What does obedience mean to you?
Is it something quite negative?
Obedience can mean obedience to some person or organization that is trying to control us for their own selfish reasons.
But is this what obedience is always like? Can we try to imagine what healthy obedience might look like?
What does it look like when we obey a good person, someone who cares about us and our freedom? What does it look like when the person we obey doesn’t want to control us, but to help us?
When a doctor prescribes medicine and we take it, that is obedience. We are relying on someone’s judgement and doing what they tell us to do. We may not think of it as obedience, but it fits any reasonable definition of the word.
When a mother says to her child, “Go put your coat on so we can visit Grandma,” and the child does as he is told, that is also obedience.
There is obedience in marriage as well—I mean healthy forms of obedience in healthy marriages. My husband goes to bed early so he can get up for a long commute to work. When he gets into bed, he sometimes asks me for a glass of water. When he does, I go and get it for him. This act of serving someone I love and am devoted to gives me deep pleasure.
It is a kind of obedience.
When a teacher assigns homework, and a student completes it, that again is obedience.
And so we can see that healthy obedience means accepting help from the person who can help us. It means cooperating in a task we want to see completed. It means expressing love, gratitude, and respect to someone who deserves it. It means being willing to learn from someone who knows more than we do and whose job is to teach us. It also means giving another person what they have a legitimate claim to.
Sometimes obedience means ceasing to do something when someone asks us to stop. When a woman rejects a man, and the man walks away and stops bothering her, that is obedience.
Obedience is not a bad thing invented by tyrants, but a good thing that tyrants know how to abuse and exploit.
Obedience has a genuine purpose. It exists for the sake of human beings. It contributes to our relationships, our dignity, our thriving. It is part of the daily working of any functional family, of any healthy community.
Though we all obey any number of reasonable rules and requests on a daily basis, we have negative associations with the word obedience that make obedience seem like an affront to our freedom. But is this true?
Freedom always requires some kind of structure that people agree to follow. The constitution of a country can only guarantee individual freedom if the citizens of that country agree to obey that constitution. Where there is no structure, no obedience, there can be no freedom either.
When we choose to obey, it is not because we hate freedom. Often it is the exact opposite. We love freedom, and our obedience is an investment that allows our freedom to exist and to grow. I think the best kind of obedience arises from personal devotion, but even when we obey for purely rational and practical reasons, obedience is on the side of our freedom and not against it.
To say that obedience is good in general, is not to say that it is the right choice in every situation. Sometimes rebellion is the right choice. Given the conflicting demands that are placed on all of us, obeying one demand often means rebelling against others. So like obedience, rebellion is part of life, a good and necessary part of life. But we cannot understand rebellion unless we understand obedience. Obedience comes first.
If we cannot imagine what a good kind of obedience looks like, then the idea of God must necessarily be dark to us because the idea of God is the idea of a being who deserves our obedience.
What I know about obedience, I learned from George MacDonald. The rest of this article is an exploration of what MacDonald has to say about this topic.
We are fortunate that we have one of his very early sermons. Though MacDonald preached without notes, his sermon was recorded by a stenographer and published in a Victorian newspaper. He preached this sermon in 1857 when he was known as a young up-and-coming poet but before he became a celebrated literary figure.
In this sermon, MacDonald expresses an insight which he would go on to expand and develop years later in his published work. Though the later published sermon is beautifully developed, the original has a delightful freshness to it. Here is part of what he says (I’ve added paragraph breaks for clarity):
[God] is in the heaven above us and in the earth under our feet: in the heart of our truest friend, and when the child in the street looks up to us with reverence and love, it is the voice of the Father that wins upon us and blesses us.
Let us endeavour to get a conviction of this, and not to believe that in our truth and simplicity we are more worthy than God Himself, for He is infinitely more true and simple than we can be at the best.
And do not let the great attributes of God occupy your mind as the greatest thing. God might have been present everywhere, and able to see and to do everything, but might not He not be this God of ours [I think MacDonald means, “he still might not be this God of ours”]. He might even be a God of Love, —in the sense of a form of benevolence, —but that is very different to His childlike devotion to us.
God would do the very best for us, and knowing that, how can we hang back and not follow His Word and Will? And how can we distrust even when the hard thing comes upon us? If we praise God for anything in the next world, it will be for the hard things we have suffered, and the more that He did not like to give them us, yet, for our good, He did it.
True rest we shall never find without becoming true children to God, whose heart toward us is true as ours is toward a child, and the child toward us. (Wingfold No. 19, pages 25-26)
I want to try to explain this a little, to unpack it because here is a little epitome of MacDonald’s understanding of the good news. I cannot cover here every issue that this passage raises, but for now I will focus on two core ideas, God’s childlike devotion, and following God’s will.
Let me start by quickly summarizing what MacDonald is saying: God is so good, so devoted to us with childlike devotion, so simple and true, so overflowing in blessings for us. God does his best for us. Given all this, how can we distrust God even when things are very hard? And why do we not do what God says? We need to become true children of God as God himself is a true child to us.
