The concept of obedience implies an authority with the right to command, and a subject with the obligation to obey. It is important to understand both of these realities: authority and its rights, and the corresponding obligation on the part of subjects to acknowledge that authority and to submit to its requests.
All true obedience is ultimately directed to God, for all authority ultimately comes from Him, and rests on His absolute dominion over all He has created and on the total submission due Him. More than we can ever realize in this life we are totally and ceaselessly dependent on Him “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
While all authority has its ultimate source in God, in the divine plan that authority is exercised mostly through intermediaries. Man is a social being destined to live in society on which he is dependent in many ways for the necessities and safeguards of life. For that reason God, wishing to communicate a share in His authority and power to rule to creatures, has so arranged creation that His will is made known to men through the arrangement of society in which some are superiors while the majority are subjects. By the very nature of society there must be some who have the authority to make laws and to enforce them if humans are to live in unity and peace. Many human benefits can be achieved only by joint effort which requires planning and coordination, all of which cannot be had without a principle of unity, a recognized authority which coordinates the efforts and talents of its members toward the common good. This is confirmed by the words of St. Paul, who testifies that it is God’s will that in society there be superiors commissioned with authority delegated by God, and subjects whose duty it is to obey.
There are different spheres of human society, to each of which (according to their specific nature) God delegates to key individuals or groups authority to make laws and enforce them, and to discipline, when needed, for the common good. Those branches of society include the following:
Our life, then, is governed by a number of authorities. All subjects of all legitimate superiors are obliged to obey the various sources of authority over them, whether that authority be of one’s parents, the civil officials, the pastor of a parish, the teacher in the classroom, a military officer, one’s employer, etc., insofar as they do not command contrary to the law of God, or beyond the limits of their authority.
Again, when God created the first man and woman they disobeyed (we know the story), and were deprived of the divine life of grace, and incurred various other effects of original sin. Through them sin and the inclination to sin entered the human race. Just as a stream, if contaminated at its source is contaminated throughout, so all the descendants of Adam and Eve share in their contamination, in the fruits of their disobedience, namely, a tendency to rebel against whatever limits their freedom.
God, then, created both angels and men to his own likeness and image, with the freedom to accept or reject what He wills, that is, the capacity to obey or disobey. Note: the capacity to disobey, not the right to disobey. And He did this because He willed that the submission of our will to His be the condition of receiving His gifts. If grace comes to us from God, there must be some kind of union between God and us. That union cannot be of a physical nature, for God is a pure spirit. It is a union of wills, that is, a submission of our will to His. Every time our will is conformed to His (in doing what He asks, or accepting what He allows), we merit an increase of grace; and the greater the love in that submission, the greater the merit. A deliberate refusal to submit our will to His, if the matter is serious, could cause us to lose the divine life of grace entirely, giving Satan a certain dominion over us.
Not only did God bring us into being and give us every gift of nature and grace that we possess, but sent His only-begotten Son who paid the price of our redemption by the painful sacrifice of Calvary. He thereby rescued us from the plight that had befallen mankind because of the sin of our first parents, namely, eternal separation from God and the beatitude for which we were created. For that reason St. Paul declared that we belong to Jesus Christ who purchased our freedom by the shedding of His Blood. “You are not your own, for you were bought at a great price” (1 Cor. 6:20). This debt of total submission to God is expressed also in the official worship of the Church: “Father . . . through your beloved Son you created the human family. Through Him you restored us to your likeness. Therefore, it is your right to receive the obedience of all creation” (Preface of the Mass).
Obedience can be taken in a broad sense, in which sense every sin is a sin of disobedience against God. Thus, if one sins by theft, or murder, or adultery, etc. he is disobeying one of God’s commandments. In this sense, says St. Thomas, “all acts of virtue, insofar as they come under a precept, belong to obedience” (II II,104,3,ad 2). Yet, obedience in the strict sense is the virtue which inclines the will to comply promptly and willingly with the command of the superior out of respect for his authority. And the sin of disobedience in the strict sense is to disobey out of contempt for the superior or his authority. This sort of sin springing from contemptuous pride is, in itself, a graver disorder than sins of the flesh (which may be more shameful) or sins of avarice or greed; for the over-attachment to pleasures of the flesh or to worldly goods do not turn one away from God as readily as does the inordinate attachment to one’s will, which leads one to refuse to submit to God’s will or to accept His word which hinders him from having his own way (ibid. 3). That is why our Blessed Lord said to the Pharisees: “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you” (Mt. 21;31).
