“Virtue restores us to the form of God and imprints on our souls certain characters of the supreme nature.” St. Cyril of Alexander ✝ 444
How and why does authentic obedience imprint God’s character on us? Let’s examine obedience — the virtue — this month. Yes, obedience is a virtue when practiced for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. But it can easily become corrupted through play–acting and pride. Just obedience begs us to recognize our humble and dramatic origins, whereas opposing vices argue for self reliance and independence. Acknowledging that our life is the ultimate gift from God helps us understand the meaning and need for obedience. There is nothing any of us can do to usher ourselves into or out of this life — naturally. Neither can we deconstruct this reality no matter how hard we try. All of us are also utterly dependent on the many wonders of creation to live, make a living, eat, produce, and manufacture things. Only God makes something out of nothing!
Three realities about God Himself should be immediately obvious. God loves everyone unconditionally, He knows what’s best for us, and He watches over us and takes care of us. Mankind’s natural dependence on God and His Creation is obvious and indisputable except among those who refuse to see this hierarchy; consequently they are blinded from knowing the truth.
Just obedience is probably the most difficult human virtue to get right; perhaps this explains why many religious orders require their candidates to make a vow of obedience prior to ordination. Why is obedience so difficult? It really runs counter to many of the ingrained American values like self reliance, independence, autonomy, and individualism. It also runs counter to self-pride and concupiscence which encourages our autonomy from God and fellow mankind.
On one level, most of us understand the need for hierarchy within society, public arenas and family life. Babies, for example, are utterly dependent on their parents; they need them for everything. Parents lovingly welcome children into their families intending to provide for their physical, mental, spiritual, economic, emotional and psychological needs. Parents are not interested in ‘lording it over their children’ unjustly; most willingly accept the duties and responsibilities that come with being a parent.
As a child matures, he begins to mature his love, honor and respect for his parents out of gratitude for life, livelihood, a roof over his head, food, etc. In turn, he is motivated by this love and respect to do things that please his parents, to learn what his parents know, to try and better understand his parents’ beliefs and worldview, and to cooperate with them. Most children recognize and accept that parents are in charge; after all, they willingly shoulder the adult responsibilities, duties and obligations compared to the children. While children may not be able to articulate it, they also learn of their own personal worth and human dignity from being unconditionally loved by their parents despite being subject to the command to obey their parents. While there is an obligatory hierarchy within families, everyone has equal dignity and human worth. Finally, the obligations of the Fourth Commandment change over time with respect to children, even though the duty to honor their parents never does.
What goes around on the natural level also pertains to the supernatural level. The basic principles behind the virtue of obedience include the following: Love [God] begets life; therefore, we are justly called to obey our Creator. Obedience predisposes us to acquire godly knowledge which in turn prepares us to better understand Love and Life. Opposing vices — such as pride, obstinance, independence, and self reliance — foster antipathy towards God. In turn, hatred of God causes us to abandon the accesses to grace that help us to understand and recognize Truth. The opposing vices to obedience increase pride whereas obedience increases humility, love and other naturally supporting virtues.
Today, many regard obedience as an old-fashioned virtue that pertains only to certain situations, entities, or age groups. This attitude relegates obedience to a closet that is infrequently opened, discussed or thought about. Consider the significant amount of antipathy people living around and among us exhibit or hold onto with regard to God — precisely because of the cloaking of this virtue with vice. The real question is: what does authentic obedience look like? How do we imprint it on our children?
Let’s consider the parable of the prodigal son as taught in St. Luke’s Gospel: 15:11-32. A father had two sons — an obedient, helpful son and a prodigal son who asked for his inheritance, ran off and blew the money on wine, women and fast living. Eventually, the prodigal son realized if he returned home, he would have a much better life. St. Luke then directs our attention toward the obedient son. The obedient son seems to have been play-acting allegiance, love, and obedience to his father, because he certainly displays anger, hostility, resentment, an attitude of entitlement and antipathy when the son returns and is welcomed back by the father — without any strings. The compliant son complains about the lack of compensation and reward he received from the father despite uninterrupted obedience. However, authentic obedience is all about gratefulness, not entitlement; respect, not anger; pleasing rather than disappointing; understanding rather than lack of understanding; helping, not demanding; unconditional, not conditional. Parents are to model and instill this just obedience in their children.
Inauthentic obedience disaffects persons, families and societies because it fosters vice rather than virtue. Parents sometimes try and trick their children into pseudo-obedience; sometimes children pretend they are being obedient when they are not. In the former instance, parents think they are encouraging obedience after bribing/promising a reward to the child if/when he is asked to do something. Sometimes parents use promises and rewards to get the child to hurry up. Other times parents give their children things — including money — after the child finishes the task assigned by the parent. In any case, parents water down the authentic nature and understanding of the virtue when they do any of the previous things; they foster entitlement and other vices rather than just obedience.