For MacDonald, even to say that God is a God of Love does not adequately express the goodness of God. Because when we speak of a God of Love, it is possible that we just mean a benevolent God. A benevolent God is a God committed to doing good things for us. Yes, God is benevolent. But benevolence doesn’t say enough. It says nothing, for instance, about how God actually feels about us or relates to us. It says nothing about God’s affection for us and desire to be near us. It says nothing about how God is so true to us that he suffers with us rather than give what is not good for us. It says nothing about God’s childlike devotion towards us.
It may seem unusual or even unorthodox to speak of God as a child. But this is what is implied when we say that Jesus is both God and the Son of God. Jesus is a child in his relation to the Father. And so, just as parenthood is an eternal aspect of God’s nature, so is childhood.
MacDonald says that there could be no childlikeness in Jesus unless there were also childlikeness in the Father. Why is this? Because Jesus is just like the Father, and does only what he sees the Father doing.
The best parents, in addition to being mature adults, also have a childlike quality—a simplicity, a directness, a truth, a devotion, an affection, a reverence. What makes Jesus a perfect child is that Jesus receives into himself the fullness of his Father’s nature and reveals it. Jesus is childlike with the Father’s own childlikeness.
God reveals himself in the child. God reveals himself in the infant Jesus and also in the adult Jesus—who is still very much the child of his Father. God reveals himself in the eternal Son. God reveals himself in every child, and most clearly in the child who is most childlike. Any child or adult who is childlike is like Christ who is himself like the Father.
This is the deeper meaning of Jesus' words, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37). Where there is childlikeness, there is God. To be true children of God, we are, like Jesus, to receive God’s own childlikeness into ourselves and then, like Jesus, reveal it, let it shine out of us.
It is in childlike trust that we discover the meaning of faith. Faith is not saying we believe certain things, or even convincing ourselves that we believe certain things. It is not attending church or calling ourselves a Christian. It is nothing like that at all. Faith is so much simpler, more essentially human than any such action. Faith is trusting as a good child trusts a good parent—with affection, with devotion, with a sense of security that comes from knowing our parent takes care of us, and also with a ready willingness to do what our parent says.
For MacDonald, the one part of faith that we have any control over is doing what our good parent says, which is obedience. We have no control over what we feel, but we can choose what we do. The obedience comes first and the feelings of security and devotion are the natural result.
Obedience in its ideal form means doing what our mother, our father says to do, because we trust them and love them and know that this responsiveness to their will is the way to honor and thank them.
As I have said, obedience is part of any healthy relationship. When a parent says to a child, “it’s time to put your coat on,” and the child does it, that is, in miniature, what a relationship between a parent and child should be. It is what the relationship between Jesus and the Father is like.
And it goes both ways. MacDonald was blessed with a wise and loving earthly father. MacDonald said that his father never denied him anything he asked for. There is no reason why a good parent should not obey a good child, just as the good child obeys the good parent. While the child is not yet an adult, the parent has a special responsibility for exercising mature judgement. But if what the child wants is good, it is the most natural thing in the world for the parent to say yes and give it to the child.
Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Like MacDonald’s father, God himself is obedient to his children.
Though I think this is clear, Christians sometimes cannot believe it. We cannot believe that we should ask for the good things we want and need. God provides for all of our needs anyway. When a good parent brings a child into the world, they do all they can to provide for that child. Why then do we not ask? What if we need a parking spot? Is that too petty to ask for? Not at all. Isn’t a parking spot a good thing? Then by all means ask! Jesus tells us to ask. I don't think Jesus is above praying for a parking spot. Jesus knows that his father always hears him and trusts his father to supply his every need.
MacDonald was careful to distinguish the good kind of obedience from unhealthy and immoral kinds. He said of Jesus that “a kingdom of exulting obedience, not of acquiescence, still less of compulsion, lay germed in his bosom” (Miracles of our Lord, Chapter 5). Jesus came to exemplify an ideal obedience. He came to reveal the perfect obedience that was in his heart and to found a kingdom based on this kind of obedience. Such obedience has nothing to do with compulsion. It has nothing to do with grudging acceptance. Instead, it is a kind of triumphant service. The kingdom of heaven exists where there is mutual, willing, eager service. As MacDonald says, in the kingdom of heaven, the most honored person is not the one who receives the most service, but the one who is the servant to all.
When we serve someone for the pleasure, the delight of serving them, of satisfying their good wishes, of honoring them as we want them to be honored, we see what obedience is like in its perfect form. We see also what the kingdom of heaven is like.
But in this world, it is clear that the obedient are taken advantage of. People claim our obedience only to diminish our dignity. In this world, obedience often means compulsion and exploitation. Are we to obey, or are we to say no?
