The Real Basis of Obedience
Obedience does not mean the execution of orders that are given by a drill sergeant. It springs rather from the love of an order, and love of him who gave it. The merit of obedience is less in the act than in the love; the submission, the devotion, and the service which obedience implies are not born of servitude, but are, rather, effects that spring from and are unified by love. Obedience is servility only to those who have not understood the spontaneity of love.
Our universe is governed by laws: things are this way and that way. By submission to laws, we make them our own. If, for instance we obey the laws of the body, we keep it in health; If we obey the laws of mind, we keep it learned. Spiritual being has its prizes too, as Our Lord said: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
In other words, true obedience springs from love not from force. The worst man in the world knows a great deal more of his duty than the best man does. It is not for want of knowledge that men go to pieces, but rather for want of obedience to the knowledge of the good they already possess.
The legal world says: “If you fear me, keep my commandments.” In the Divine order it is different: “If you love Me, You will keep My commandments.”
Today Liberty is taking the place of obedience. It is said that obedience has had its day. Civilization is in danger when the rights of liberty plead against the duties of obedience as if the two were opposed to one another. A man who has never obeyed is not the man who will know how to command. He will be a poor general who has never come up through the ranks.
Our Lord went down to Nazareth and was subject to His mother and foster father; then He became obedient unto death, even unto the death on the Cross.
Obedience is not the quality of slaves, for slaves act against their will. He who had liberty to do all things became subject to His parents to prove that obedience is the pathway to freedom. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “You who are children must show obedience in the Lord to your parents; it is your duty.” The parent is strong when he says to the child: “I must have your obedience because I am responsible to God for your upbringing in goodness and truth.”
On the other hand the child’s strongest encouragement is in the same thought: “In obeying my parents I am doing that which is pleasing to God, and I do it because I love the Lord.” In “Lamentations” it is written: “It is well that you should learn to bear the yoke, now in your youth.” A horse must be broken in while he is a colt; a dog must be trained when he is young. So it is with youth. He who has never learned to submit, will make himself a tyrant when he obtains power. A silver spoon has choked many youth.
St. Thomas Aquinas said: “The respect that one has for the rule flows naturally from the respect that one has for the person who gave it.” Authority must always have behind it some value which elicits respect and reverence.
In courtship there are no laws, but the lover always seeks to fulfill the will of the beloved: and in religion no compulsion is felt by anyone who loves God. The real basis of obedience in the family, therefore, is not the fear of punishment, just as in religion it is not the fear of hell. Rather, it is based on the fact that one never wants to hurt anyone whom one loves. It will bear repeating that Our Lord said: “If you love Me, you will keep My Commandments.”
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, April 1979