If Only I Had… Then I Could Obey

As Spring moves in and melts away the last of the snow, I always look forward to the days of opening my windows. Though I (usually) clean our house each week, there’s something purifying about throwing open the windows and letting the fresh air circulate. I could scrub the walls and ceilings, but nothing compares to how the fresh air seems to clean out my home.

There are times I wish I could do something similar to my heart. As sins emerge, I want a quick fix—a throw-open-the-doors-of-my-heart-and-let-the-wind-carry-away-my-sins type of solution. I want a step-by-step answer when I bring my sorrows and sins to a counsellor. Just tell me how to pull up my bootstraps so I can get to work at killing this sin. I get annoyed by books, articles, and counsellors that tell me, “It’s just a day-by-day battle.” I want something tangible, something I can do now with a guarantee of success. 

Some days as I confess my sins, I hear myself mutter, “I only I had… then I could overcome this sin.”

Have you ever found yourself in a similar circumstance, thinking to yourself, “If only I had [fill in the blank], then I could obey God better”? If only I had more time, friends who were more present, family members who weren’t so trying, a pet that wasn’t so needy, improved health, more resources, a good marriage, a church I agreed with on more theological matters, a mentor who had more time for me, this book that claims to change people’s lives, a seminary degree—then I could be a better Christ-follower. Have you ever heard that thought float through your head? I’ve heard it resound many times in my own, with a variety of things to fill the blank with.

I wonder if King Solomon could have said those words? Solomon had riches beyond what we could imagine, the palace of his dreams, power over much land, people at his command, a platform, multiple wives and children—he even had an abundance of wisdom. God had audibly spoken with Solomon. He was blessed by God. Yet, what do we read about this wealthy king near the end of his life? 

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the Lord commanded. (1 Kings 11:1-10 ESV)

If only he had—what? What could Solomon have asked for that would have “kept” him from falling away or “helped” him obey better? What more could Solomon ask for? What takes my breath away about this though isn’t his material abundance—it’s his wisdom. 

And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29-34 ESV)

Solomon, even though he was named the wisest man on earth, became one of the most foolish by abandoning God for mute and deaf idols. Even his grand wisdom and knowledge didn’t keep him from sin. As Solomon proves to us, we all fall short in every condition, whether in need or surplus. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. The Israelites sinned while suffering under Pharaoh in Egypt and in the Promised Land while at peace on every side. Even in the most ideal situations, we are still prone to wander from our God. None of these things can protect us from sin or sanctify us.

What will truly keep us from falling away? What will empower us to obey God? If everything was stripped away from us, if we entered into the most fiery trials we have ever endured, what would sustain us? Would the power to obey come from peace, rest, and the fulfillment of our every desire? Would a wealth of knowledge and wisdom attained from books and study make us more holy? No. These would all fall short, as it did for Solomon. 

Even if our every “if only” were filled, we still could not keep the law. The only person who could keep the law perfectly was Christ—he fulfilled the law by never breaking it. And he did it because he was also fully God. Then he took the punishment we deserved and gave us his righteousness so that we can spend eternity with him. He raised to life, carving the path for us to follow in the resurrection. When we receive this salvation by trusting in him for it, we also receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers each of us to be obedient—he gives us both the will and ability to do so.

When we believe that anything else other than God himself saves, sanctifies, or sustains us, we are like the foolish Galatians Paul wrote to:

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:1-5 HCSB)

Forget the “if only” list. No richness of wisdom, things, or fulfilled desires can change our sinful hearts. Only God can. When you are in need, when you are in the midst of suffering, or when you have abundance, don’t seek strength to obey from the things of this world. They will fail. 

Where do we find Solomon at the end of his life? Interestingly, we don’t find him basking in his wealth or fame or power, but writing in the book of Ecclesiastes on how everything is futile. The majority of the book is spent describing the vanity of everything on earth: pleasure, work, fortune, and material things. But he concludes this perhaps depressing book with this summary: “When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil,” (Ecclesiastes 12:3-4 CSB). 

It is pride that says we can live this Christian life in our strength or the strength of the things of this world. But in humble fear of God we recognize he is all we need. We need Christ through and through—from beginning to end. When we obey, it is because God has already worked a miracle in our hearts. He has saved you by grace and he will sustain you by grace. Rely on him alone. 

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