. Be a Faithful Student of Scripture
Obedience to Christ starts with knowing God and loving Him as He has revealed Himself through Scripture. This means that it’s absolutely essential for us to be diligent students of the Bible. And it means humbly submitting ourselves to being transformed by God’s Spirit as He convicts us through His Word.
I once heard a principle that went something like this: Scripture is the lens through which we can see the world and everything in it most clearly. And since we’re talking a lot about eyes — both physical and spiritual — that lens analogy fits quite well. When we are trying to view the world through any unbiblical worldview or relying on our own intuition, our spiritual vision will be murky and distorted. We can only know which way to go and point others in that way if we are allowing our vision to be clarified by the Creator of all things.
2. Receive Counsel and Correction
1 Peter 5:5 says, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (ESV).
One of the chief ways God matures us spiritually is through the counsel of others, especially those who are a few years down the road from us in their walk with Christ. When we are not willing to hear loving, constructive criticism from others, it is a sign of pride and will also stunt our growth as a believer. And usually an older, wiser person in the faith will model how to exhort and rebuke in a way that builds up, rather than tear down. This, then, teaches us how to exhort and correct in a loving, humble way when it is our turn to do the same for others.
All of us need the perspective of others to recognize blind spots or even to be confronted in areas of sin that we’re holding on to. It’s true, sometimes those doing the confronting might speak in an unloving way or with less tact than what is needed. But — returning to the key principle of putting our obedience first — that is between them and God. We are only responsible for how we receive this advice. We can ask the Lord to help us take from it whatever He desires, leave whatever wasn’t from Him, and to extend forgiveness if there was fault. Either way, God can use the instruction offered to us to make us more like Him.
3. Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger
James 1:19–20 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (ESV).
This verse has become a rule of thumb for me when I’m considering whether I should approach someone about an issue I see (or think I see) in another person. I ask myself these questions:
- Am I being a good listener and seeking to understand first?
- Is my motive for speaking one of anger or love?
When we have guidelines like these in place, it gives space for the Lord to bring clarity regarding whether we should say something or not, as well as how and when we should say it. This space keeps us from speaking out of turn and facing the regret that comes from causing harm with our words. When we deliberately pause and allow God to go before us, He will refine our motives and temper our tongues to be utilized as tools for His glory.
. . .
When we are enraptured with our Savior and seeking to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, He will also show us what it looks like to love our neighbor as ourselves with our lips and lives. (See Matthew 22:37–39.) He will use us to encourage, strengthen, and edify His Body as we joyfully surrender ourselves to Him.