Why is obedience a dirty word?

By Nicholas Soellner

I once heard a tragic-but-tongue-in-cheek remark while working in education: “We spend the first few years of their lives trying to get children to speak, stand and walk. We spend the rest of their lives trying to get them to sit down and shut up.” It hurt to laugh at that comment. First words and first steps are huge milestones, especially for new parents, and they are rightfully celebrated. So when and why do we stop celebrating children’s growing independence? If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the point at which we stop getting what we expect.

Parents know better than their children; so the expectation is that our children will trust our experience and do what’s best for themselves when we tell them to do it. Parents and children alike are all-too familiar with the phrase, “If you had just listened to me….” The word listen is dynamic in English and Hebrew (Shema), in both languages meaning to hear and to obey. In fact, this is where the daily Hebrew prayer gets its name. “Hear (Shema) O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-6).

The trouble is, at times, we forget to listen to our Father in Heaven. Through baptism, we became adopted children of God. Indeed, God knows better than we do concerning everything imaginable; but our desire to cling to what’s comfortable is certainly a struggle. Jesus knows this, which is why he tells us, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mt. 16:24).

A perfect Son, Christ is obedient to the Father in all things. But what was his reward? In the eyes of the world, Jesus’ obedience only got him in trouble. His teachings and miracles earned him short-lived fame and praise, but also public rebukes from religious leaders; abandonment by some of his followers; and, ultimately, an excruciating and humiliating public execution. But in the eyes of God, because of his obedience unto death, God exalted him above all others (Cf. Phil. 2:9). Our call to obedience will rarely ever go to the same extreme, but the daily call to die to ourselves still takes on very challenging forms.

In a story often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, Francis and his brother monks were caught up in ecstasy through contemplative prayer when a hungry beggar knocked on the door. The monks, clinging to their joyful experience, ignored the knocking. Bewildered, Francis began to scold them, ordering them to stop praying and minister to the beggar, saying, “God has left your ecstasy and has entered that beggar.” When God interrupts our plans and directs us to pause and pray, even well-intentioned action is acting on vice. Similarly, when God interrupts our prayer and wills us to act, praying instead of acting is disobedience.

Doing what God asks of us is hard. Our fallen nature makes discerning the will of God difficult, something the adversary likes to take advantage of often. Our first instinct is ofte to pray that our way should be God’s way.

The Letter of James gives us a sobering critique of this flawed approach, which plagued even the early Church: “You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:2-3). Graciously, James also gives the remedy: “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). In times of uncertainty, we can cling to Thomas Merton’s famous prayer and say to God humbly, “...the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Our culture celebrates self-determinism and achievement. But, in our desire to imitate Christ in our lives, his humility and obedience to the Father may be the most important starting point.