Some reflections on this Obedience issue...

Dear all,

About a year ago, it may have even been longer, I promised to respond to Herman and Maggie on the matter of obedience. Maggie raised the general question of obedience again the other day and it has triggered me to finally bring all my meditations of the last year or so to some final conclusion.

This matter of obedience to God, or the Holy Spirit, has exercised my mind a lot over the years. In the beginning of our married life we practiced NFP because we believed in the Church teaching and we did want to be obedient. Looking back now I can see that our attitudes had changed long before our marriage ended, probably beginning about half way through the 24 year journey. From that point we continued to be "obedient" to the teaching though even though privately we didn't believe it and even at that time, when the opportunity arose, would argue for more discussion and/or change.

The other day Maggie mentioned this matter of having to obey a teaching even if you disagree with it. This is difficult to write. At one level I still agree with that notion but at another level I disagree with it. In the last couple of days since Maggie wrote her comment I've been trying to get clear in my own mind precisely what I do believe and all the churning I've been doing on this issue since the earlier discussions here and on Maggie's blogsite.

This is as good a place as any to bring my thoughts together and the paradox I've written above. Where I think the crucial difference in understanding arises is in this question of "what, precisely, are we trying to be faithful or obedient to?"

The choices might be: am I trying to be faithful to a set of rules, am I trying to be faithful to the Church (the Pope, the Magisterium, etc), or am I trying to be faithful to God?

Like a child first riding a bike, or a child at the earliest stages of "being formed" in any home in faith or simple civilised behaviour, I believe one also has to go through a "training wheels" stage. During this stage there are rules that Mummy and Daddy set as to where you can ride and how fast you can go (for example for a little kid they might attach a leash to the bike I can remember we did that for a short time when we used to take our children for a walk around the block. At some point though the child "grows up" and relate to their parents in a new way. These days adolescent and adult children do not obey rules just because they are rules or because it was their mum or dad who set the rules. They also need to be convinced that any rules are logical and "make sense". They want to see the objective of why there might be a rule and they want to see the positive and negative consequences of disobeying a rule. This is not some "fear" thing though. We do respect rules when we know that if we break it we might get injured in some way. We don't like rules though that are purely arbitrary, or those which have been imposed simply because someone wants to demonstrate that they are more powerful than we are.

Our faith needs to mature in a similar way. I think mine has and that is the overwhelming reason why my attitude to obedience has changed over the last 25 years but particularly so over the last ten years and, seemingly, in a more rapid way as time advances.

Today the overwhelming focus of my obedience is into trying to discern the will of what God has for me and trying to obey that. I find it difficult very difficult at times trying to discern what God wants me to be doing with my life or my day. The single prayer that probably means most to me today is this prayer from Cardinal Newman. The language is quaint and dated now but I think the concepts he covers in this short prayer are really the sum total of how I see my relationship to God AND how I approach this business of trying to discern his will or his advice or his guidance. Have a read of the prayer and then I'll conclude this briefly:

The first important point in this prayer is the uniqueness of the relationship I have with God. As Newman says: "he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another". I really do believe that. As I've argued in this place in the past, in God's eye's the poor little forgotten slave who empties the latrine buckets in the most forgotten village in Africa is doing as "essential work" as the President of the United States of America. Both jobs are vitally important for civilisation to work and, in a sense for the universe to work. Just as every single atom in the universe has a role to play, so also do each of us, only more so in that we are also called on to make choices. When the latrine cleaner and POTUS rock up to their last judgment, the likelihood is that POTUS or any of us are going to be given a darn sight harder grilling than the guy who was told to go clean out the dunnies all his life. (The Parable of the Talents though reminds us that we cannot cheat by trying to "dumb ourselves down though". God does know the measure of talent that was given to us. We will be held accountable in ways that will be both more just and more merciless than anything we have experienced in life.)

I find it is simply not easy to discern what God is wanting me to do though. Since I left a secure salaried job at the Catholic Education Office I was actually taken to the very edge of my life on two occasions, one very seriously, trying to discern the answer to that question. As I said, it is NOT easy, and those experiences helped drive that home to me.

And you thought that was hard? Now we get to the really hard bit. As Newman points out in that prayer in at least three different places, occasions may arise where we cannot clearly discern the answer as to what God wants us to do. (In one place he says "we might not even know it in this life but we'll know it in the next"!) On those occasions we do have to journey on much like a train in a fog simply trusting that the railway tracks are beneath us and that no trains are coming in the opposite direction on the same tracks. And trusting that nobody has ripped the tracks up at some point.

This is where this other sense of obedience kicks in where I again begin to find myself in agreement with at least the concept of what Maggie proposes. At those places, when there is fog and incertitude, I do have to simply trust. I do have to simply obey as best I can the very imprecise instructions or guidance that seems to be coming my way.

Does this make any sense to anyone? I'm not simply trying to "hoop-jump" and "be obedient to some set of arbitrary rules that God, or the Pope makes up like the rules that I used to make up for my children when they were very small because they needed to learn how to obey rules. And for that matter they also needed to be taught properly how you discern when it is proper and the morally correct thing to be doing when you do have to disobey some rule. When we do have to disobey some rule, there is a morally correct way to do that often. You cannot just disobey something arbitrarily.

But this new concept of obeying God I'm really talking about in this post is altogether different. It is now not about obeying some rules God whispers in my ear. It is trying to discern how he wants me to make this particular decision that is facing me at this moment be it as decision as to whether I should go to bed right now or whether I should change the whole course of my life and move into a new business or a new career.

It IS bedtime and I really am zonked now. I do have one further point that I'd like to explore on this and I'll try and do that in the morning.


©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Posted: 11Aug2004 3:17 AM

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley