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Can God force us to obey Him? He can and He does all the time. We are not independent from God. We depend on Him for every breath. We literally can’t make a move without Him, so when God doesn’t like the move we’re planning on making, He simply prevents us from making it. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
There are two main reasons why we don’t obey God. One is that we can’t, the other is that we won’t. God uses different methods to handle each of these situations.
WHEN WE CAN’T
When we simply lack the resources we need to do what God wants us to do, He empowers us. Sometimes His empowerment comes in some pretty miraculous forms. Here are some examples we find in Scripture:
God wanted Elijah to outrun a chariot. That is physically impossible for any man to do, so the Holy Spirit simply took hold of the prophet’s body and propelled him along at a blinding speed.
God wanted Philip to be at a certain town at a certain time, but Philip was miles away baptizing a eunuch. It was humanly impossible for Philip to keep up with God’s travel plans. No problem: the Holy Spirit instantly transported Philip to where he was supposed to be (Acts 8:39). The prophets Ezekiel and Elijah also benefited from the same kind of instantaneous transportation (1 Kings 18:12, Eze. 3:14).
God wanted Paul and Silas to loudly sing His praises in jail as a witness to the jailer and the other prisoners. Men who have just been severely beaten are in too much pain to take deep breaths. Not a problem. The Holy Spirit simply came upon them with special empowerment and suddenly they were able to sing out nice and clear (Acts 16:25).
God wanted Ezekiel to lie on his side on the ground for over a year without turning over. This is physically impossible for any man to do. Extreme pain would force him to roll over at some point to relieve his grinding bones. Not a problem. God bound Ezekiel with ropes so that he couldn’t move (Eze. 4:8).
For a period of seven long years, God wanted Ezekiel to only speak when God was prophesying through him. The rest of the time, God didn’t want him to talk at all—not even to give rebuttals to those who mocked him. The prophetic calling is guaranteed to make a man a target of intense ridicule and persecution. What man can stay silent when people get in his face? This called for supernatural self-control. Not a problem. God made Ezekiel’s tongue stick to the roof of his mouth until the seven years were over (Eze. 3:26). Go ahead: try to say something while your tongue is pressed against the roof of your mouth. Doesn’t work very well, does it? God comes up with some pretty strange solutions.
When we sincerely want to please God, but He asks us to do the impossible, He will always make a way. The sincere Christian who has totally surrendered himself to God never needs to worry about falling short. When we give God everything we are and plead with Him to overrule us anytime we hesitate to obey Him, that is exactly what He does. Fear cannot stop us. A lack of strength cannot stop us. If we hesitate, God will push our feet forward. If we tremble, He will steady us enough to do what He wants in the critical moment. The disillusionment comes when we expect God’s empowerment to arrive well in advance of when we will actually need it. It won’t. God is famous for leaving us filled with dread and angst up to the very moment that we are supposed to act. Often it feels like there is absolutely no way we’ll ever manage to go through with it. But then, somehow, He makes it happen, and when we look back we say, “That was all God.”
God wants all the glory for the things He accomplishes. This is why He will often leave us looking and feeling like we’ll never be able to make it until the very last second. If He makes a habit of giving us supernatural peace and confidence way in advance, we are very prone to start getting puffed up with pride, thinking that we’ve risen above fear all on our own.
If you ever think God wants you to do something and then He doesn’t empower you and you end up feeling like a total flop, then you need to go back to basics. Did you ask Him to have His way in the matter? Did you sincerely want to please Him? If you did, then don’t worry about it. He had His way. God never lets mere mortals mess up His plans. We must always leave room for Him to change His mind at the very last second.
To serve God well, we must not try to corral Him in anyway—He’s a wild and unpredictable Being, full of unexpected twists. We must keep our focus on Him, and not on our circumstances. Success is defined only by God’s pleasure with us, not by how things worked out on earth. There will be times when we will crawl away feeling totally humiliated and convinced that we botched our assignment, only to have God assure us it all went just fine. God has a different set of values and goals than we do. We think it’s extremely important to look polished and confident when carrying out our assignments, whereas God often prefers that we look unrehearsed and fumbling in front of others. As long as He gets His way, nothing else matters.
WHEN WE WON’T
There’s a big difference between can’t and won’t. Jonah had a lot of good reasons to be terrified about going to the enemy city of Nineveh and shouting at a lot of people who would probably get mad and kill him. But instead of falling on his face and praying, “God, please give me the courage I lack,” he got on a boat and tried to sail out of God’s reach. This was willful rebellion.
When God sees that we are digging our little heels in and defiantly shaking our heads, then He reaches for a very different set of motivating tools. Calming waves of peace and courage are not on the menu. Pain and troubles are. When we embrace willful rebellion in our hearts, God lodges us loose by making disobedience an even worse option than obedience. Now Christians who have a history of obeying God usually only dig their heels in when He is asking them to do something that they really, really, REALLY don’t want to do. Perhaps they’re scared of being hurt or embarrassed. Perhaps they are convinced that obeying will make their lives a total mess. Whatever it is, they are so repulsed by the thought of obeying that they decide NOTHING is worth taking such a risk. No problem. God knows how to change their minds.
When Aaron and Miriam started picking on Moses, God wanted them to knock it off. When they refused to, He showed up in a terrifying cloud and covered Miriam with a frightening skin disease which made her as white as snow. Suddenly picking on their brother lost its charm. Suddenly repenting was no longer a hill to die on, so they groveled to Moses and God had mercy. Attacking our health is a very effective way for God to drive us back into alignment with Him.
When God gave Joseph a dream that his family would one day all bow down before him, He wanted that dream to be literally fulfilled. When only some of the brothers came to Egypt, God wasn’t satisfied, so He inspired Joseph to keep his brother Simeon hostage in Egypt until all of the brothers returned. Joseph’s father Jacob was very possessive over his favored son Benjamin, and wouldn’t allow him to go to Egypt at first. But when God made the alternative option starvation in a drought, plus permanently losing his son Simeon, Jacob finally relented. God often uses other people to make our lives more difficult. He also starts withholding basic needs—like food and money—in order to force us to cooperate with His program.
When Jonah tried to sail away to the other side of the world from where God wanted him to be, God caused a great storm to come over the sea. He then convinced superstitious sailors to toss Jonah overboard where He had a large fish waiting to swallow Jonah whole. Jonah was extremely stubborn, but no one is more stubborn than God. He simply left Jonah sitting in a pitch black tank of digestive juices for three days and nights until the man finally cracked. God knows how to break us down. He will not hesitate to terrify us and trap us in horrific situations if that’s what it takes to make us crack.
When the nation of Israel kept refusing to respect God, He responded by raising up enemies all around her to come and war against her. Death, sexual assault, torture, slavery—these were all things that God used over and over again to drive Israelites back towards reverence.
No matter how horrible, terrifying, or dangerous we think the idea of obeying God is, He can make not obeying seem a whole lot worse. This is what He will do when we dig our heels in and refuse to even consider submitting to His Authority. God responds to us according to our heart attitudes. Towards the fainthearted who sincerely want to please Him, He is encouraging and patient. But towards those who cross their arms and scoff, He gets out the weapons of war.