To Hear is to Obey

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I've never been good at the whole obedience thing. As a teen I broke curfews, snuck out on dates, skipped classes, and generally believed rules were made to be broken. As a young marketing and public relations professional, I believed it better to beg forgiveness than ask permission—and found myself promoted again and again. As a woman of faith, I found that word archaic and old-fashioned. So "spiritual obedience" was a bit problematic for me.

Trust God? Absolutely. Love God? Not a problem. Seek God? My lifelong desire. But obey him? About as compelling as writing on a schoolroom blackboard 500 times, "I will not fill the teachers' bathroom with granddaddy longlegs," "I will not fill the teachers' bathroom with granddaddy longlegs," "I will not fill . . ."

But as a Christian, I can't avoid that four-letter word. It pops up in hymns. It's in the Bible. Like stewardship and social justice, it creeps into sermons. No matter how well crafted the sermon or Bible study, "obedience" always connoted dutiful, unquestioning, grin-and-bear-it spirituality. So just as I changed in my wedding vow from "obey" to "respect," for years I mentally translated that word in my spiritual life to something considerably more engaging. And yet . . .

When words endure for two thousand years as part of the language of faith, there's probably a reason. So what's with this word? If, as I've thought, "obey" is a joyless, lifeless, dutiful term occasionally retrieved from Christian history's dusty shelves, what did I miss? This little four-letter word must have more to it.

From the writings of a humble, diminutive Catholic theologian named Henri Nouwen, I realized why the word endures—and the significance I long found elusive. "Obey" comes from the Latin audire (pronounced "ow-dear-ie"), "to hear," the root of our word "audible." Going back a bunch of centuries, to "obey" God meant simply to do what it takes to "hear" his voice. So the spiritual disciplines that ground me—prayer, study, contemplation, confession, Christian community—all are in essence my seeking to "obey" God. All are forms of spiritual obedience.

I blew the dust off this old-fashioned, archaic word and pulled it from the shelf of worn-out Christian history to see that obedience in our day and time means to follow rules, doing "shoulds" rather than what gives life, or following duty rather than pursuing passion. But "hearing" God implies relationship, intimacy, stillness; to hear someone we have to be close—and attentive enough to respond. Hmmm.

When words in the language of faith endure for the better part of two thousand years, there's probably a good reason.

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