Whenever our children begin to ask: “what’s in it for me,” they are on their way to misusing and misunderstanding the significance of the virtuous obedience. When our children get their way — rather than obeying their parents — after whining loud or long enough, obedience is corrupted. The purpose of parental authority also gets diminished. Parents must believe that children have a great capacity to learn virtue — and more readily than adults. St. Bernard teaches: “Youth is the age most apt and suitable for laying the foundations of a truly religious life.” When parents fail to ask their children to do something because they are tired of a future fight [peace at all costs], they help promote selfishness and disrespect for authority within their children. Having to ask a child multiple times before compliance teaches the child how to nag — to get their way — just like their parents. Nagging is a very bad habit to instill and reverse in any age — believe me, I know that all too well. Children must learn that the first ask is to be honored and obeyed without diversion, obstinance, whining, crying, or outright disobedience. Parents must also be careful to back away from the temptation to test their children’s obedience with frivolous and unnecessary requests. Parents are to ask their children to do the things we need/want them to do that are appropriate and timely for the family and the age of the child. Finally, it needs to be stated that parents are never to ask their children to do anything inappropriate or downright immoral. When they do this, parents are committing serious sin and the children are not obligated to obey their parents. These children will be compromised by the parents request that effectively makes them choose between God and the parents. Our children are listening, watching and learning about obedience from us. Let’s make sure we model it justly.
We will never be perfect parents, but let’s strive to get it mostly right when it comes to modeling virtue rather than vice. Perhaps you feel like you don’t know how to teach your children how to be authentically obedient; perhaps you didn’t learn it either. The good news is that it is never to late to learn virtue. “Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overcome you.” [John 12:35] Do “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [Philippians 4:8]
Authentic obedience produces many fruits, as mentioned previously. A recap of the fruits is important given the many different factors that try and rob us of that knowledge. Obedience teaches us to appreciate those who carry the extra responsibilities and burdens that we don’t have. Obedience promotes harmony within the family and society. It supports and encourages other natural virtues; namely joyfulness, humility, knowledge, understanding, appreciation and gratitude, among others. Obedience fosters brotherly love and responsibility. It is our yes to others; it is our yes to God. Obedience delivers joy. We obey because we love someone enough to want to do what they ask. It commands us to be present to those who lovingly desire our presence. It urges us to try and better understand the rightful authority of those over us.
Virtuous obedience tries to understand both the request and the requestor; it tries to get to the why the person is making the request of us. He also ultimately understood and agreed with His Father’s request to come to earth, live here for 33 years, and then suffer and die for our sakes. Jesus joyfully obeyed his Father for one reason only: He loved His Father and wanted to please Him. “The deepest truth of Jesus was his response, his obedience: I do nothing of myself.” (“Our Good Fruit.” Sister Wendy Beckett. Magnificat. June 28, 2017. page 413)
Let’s apply this to home life. Our young children really can do nothing by themselves. They are utterly dependent on us for a limited period of time. They have no power in and of themselves. Their power — or influence — comes about because of their relationship with their parents and families, but most importantly because God loves them. These are reason enough for children to learn how to love their parents for a lifetime; without parents, children would have remained nothingness.
Let’s us pray that we allow Jesus to teach us how to say yes to the Father — whatever he asks — whenever He asks — without attaching strings or conditions to our yes. Let our obedience be perfected by God’s grace. May we model it for our children rightly and justly.
The following is a short home lesson to work through with your children:
- Ask child: Why must we obey God?
Answer: Everything we are or have is an unconditional gift from God. He alone knows our true needs. He alone loves us perfectly. Give personal examples of how you know this to be true.
- Ask child: Why are children commanded to obey their parents? Which commandment mandates this?
Answer: Fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother. Everything children have, comes from their parents. Parents know their child’s needs better than the child does. Parents love their child more than anyone else on earth. Give personal examples. Ask child to give personal examples of each reason.
- Ask child: Why/how does the fourth commandment apply to parents?
Answer: Binds us to teach our children to obey God and their parents. Give personal examples.
4. Do not reward a child for obedience; expect obedience. If you chose to reward good behavior, do it generously and without attaching it to any call to obedience. Do not connect the dots between the give and the ask of your child. Give examples. What do you think about giving children allowances for jobs done around the home after reading this article?
5. Set consequences for any type of disobedience: outright refusal to do what is asked; delaying obedience due to whining, ignoring you, crying or negotiating the ask.
Copyright 2017 Linda Kracht