Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
— Philippians 2:12-13
One of my favourite stories from the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries, is a story of St John the Dwarf. One day, his spiritual father, the abbot of the monastery, gave him a dry stick, and told him to water it. And so St John the Dwarf did. Twice a day for three years, he watered the stick at his abbot’s instruction, though the well was twelve miles away. After doing so for three years, leaves sprouted, and the tree bore fruit. When the abbot saw this, he gave the fruit to the other monks in the monastery, and told them, ‘Come, eat the fruit of obedience.’
We do not know what our obedience will achieve. We cannot know what fruit our obedience will bear. By contrast, disobedience is remarkably predictable: we might get what we planned and wanted, or we might be disappointed. When we follow our own ideas, we are rarely surprised. It is in this way that obedience becomes an act of faith, because obedience is a step into the unknown. In obeying to someone else’s commands, or in considering their needs more important than ours, we step into a space of saying ‘I don’t know how this will turn out, I’m now no longer in control, so I’m going to have to trust that God will work in this situation.’
Far from obedience and good works being opposed to faith, obedience is always an act of faith. It is the primary way in which faith operates. It is the disciplined habit of choosing Christ’s words over our own sight, and to commit the future in faith to him.