George MacDonald, Obedience trumps understanding

I’ve begun reading a short collection of sermons by George MacDonald. I’ve only known him threw his childrens fantasy books. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and L’Engle sight him as a major influence. Since I’m still on an Inklings kick, I figured I had better check him out a bit more.

MacDonald was raised as a strict Scottish Calvinist. As a young man though, Limited Atonement started to really bother him. It wasn’t in line with the character of God that he knew. He eventually reformed his own theology to accommodate a more generous picture of Jesus, without minimizing his justice. In the process though he got kicked out of the pastorate of his first church.

He has this to say about Christ’s offer of rest to us in the gospels:

[The Lord] cries aloud, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

He does not say, “Come unto me, all ye that feel the burden of your sins.” He opens his arms to all weary enough to come to him in the poorest hope of Rest. Right gladly would he free them from their misery – but he knows only one way: He will teach them to be like himself, meek and lowly, bearing with gladness the yoke of His Father’s will.

The Lord knows what they need; they know only what they want. They want ease; He knows they need purity.

In this passage at least he continues to work this angle of purity and obedience, rather than a message of forgiveness. He spends plenty of time on that in other places. For some of us religious folk though, THIS is the sort of thing we need to hear.

It may be my reader will desire me to say HOW the Lord will deliver him from his sins. That is like the lawyer’s “Who is my neighbor?” The spirit of such a mode of receiving the offer of the Lord’s deliverance is the root of all the horrors of a corrupt theology, so acceptable to those who love weak and beggarly hornbooks of religion. Such questions spring from the passion for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, not the fruit of the tree of life.

Men would understand: they do not care to obey – understand where it is impossible they should understand save by obeying.

For the sake of knowing, they postpone that which alone can enable them to know. They will not accept, that is, act upon, their highest privilege, that of obeying the Son of God. it is on them to do His will that the day dawns; to them the day-star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge.

-George MacDonald, Life Essential: The Hope of the Gospel, Ch. 1

Personally, I am predisposed to over-analyze situations. This includes seeking to deeply understand WHY I screwed up. This is helpful to a point, but then has severely diminishing returns. Somewhere in there, we need to just stop trying to understand. Just STOP. Cut it out and obey God. Resolve to turn from our sin, even if we don’t have a full grasp on our own psychology or what subtle situations (maybe not our fault) led to our trouble.

MacDonald ends with a disclaimer:

God forbid I should seem to despise understanding. The New Testament is full of urgings to understand. Our whole life, to be life at all, must be a growth in understanding. What I cry out upon is the misunderstanding that comes of a man’s endeavor to understand while not obeying. Upon obedience our engergy must be spent; understanding will follow.