Multiple times I have heard well-meaning Adventists, in an attempt to prove that we should force ourselves to obey even if we don't want to, quote Ellen White where she says we are to "do right because it is right" (Prophets and Kings, 489). This perplexed me and gave me quite a bit of anxiety, because while I have seen a lot of evidence against this, the phrase still seemed to back up their belief.
But then I rediscovered this gem of a quote:
The man who attempts to keep the commandments of God from a sense of obligation merely—because he is required to do so—will never enter into the joy of obedience. He does not obey. When the requirements of God are accounted a burden because they cut across human inclination, we may know that the life is not a Christian life. True obedience is the outworking of a principle within. It springs from the love of righteousness, the love of the law of God. The essence of all righteousness is loyalty to our Redeemer. This will lead us to do right because it is right—because right doing is pleasing to God. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, 97
Notice, the person who obeys merely because he is required to do so, does not obey. He doesn't obey! So, our obedience isn't really obedience if our motivation for said obedience is merely a feeling of obligation. Wow! Not only this, but if we feel like the commandments of God are a burden, and they go against our unconverted inclination, we are not living a Christian life because a Christian is one whose heart has been converted—changed to have the mind of Christ.
So what is our motivation—the reason why—to obey? This quote also beautifully states this. We are to obey because we love righteousness—being loyal to God—and because we love His law.
And what will be the result? Because our hearts have been changed to love the requirements of God, and because we now love to obey God—and obeying His law will not feel burdensome—we will choose to do right because it is right, and right-doing is just what we love to do. Is that not beautiful?
So, how does one receive this new heart—this new set of desires and hatreds? The messenger of God also supplies this answer:
The renewing energy must come from God. The change can be made only by the Holy Spirit. All who would be saved, high or low, rich or poor, must submit to the working of this power. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, 96
The power that changes the affections of the heart—that changes the person—can only come from the working of the Holy Spirit. And how does this happen? When we simply give Him permission to do whatever He must do and acquaint ourselves with Him.
All true obedience comes from the heart. It was heart work with Christ. And if we consent, He will so identify Himself with our thoughts and aims, so blend our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him we shall be but carrying out our own impulses. The will, refined and sanctified, will find its highest delight in doing His service. When we know God as it is our privilege to know Him, our life will be a life of continual obedience. Through an appreciation of the character of Christ, through communion with God, sin will become hateful to us. Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages, 668
But can't we just simply reform our habits and actions? Won't this make us more like Christ? Consider this paragraph:
As the leaven, when mingled with the meal, works from within outward, so it is by the renewing of the heart that the grace of God works to transform the life. No mere external change is sufficient to bring us into harmony with God. There are many who try to reform by correcting this or that bad habit, and they hope in this way to become Christians, but they are beginning in the wrong place. Our first work is with the heart. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, 97
God isn't looking merely for external change. He desires the service and obedience born of love to Him and His law. A religion that obeys for any other reason is false.
If you were married—or for those of you who are married, how would it make you feel if your spouse was committed to not having sex with anyone else merely because they had to stay loyal to you, but all the while they wanted desperately to be with a multitude of other people?
However, does this work in real life experience? Some may argue that there are some things that we just do not want to do, and we should just push through and do whatever it is regardless of whether it is from our hearts or not. To such I would offer the following example.
Because of a variety of challenging circumstances in our lives, my brother and I have not always had the best relationship. A while back, God pointed out this big blind spot in my life. He was working through me in mighty ways, but I realized that I had been quite rude and un-christlike to him. I felt a strong need to reach out to him and make things right by working to restore the relationship. I felt that it was my obligation to call him and make things better. However, everything in me bulked at the prospect. It fought against every fiber of my being.
In that moment, I had a choice. I could either attempt to force myself–against my desires–to call him, or I could seek new desires from Christ, and trust that He would change my heart to joyful obedience. Unfortunately, the first way is what many believe to be the correct and only strategy. To such I would ask, Do you find true joy in the law of Jehovah, or are His precepts a burden?
At that moment, the promise from The Desire of Ages came to my mind that says "All true obedience comes from the heart” (White, 668). I claimed that promise, and chose to put off calling my brother.
The next day when I woke up and was checking my phone, an overwhelming realization of my rudeness to my brother came over me. It pained me to think of the rich love God had for me and how I had not extended that love to my brother. At that moment, I had the desire in my heart to reach out to my brother and make things right. So I texted him. Since then, we have been communicating more and I have actually enjoyed it.
What would have happened if I had forced myself to call him when I did not want to? It would have been clear to both of us that I did not want to be doing that. And furthermore, I would have had no more desire to talk to him after that.
Why would we seek to force ourselves to do what we hate when God has promised to change our hearts to love what we previously hated? Why would we continue in heavy drudgery when God has promised to give us peace and freedom? It is simple. We would rather depend on ourselves than rely in simple trust and humility on Christ who we don’t know. Where are you, my dear friend?
I will end with this gem: "None are so vile, none have fallen so low, as to be beyond the working of this power. In all who will submit themselves to the Holy Spirit a new principle of life is to be implanted; the lost image of God is to be restored in humanity" (Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, 96).
It is my prayer that you will consent to the powerful workings of the Holy Spirit upon your heart.