“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Two days into the Apollo 13 moon landing mission, and almost 200,000 miles from earth, a spacecraft oxygen tank exploded. Cabin air, water, and power supply were suddenly in danger. Mission Control had to overcome enormous challenges to get the crew home.
Since that crisis in space, the expression “Houston, we have a problem” has taken on a life of its own. Usually we say it with a smile, but always with the echo of a life-threatening moment.
Is heaven our Houston? The Apollo astronauts’ words come to mind while thinking about this question: What if we see heaven as the mission control whose instructions will get us safely home if we follow directions? Here’s my reaction: If getting “home” safely depends on our ability to do what we are told to do, then “Houston, we really do have a problem.”
I can’t think of one law of Moses, Christ, or Paul that I have not, in principle, broken or left undone. There’s no way I can respond, “Patience? Done. Don’t worry? Done. Love enemy? Done.” If the checklist is important, mine is a mess.
How can we get home safely? For these reasons and more, I have a hard time understanding those who—for either salvation or spiritual growth—seem so focused on obeying the commandments of Moses, Jesus, or Paul. It seems to me that the people who are really honoring the spirit of the law are those who have been overwhelmed by God’s grace, forgiveness, and patience despite our unwillingness and inability to faithfully and fully obey Him (Luke 18:10-13).
So what then is our part in the mission? It’s important to understand the spirit behind the commandments of the Bible. When the Old and New Testaments urge us to “obey” God, the first meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words is often “to listen” or “to give attention to.” For instance, the Hebrew word that frequently shows up as “obey” in English Bibles is translated “hear” in the famous, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “obey” means to be persuaded. According to Vine’s Dictionary, the emphasis is not on submission to authority, but on action resulting from being convinced by reason and truth. Letting ourselves be persuaded by the truth is the idea the author of Hebrews is communicating when he says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls” (Hebrews 13:17).
How could the shift from authority-based thinking affect our response to God? Would it make a difference if, instead of saying, “Obey Me,” Jesus said, “Listen to Me. For your sake, I want your attention. I don’t just want your dutiful compliance. I want you to love Me because I love you.”
For example, picture the husband and wife who keep talking past each other. With growing frustration, one says, “Look, just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it. Be specific. Don’t make me guess what you are looking for.” The other responds, “No, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I don’t just want your grudging compliance. I want your heart.”
That’s the kind of talk that drives some of us crazy. But it’s what we need. Even God Himself doesn’t tell us exactly how to show our patience, self-control, and love for Him in the specific moments of our lives. He shows us how much He loves us, gives us general principles, and then asks us to respond to His heart from our own.
What would a life and theology of listening look like? To hear more rather than less of God, what if we asked Him to help us hear more than our moral obligation to Him? What if we stopped talking long enough to hear Him whisper, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). What if, while trying to get His help and favor, we began to listen, really listen, to one another, to our spiritual and political enemies, and even to our own hearts? Would we be more likely to hear Jesus say, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27)?
This kind of following is so different from proud or self-righteous rule keeping. When I listen carefully to His voice in Scripture, I don’t hear someone consumed by authority and control. Instead, I hear a love that says, “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Even though Jesus has every right to demand our immediate and unqualified obedience, He approaches us gently, appealing not only to our will but to our minds and hearts. In the last chapters of the Bible, He is still saying to His stubborn and distracted family, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
Father in heaven, we need You so much more than our astronauts needed Mission Control. You understand our problems infinitely better than we do. You have every right to demand our obedience and submission to Your authority. Your commandments are perfect. Your laws are right. Yet You see far better than we do how unable we are to keep even one of Your laws, let alone all of them. Thank You for giving us Your Son instead of demanding something we couldn’t give You. Thank You for asking us to listen to Your heart—and for giving us reason to trust You—instead of just telling us to blindly obey. —Mart De Haan