Yesterday I talked about word many people often have an instinctive negative reaction to – sacrifice. I was considering what other words cause that kind of reaction and the one that immediately came to mind was obedience. It is a word that causes some people to bristle instantaneously.

I asked my daughter once what images come to her mind when she hears the word obedience. I think her images express well what people often conjure up when they hear the word: she spoke of an image of an overlord, of obedience school for dogs, and of notions of force, constriction and absence of choice. This is blind obedience, obedience out of force or fear. And if that is our image, it is no wonder we find the word so unpleasant.

But that is not the only way to understand the word. Joan Chittister once described obedience as “a sensitivity to the impulses of grace in our lives.” She suggested that when we talk about obedience to God we are talking about a vow “to obey the word of God in our life, to understand that there is something other than ourselves that should be directing” what we do with our lives.

That is a much more affirming statement. Obedience is not imposed on us externally by force. It is, rather, something we accept as a consequence of our essential nature – the beloved creation of a God who (in the words of Michael Himes) “assigns the end and goal of your existence.” Our obedience reflects our choice to act in accordance with who we are. If we understand obedience in these terms, it becomes a much less daunting (and more attractive) concept.

Update: My friend John reminds me that the word “obedience” is from the Latin, ob audiere, which means to listen attentively. One of the links he pointed me to includes one author’s suggestion that obedience might best be understood as “mutual collaboration.”