This helps us to see the importance of obedience, and the harm of disobedience; for obedience disciplines the will, that key faculty that accepts or rejects God’s will, the faculty by which we love God and neighbor, the faculty which is meant to control all the other faculties and appetites of the individual person. Habitual obedience strengthens that faculty, while habitual disobedience weakens it.
Theology tells us, and experience bears it out, that the more one obeys the laws of God, the more free he becomes. “The truth will make you free” (Jn. 8:32). It is a freedom from the domination of one’s passions and evil inclinations. On the other hand, the more one identifies freedom with doing whatever he wishes, “doing one’s own thing,” the more he becomes a slave of his own passions and evil inclinations.
The divine plan places obedience at the very center of our relationship with God. The recognition of His authority and submission to His will (for those with the use of reason) is a key condition of receiving His grace. This might seem at variance with our Lord’s stress on charity, or love of God and neighbor, as the key virtue. The message of the Gospel is truly a message of love, and the perfection of that virtue is the essence of sanctity. In practice, however, love is inseparable from obedience. As St. Thomas emphasizes “charity cannot exist apart from obedience” (ibid, 104,1). One cannot love God without obeying Him. Our Blessed Lord pointed this out time and again the night before He died.
From the above it is clear that obedience alone is not enough; it must be motivated by charity (love) if it is to be meritorious. Why, then, do I obey? Not only because God, who has a right to my submission, asked for it; but because He who died for me asked for it; because He from whom I received all that I am and have asked for it; because He who is infinitely good and wishes only my welfare asked for it.
Just as obedience needs charity to make it meritorious, so obedience needs humility to function at all. As we saw, the sin of the angels and of our first parents was one of pride resulting in disobedience; there is a similar connection between obedience and humility, as St. Thomas points out. He explains that not only is pride an inordinate tendency to seek one’s own exaltation, that is, one’s glory and independence; but it is the root cause of many other sins insofar as it begets a contempt for God’s authority, causing one to scorn subjection to God and His laws that would keep him in subjection. “Pride makes one despise the divine law which hinders him from sinning” (ibid. 162,2). In contrast with this, humility inclines one to submission to God and to those who share His authority. Hence the angelic doctor says, “humility makes a good man subject to all ordinances of all kinds in all matters” (ibid. 161,5). How true it is to say, therefore, that obedience is humility in action, and disobedience is pride in action. They are but two sides of the same coin.
Since the eternal Father decreed the incarnation of His only-begotten Son precisely to repair - by His obedience - for man’s disobedience, it is important that we take a close look at the obedience of Christ. The most perfect example and model we have of this virtue is that of our Blessed Lord, who, though a divine person, was obedient to human parents. He who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, brought all things into being, subjected His human will to that of His own creatures. From the moment He came into this world until He breathed His last breath on the Cross, His life was one of total obedience to the Father in reparation for the disobedience of mankind. St. Paul tells us that in coming into this world, Jesus uttered from the depth of His soul:
After the infancy narratives in St. Luke’s gospel, there is little we know about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, with the exception of an incident recorded by the evangelist which has a bearing on our topic. (See page 1)
If Jesus went out of His way to stress the importance of our obedience to Him and His word, He also went out of His way to call our attention to His obedience to His eternal Father, a refrain that occurs repeatedly in the gospel of St. John:
Not only do we have to contend interiorly with the self-seeking tendency of independence of our fallen nature, but, exteriorly, the culture in which we live is one that is no longer God-centered, but man-centered. It no longer relies for guidance on God’s revealed word, but on modern science. It no longer looks to the next life to find the main fruition of one’s obedience, but to this life - here and now. While the true Christian sees the need of dependence on God and the Church He established, atheistic secular humanism which influences much of today’s society, champions the maximum autonomy of the individual. The “Humanist Manifesto” which is the bible of secular humanism declares: “Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage.” It is legitimate to question authority. Each one is to determine for himself what he is going to believe, whom he is going to obey, and to what extent. All this will depend on his scale of values, which he is to determine for himself. This is sometimes referred to as “Values Clarification” which has become part of our educational system.
In contrast to this, the Christian concept of obedience is based on:
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