The Humility of True Obedience

When our will is one with God’s, true happiness will follow

Fra Angelico, “Madonna of Humility”, c. 1430
Fra Angelico, “Madonna of Humility”, c. 1430 (photo: Public Domain)

I hesitated for a moment in my reading aloud to my daughters as I came across Laura Ingalls Wilder’s discussion about wifely obedience with her fiancé Almanzo Wilder:

Almanzo, I must ask you something. Do you want me to promise to obey you? [...] I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and, Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment. (These Happy Golden Years, “Wedding Plans”)

It is interesting how Wilder’s understanding of obedience was right and wrong at the same time. She was right to acknowledge that we owe our obedience to certain persons who have authority over us, but wrong to think it involved obeying against her better judgment. I went ahead and read the passage to my girls, and then we talked about how we are never to obey those who have authority over us if it means that we violate God’s law and our own conscience. But nonetheless obedience is a virtue that we are all called to have a Christians; disobedience to God was part of the first sin of the human race. God wants us to obey him and his commandments, but also obey him through our acquiescence to the wills of other people who have authority over us.

Obedience is a part of the Cardinal Virtue of Justice with which we give other people what is due to them. This means we have certain obligations to other people based on our relationship to them. These aren’t just obligations that are things we have to do because it’s on our list of things to feel guilty about or our family or friends will be upset with us — these are moral obligations and we should fulfill them. When we act properly toward them we are acting justly.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that by obedience we slay our own will by humbly giving way to another’s voice (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 104.1).

Slay is a rather exciting word and it is rather terrifying to think of doing that to our own will! St. Thomas does not mean it in the killing sense or even the “you really slay me with your amazing music, bro” sense. He means it in that our wrong desires are done away with and that we only desire God’s will for us whatever it entails. It is a freeing of our own wills to desire what is good and to acknowledge that we do not always know what is best.

We should obey God first of all beings. We give God obedience, because He is our creator and His will is that which is best for us. Obedience to Him is for our own good. When we obey God, we show Him that we have faith in Him and in His promises. Our obedience to Him shows our faith.

We are also to be obedient to human authorities, such as the laws of our country, to others in authority over us, and if we are married to the requests of our spouse. (ST, II-II, 104.1) God has created this order of authority to be obeyed as long as those making the commands have the authority over the thing they are asking and if what is being asked is a just and moral act. (ST II-II, 104.5)

For example, the government has no authority over whether or not we are allowed to pray in public places. It is unjust for them to forbid us worship of God wherever we are. Or an employer has no authority over what an employee does that is not work related — but in suitable and just matters it is right to follow an employer’s instructions. Children should obey and honor their parents, though the amount of authority a parent has changes with the age of the child. And Scripture tells us again and again that a wife is to be submissive to her husband’s will.

To be truly obedient we must act out of charity or out of a desire to follow justice, not out of servile fear. (ST, II-II, 104.3) It is better for a child to obey his mother because he loves her. It is better for a wife to follow the request of her husband out of love than out of mere duty. It is better to follow the traffic laws out of a recognition that the common good of society is served through safe driving in accord with the law. And it is best of all to obey God’s commands out of love for Him and because He is the one to whom we must unite our will.

Yet, we should not negate the little acts of obedience made out of simple duty or through fear of punishment. These acts when done with a desire to have charity form true obedience within us. Think of it as a fake-it-till-you-make-it way of doing things.

My personal aversion to obedience has not been toward the law—I have always been a rule followerbut has been in the slaying of my own will in relation to those closest to me. I come from a line of strong and stubborn women; it is not easy for me to give up my will to my husband especially in the smaller matters having to do with the running of the household. Or perhaps when my mother is visiting, and I cannot resist a comment about a small annoyance even though it does not honor her as my mother.

Then there are the aspects of my vocation in serving my family. Since my vocation is given to me from God, when I neglect it, I am acting disobediently. I have to slay my own will multiple times a day to take the time to home school my children, not check my email when I am supposed to be teaching my children, stop my afternoon of leisurely reading and writing in order to make supper for the family, and then try to enjoy the time until the children are in bed. And I know that it is God’s will not that I just do these things dutifully, but that I seek to do them joyfully with the help of His charity.

When I try to live out this daily obedience, I like to reflect on the Blessed Mother at her home in Nazareth, and meditate on what the daily life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph really looked like. Our Lady gives us a great example of obedience in her whole life, but especially at the moment of the Annunciation when she responds with immediate, loving obedience to God’s will for her. He shows great love for her in bringing His request, calling her, explaining that He will take care of the impossible. And she entrusts her happiness to His will.

The Blessed Mother has also helped in overcome much of my resistance to submission to my husband for she not only models obedience but then instructs us in how to be obedient as well. I have always been a little bit troubled as a wife when I hear Scripture passages about wifely obedience. There was one day in prayer I found a passage that I did not realize could be applied to spousal obedience at all. I was meditating on the Wedding at Cana (see John 2:1-10), when I realized that when Our Lady says to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you,” that she is telling me that in order to do whatever Christ tells me, I must also do whatever my husband tells me. I must slay my own will and humbly submit myself to my husband’s will in my marriage to be truly obedient to Christ.

St. Peter talks about wifely obedience for those whose husband are not believers. He talks to them about how their respectful submission could be a means of converting their husbands:

Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

It always hits me when St. Peter says, “Let nothing terrify you.” Frankly, the idea of slaying my will to another person’s does terrify me even to the man I chose to marry! But then I remember that my husband loves me, wants what is best for me, and does not want to ask me to do things contrary to God’s will. And if, for some reason, as a fallen human, he did, I have the freedom to not submit to any unjust or immoral demands of any authority over me. Perhaps this terror is what Laura Ingalls Wilder experienced at the advent of her marriage.

But in all that is good, the slaying of her own will to her husband is for a wife a means of sanctification that God has given to us in the vocation of marriage. And for husbands loving their brides as Christ loved the Church, sacrificing themselves to care for us physically and spiritually is the way God sanctifies them. Perhaps for them it is terrifying to be the one to do that! In our work, as citizens, as members of the Church, the slaying of our wills, the humble submission to those over us will bring us to holiness.

Whatever our vocations and states in life to be obedient we must also be humble—we must acknowledge that we are God’s creatures and that He knows best. When we slay our own will even to human authority then we are conforming ourselves more to Christ, who also subjected Himself unto death under the human authority of His day. And when we are perfectly obedient then our will is one with God’s, which brings us to ultimate happiness.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.