For MacDonald, the answer is simple: our only obligation is to obey our heavenly Father. MacDonald writes, “By obedience, I intend no kind of obedience to man, or submission to authority claimed by man or community of men. I mean obedience to the will of the Father, however revealed in our conscience” (Hope of the Gospel, Chapter 1).
Though we are to serve one another, we do not owe anything to anyone where it violates the will of the Father. I bring water to my husband for his own sake, but I also know it is what God wants me to do. When my husband makes any reasonable request, it is also God’s request.
In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t remember my husband ever asking me to do anything wrong, and I don’t think he ever will, but if he did, it would not be God asking. To obey him at such a time would be to disobey God. Both for his sake and for God’s sake, I would have to do what was right and not what my husband asked me to do.
How do we know the will of our Father? MacDonald says it is revealed in our conscience: not by our conscience, but in our conscience. It may be revealed by a friend who gives us advice, a stranger, a book, our own thought process, or by prayer. Whatever the source of the suggestion, we need to inwardly test it to see if our conscience recognizes it as right.
There is a fundamental step of individual responsibility here. We cannot avoid responsibility. We cannot defer responsibility to some external authority. Ultimately, we have to rely on our own personal, imperfect capacity for determining right from wrong, good from bad, true from false, beautiful from ugly.
Our conscience is imperfect, but it is still authoritative. What MacDonald claims is that God, in his devotion to us, will always correct us and teach us when our imperfect conscience makes us do the wrong thing.
But if we don’t act from conscience, we are sure to go wrong. To not act from conscience is to refuse to take personal moral responsibility for our actions. The bad kind of obedience is the kind that violates our conscience or prevents us from inwardly testing what we are being asked to do.
Sometimes we obey others or go along with the crowd because we want to avoid personal moral responsibility. But that is not possible. Such obedience is not healthy and not right. We must act from conscience.
The Father wants two things from us: to know what is right, and to do what is right. There can be no true obedience without an active conscience. The obedient conscience discerns what is right, and the obedient will does it.
What is right? Whatever is just, fair, honest, caring, compassionate, good, and loving. How do we know what is right? We are born with an innate ability to recognize what it is right, and we can develop and perfect this ability by using it.
And so in obeying God, I am not only trying to please God out of love and devotion, but also allowing myself to be transformed by God through a process of moral and spiritual education. To be clear, by moral education, I mean an education in what God wants me to do, and not what God wants other people to do. This is a point that MacDonald makes repeatedly. Our moral education does not qualify us to moralize, but to be good ourselves.
Though some may also be called to teach morality. And being good ourselves means that we know how to skillfully hold accountable those around us.
In God’s moral and spiritual education, my conscience has an irreducible authority. If God himself ever told me to do something wrong, I would be right to refuse. In fact, I would have a duty to refuse. MacDonald is clear about this. A God who tells me to do something morally wrong would not be worthy of being God. I would have to do whatever I could to rebel against such a God. My responsibility is to do what is right. And I am fortune that this happens to be just what God wants from me.
Someone might ask, “Why not do what is right simply because it is right? Why bring God into it?”
This question has to be answered differently depending on whether the person asking is a Christian. For a Christian, the answer, I think, goes something like this:
I give my husband a glass of water for his own sake. Why should I do it for his own sake? Why shouldn’t I do it because it is the right thing to do? Having love and devotion for my husband, I can’t help but want to express it. People can tell when you are doing a good deed because “it is the right thing to do.” There can be a chilliness to such actions. They may be good deeds, but they are not as good as actions that come from devotion. And so, when it is possible for us, let us act out of love and devotion to our Father. Let’s do the good thing that our Father wants both because it is good and all the more because it is what our Father wants.
It is worth saying here that there is nothing exclusive in our devotion to God. The more we are devoted to God, the more we can be devoted to those God has given us to serve.
Everything that God wants is right, but it is not an abstract right. It is not something that we could ever reason out in any detail from general principles. God has a unique vision for each of us. And so general moral principles, as good as they are, are not enough to guide those who follow such a God.
But for those who are not Christians, the answer has to be a little different. What’s wrong with doing what is right for the sake of its rightness? Why do we need God involved? Doing what is right, according to whatever light we have, is the best thing anyone can do. By all means, do it. You can be sure that trying to do the right thing will not lead you wrong in the end. If you are doing what is right out of devotion to others, including human beings, animals, plants, and the environment, that is all the better. I have no desire and no reason to interfere with your good work and your lively conscience.
But for me, the revelation of the perfect childlike Father in the perfect childlike Son has a poetry to it that is very precious. Without such a God, I would be left desolated. For me, God is real, and I love God. And so it is just the most natural thing in the world that I should want to do what God wants me to do.
MacDonald has a lot more to say about the role of obedience in coming to understand God, how it is the only way, and how attempts to understand God with the intellect alone never get to the truth. He also has a great deal to say about how to read the New Testament through the lens of obedience. I hope to write more about these topics in another article.