On the inside, like everyone else, I want to find happiness. But I’ve long struggled with it, being a snob.
You see, I grew up Presbyterian. Even as a young child I somehow picked up the idea that this made my family better than those jumpy Pentecostals and tacky Baptists. For one thing, our hymns were grander, more historic – the Psalms of David, the hymns of Luther and Wesley, rich in theology and beautiful in imagery. No superficial revivalist ditties for us!
Well, not many at least. In the back of our hymnal there was a small collection of “Children’s Hymns” that were usually sung when we kids paraded out of the service for Sunday school, followed by the eyes of adults bracing for the dreary sermon. That’s where “Trust and Obey” was.
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear
Can abide while we trust and obey.
To tell you the truth, if now, at age 52, I were coming across these words for the first time, I’d likely dismiss them as hopelessly naïve. My life has been chuck full of shadows, clouds, doubts, fears, sighs, and tears, along with a very checkered record of faith and obedience.
Yet this hymn holds deep resonance for me primarily for the fact that it was a favorite of my mother’s, and she’d often sing it to me at bedtime. And because of that emotional connection, I’m able to cut the cheery lyrics some slack.
It’s actually the title I still come back to, again and again. For all the sophistication and subtlety my theology has acquired from the struggles of family life and pastoral ministry, I need its economical simplicity, the way it captures the Christian life from both sides and holds them together in the proper sequence. Trust and Obey. Drop one term, or switch their order, and you lose the very soul of my religion.
Trust. “We are saved by faith, not works” – or, better perhaps, by trusting Christ’s work and not our own. So true. A bare call to obedience would leave me defeated at the starting gate, ever anxious I won’t measure up, constantly depressed that in fact I don’t, resentful that God’s love is conditional.
But “faith without works is dead”! How easy it is to sink into the spiritual torpor of settling for faith’s counterfeit, a bare creed. Obedience is the evidence that I believe God’s way is trustworthy and worth pursuing with patient endurance.
For there’s no other way to be happy…
My mother was no spiritual dumdum, and certainly no slouch. She spent her teen years in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. After the war, she relocated to Canada, far from the comforts of home and family. What carried her through so much loss? Happiness in Jesus. Now she’s 87, and it’s still her song.
My mother was several years younger than I am now when she’d sing this hymn to me before tucking me in and leaving me in a dark bedroom. I’ve had plenty of time to check out other ways promising happiness, and enough time to find each one disappointing. I have the feeling my mother didn’t sing me these words night after night merely because she thought they were simple enough for a child to grasp. She herself needed their clarity and simplicity to cope with life’s messes and stresses. She must’ve guessed I’d need them too, in the humbling of hardships, when I’d only find strength to hold a handful of words.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.
This simple song was her persevering prayer for my lasting happiness, and I love her for that.
Andrew Schep grew up in Canada, and has served for 25 years as a Presbyterian minister, currently in Syracuse, NY. He enjoys writing poetry, singing choral music, and serving as a volunteer hospital chaplain. He and his wife have five children.