Moral Adventure vs Spontaneous Obedience

Seeking wisdom from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – how faith and obedience are intertwined.

Do you believe in God?

To you this might seem like the big question. It might seem like your whole identity and destiny relies on the answer to this question. I’ve certainly thought like that in the past. I’ve felt as though I have to have a really solid foundation of faith before I can act upon it. Surely I have to be really sure that I believe in God before I take God’s commandments seriously. Surely I have to have a great argument for God’s existence before I live with God as my parent and monarch. Surely?

But lately I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which has a rather different presentation of faith. Bonhoeffer writes that “Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience”. For Bonhoeffer, faith and obedience are inextricably intertwined. When Jesus first calls his disciples he doesn’t ask ‘Do you believe in me?’ Instead, he calls them to follow him. As Bonhoeffer says, “The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.”

Perhaps you find yourself, like I did, stalling in the realm of academic uncertainty, not sure whether you believe in God, or how to argue for your theism. I used to be like the lawyer in Luke 10. Full of questions, he probes Jesus for answers, despite the fact that he already knows them. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The lawyer already knows the commandments; love God and love your neighbour. Bonhoeffer says, “We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbour or not. We must get into action and obey.”

Spontaneous Obedience

Bonhoeffer calls this obsession with questions and laws a ‘moral adventure’. “Only the devil has an answer for our moral difficulties, and he says: ‘Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience.’” The call of Christ does not compute with our moral adventure. If we think we need to have faith in God before we are obedient to God’s commands, we have not understood that “only those who believe are obedient, and only those who are obedient believe.” Instead, “we are confronted by the call of Jesus to spontaneous obedience”. It is in responding with obedience to the call of Christ that itself builds our faith.

I’ve heard it said that pure agnosticism doesn’t exist. One is either a theistic agnostic or an atheist agnostic. You may not be sure if God exists, but either you live as though there is a God or you don’t. And I think Bonhoeffer would agree with that. Many of my friends are the latter – they might say they’re agnostic, but they certainly live as though there isn’t a God. What matters more than what you claim to believe, is what credence your lifestyle implies.

So rather than thinking, ‘Do I believe in God?’, instead, heed Jesus’ call; ‘Follow me’. And instead of asking others ‘Do you believe in God?’, instead, ask them, ‘How are you living? Do you follow Jesus?’

I was on the street the other day chatting to a man about God. I asked him if he believed in God, and if he knew God loved him. He said he did, but that he had so many ‘why’ questions holding him back from faith; why is my life so hard, why did my parents die young, why, why, why? I told him he might never find answers to these why questions. But the questions that really matter are the ‘how’ questions. How are you going to live now? How are you going to treat your neighbours? How are you going to conduct yourself? These are questions we answer every day whether we think about it or not. Do you believe in God? Who knows. But do you live as though God exists? This you answer every day.

This reminds me of a story I love about Jesus in Matthew 11. John the Baptist asks his disciples to find out who Jesus is, if he is really the Messiah. How does Jesus prove himself? Not with arguments, but with action. ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see’, Jesus replies. ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.’ Jesus says ‘Look around me. Does my action suggest I am the Messiah?’

Do you believe in God? The answer to this question lies not in your moral adventure, but in your spontaneous obedience to Jesus’ call. Look around you. Does your action suggest you believe in God?

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