When I was a boy one of the popular hymns in my church was “Trust and Obey”. “Trust and obey” it declared, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Good advice, except when it is blind trust and blind obedience.
The bible, it seems to me, calls us to a thoughtful trust and thoughtful obedience. Take the Hebrew midwives at the time the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Fearing the threat a growing Hebrew population posed to his kingdom, the Pharaoh demanded the Hebrew midwives kill baby boys upon their arrival into the world, making their deaths appear “natural”. They refuse to do this. When summoned to explain they tell the Pharaoh a lie, that the Hebrew women give birth very quickly, which means they cannot arrive in time to commit the murder. Normally, obeying God means telling the truth, but in this instance the text tells us God heartily approved their deception.
Or consider Jesus’s famous statement that “Humankind was not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for humankind.” It came after he and his disciples were criticised for picking grain on the Sabbath, an act the Pharisees considered a violation of the ban on working on the Sabbath. They made the same criticism when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus’s reply suggests that for all their attention to detail the Pharisees missed the point of God’s law. It was intended to serve human flourishing, not to crush it.
And then there is Jesus’s commentary on the commands to love God and love our neighbour, that these two commands are the sum of the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all God’s commands are an elaboration of the call to love God and others. Interpretations or applications that are inconsistent with biblically defined love are interpretations to reject.
My experience of evangelicalism is that we can have an unhealthy obsession with conformity to God’s law that emphasises obedience over flourishing. That is, we easily become like the Pharisees, seeing conformity to God’s commandments as an end rather than a means to the end of the flourishing of creation.
When I was growing up I saw this in the attitude to divorce. Battered women were counselled that God required them to stay married to an abusive partner. And if a person did divorce s/he was told that God forbade divorcees from remarrying. As a result many divorcees spent their lives longing to repartner, which would have led to their greater flourishing, but instead living with loneliness and the unfulfilled longings for companionship, intimacy and support.
Surely one of the questions we ought to ask when calling people to obedience is whether the particular obedience we call for will enhance or hinder their flourishing. If it diminishes flourishing then likely we have either misinterpreted or misapplied the command.