There are few words in the English language today that receive the same disdain as the word “obedience.” It isn’t hard to imagine why. The word “obedience” conjures up mental images of subservience, of mindless submission, of slavery. And yet, as Catholics, we are called to be obedient to God as Christ was obedient, even unto death on a cross. So, how is it that we can reconcile this image of slavish obedience with the sort of free devotion to which each one of us is called?
Part of the problem lies in the English language’s limitations, especially when translating from the Greek. Words like “obedience” and “submission” are often used interchangeably in English, but in Greek, the roots of those words convey subtly different meanings. The word “submit” is most analogous to the Greek word “hupotasso.” This is a militaristic term that means “to rank under.” It conveys a proper ordering of things, not out of a sense of inferiority of one thing to another, but out of a sense of reverence. One voluntarily submits to God or to civic authorities or to one another because of the respect that each of those things demands and deserves.
The English word “obey,” however, is closely related to the Greek word “hupakouo,” which means “to listen under” or “to put one’s ear closely to.” This expression is far more intimate and interior. For example, consider a child resting on his head on his mother’s chest, perhaps snuggling before a nap, searching for that calm, steady, and familiar heartbeat to lull him into sleep. In order to hear her heartbeat, he must become quiet himself. The child must put his ear closely to her chest and remain quiet enough to hear the gentle pulse of her heart. He must tune out all of the other noises that surround the two of them in order to listen closely to her heartbeat.
So it is with God.
Obedience to Him is not mindless submission, but the tuning out of distractions, the intentional focusing of our ears to His truth. It stems from a place of humility, a place where we become quiet to our own thoughts and the distractions of the world in order to listen to God. What follows is not slavish, but free. Once we listen to His truth, we can begin to understand and to respond. Obedience, then, is an act of love. We obey not because we are forced to, but because we have heard something greater than our own thoughts or our own desires. We obey because what we obey is more constant than any fleeting emotion or passing thought.
If negative connotations of the word “obey” still linger for you, consider substituting it for the more literal Greek translation. “We are called to obey God” becomes “we are called to listen under God.” “Christ was obedient to the Father unto death” becomes “Christ put his ear closely to the Father and listened unto death.”
God is not asking for our mindless, blind submission. He asks for us to listen to the the truth He has always spoken. We must only be quiet enough to hear it.