Obedience and Community versus
Individualism and Tribalism
In my Sunday-school days, we sang a simple chorus I cannot forget. It went like this: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.” My dad used to sing it as we were getting ready for church, and I should add that he sang it at the top of his voice, and we kids rolled our eyes, knowing that it was a trite kiddy song, but with a tinge of irony, knowing also that “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Regarding radical discipleship and being a creative subversive, there are few things more subversive and radical in the modern world than the concept of trustful obedience. The entire worldly culture is founded on the idea of total and absolute individualism—what Carl Trueman calls “expressive individualism”—the notion that because there is no greater meaning or purpose in the world, it is up to me and Frank Sinatra to “do it my way.”
“Obedience! Not for me!” the modern Western person says. “And not just ‘not me’ because I’m a rebellious brat, but because there is no greater authority in Heaven or earth to whom my obedience is due. It’s my body. My choice. Right? There is no one to trust and no one to obey, so I not only may do as I please; I must do as I please.”
However, individuals can eventually join a tribe that destroys their individualism. Obedience is the paradoxical principle that stands this whole problem on its head. St. Benedict and all the great spiritual masters say that it is in obedience that we find true freedom. How so?
There is a deeper meaning to the virtue of obedience that is locked into the root meaning of the word. The word obedience comes from the word Latin oboedire, which means “to listen” or “to pay attention.” Indeed, the first word of St. Benedict’s Rule is Listen. To obey is to listen, to be alert, to be discerning and attentive to the voice of the Lord.
This shift from “my way” to “Thy way” begins with the most fundamental and radical action of all: repentance. The word in the original Greek Scriptures for repentance is metanoia, which means “changing one’s mind.” This sounds rather shallow, like changing your order at the restaurant, but the real meaning is much more powerful. It means a total, deep transformation of one’s perspective. It means a completely different mindset and understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world. It means looking toward Heaven instead of looking toward earth. It is shifting the energy and life to God’s kingdom.
Furthermore, this repentance is not a once-and-done action. It is a continuing attitude and action. The metanoia mentality is to be constantly aware of the need to turn again away from me, myself, and I and to turn to God’s way. True repentance, therefore, lays the foundation for the radical call to obedience
that severs the head of proud individualism.
Repentance is the brilliant first step in following Christ. Right there at the beginning, we say, “I am not right all the time. I have got things wrong. If sin is falling short of the glory of God, then I have sinned big time, and I want to live differently. I want to trust and obey.”
The truth is that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” When we say to God, “Thy will be done,” we are prodigals returning to the Father’s house. When we say “Thy will be done,” we join forces with the One who created us. Because we are created in God’s image and likeness, we share in His attributes. One of His attributes is omnipotence. He is all powerful. Therefore, if we are created in His image, it follows that we too are powerful (in a much diminished way). We have free will. We really can make choices. We really can change the world, change history, and change our lives.
We have this quality called “will,” which is our small share in
omnipotence. As long as we exercise this in a totally individualistic way, we are abusing that will and making ourselves into little gods and goddesses. But when we yield our will to God and say, “Thy will be done,” we plug our will into the power from which it came. When we say “Thy will be done,” we join our will with God’s, and, as the Lord Jesus says, “for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
Furthermore, it is in conforming our will to God’s that we achieve true freedom. Why? Because God’s will for us is to become who He created us to be. He created us to be happy, to live in harmony with Him and with one another and with His created order. He created us to be fulfilled and to grow into the full stature of our human potential (see Eph. 4:13). To become this kind of person is to be truly empowered, happy, fulfilled, and free.
This method of decapitating a head of the Hydra is not a theory or an idea. It is real. It is practical. Obedience is not an attitude. It is an action. Individualism is defeated not by argument or debate but by rolling up our sleeves and getting on with the job.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Beheading Hydra by Fr. Dwight Longenecker which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on Beheading Hydra: Cover and featured image used with permission.