A few years ago, I wrote a lengthy essay (about 80 pages or so) about the problem of developing virtue, combining scriptural exegesis with a critical view of the relevant philosophical views from Aristotle (to give one example) that showed the path from vice (unrestrained evil) to incontinence (restrained evil) to continence (restrained good) to virtue (unrestrained good). Based on outward appearance, there is no difference between continence and virtue. A continent person is compliant with standards of virtue, but those standards have not yet sunk down into his heart. On the other hand, the righteous conduct of a virtuous person springs from a redeemed heart. We cannot look at the conduct of a person alone and read the heart. We may, if we are wise (and the person is honest and open about themselves), infer the state of a heart from repeated observation and interaction with someone, if we are able to do so, but this is something that takes time and is not a foolproof method, as at least some people are good at disguise.
When we look at what God says about compliance, it is easy to see that He desires much more from us. In Mark 7:5-7, Jesus Christ quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees in precisely this context: “Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Here we see that the Pharisees were obeying God on the surface, but the obedience did not spring from the heart. They never surrendered to God, they never repented to Him, but rather they saw their outward compliance as meeting the standard of relationship that was necessary to please God. The Pharisees get a lot of flack for this, and rightly so, but this is a temptation that we all have to wrestle with. None of us is entirely immune from the tendency of gritting our teeth and doing something we hate, or not doing something we really want to do, because of the threat of coercion, but not obeying from the heart, and that sort of compliance will only last until there is the freedom for us to act according to our desires. If our desires remain wicked, any sort of moral weakness on the part of authority will provoke that wickedness to become evident.
What are we to do about this? There are times when it is good to be compliant and not to surrender. A child in an abusive family may have to be compliant, may have to respect parents who inflict them with harm (often out of their own weakness and damage) and put them in dangerous situations. In order to survive, a child may have to comply with what they abhor, and what God abhors. We would like to think this is an extreme and a very rare, situation, but it is certainly a reality for many people. Yet in such a situation, for the well-being of the child himself (or herself), there cannot be a surrender to that sort of situation, because to do so would surrender any chance at happiness or self-respect or dignity or salvation or any life worth living. So, the problem is not to eliminate the possibility of compliance without surrender, because there are some times where that is a biblical requirement (Romans 13 is a good example of this, where even wicked kings are to be honored and respected, but one is not to surrender to their worldview because they face judgment for their corruption of their God-given responsibility to model His ways and enforce His laws in their offices).
What remains therefore is for us to know the state of our hearts. We have to know the relationships with God and with others that we are committed to, know our priorities, and know our boundaries and limits. We have to accept that we live in a world that does not always have our best interests at heart. Even if we trust that God does, we also have to realize that God is either going to ordain or allow difficulties in our lives, some of them of a deeply unsettling nature, as a way of refining our character and firmly planting us on the path to righteousness. Yet God can only work in our hearts if we have surrendered our hearts to Him. Otherwise, the surface compliance that we show will not last for eternity, for there will come a point reached where God’s ways demand too much for us to comply, or some corrupt human leader will tell us that obedience is no longer required, and the true state of our hearts will be revealed. If we want to be truly righteous, we must be righteous from our hearts out, not merely on surface behaviors that we keep up to try to avoid punishment from God or men. For it is our hearts where our destiny is made.