Obedient Unto DeathFr. Barnabas Powell
“To honor and obey.” I remember hearing much howling about this phrase even years ago as the feminist movement became predominant in our culture. For a woman to have to “obey” her husband was insulting, demeaning, and needed to be removed from the ceremony. “We are equals” was the battle cry.
And you know what, that’s true. Men and women are equals in value, worth, dignity, and love. But what does that have to do with obedience? The answer is nothing. Obedience is a virtue that has nothing to do with worth or dignity. It has to do with taming the passions. And it isn’t exclusively women who have to obey. We all have to struggle with obedience. So, why does obedience have such a negative connotation today? Why do we seem to automatically react negatively when we are told we need to obey?
Look at our lesson today in Philippians 2:5-11:
BRETHREN, have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
OK, this is what is amazing! Here, St. Paul tells us that Christ, yes Jesus Christ, practiced obedience. But not just any obedience; obedience unto death. This powerful and foundational theology laid out for us by St. Paul gives us an absolutely indispensable insight into the nature and necessity of obedience.
If we are ever going to understand what true obedience means and why I have to practice obedience, I will have to embrace three insights into the reasons obedience is such a powerful virtue.
First, Know WHO you are. The key to the Lord’s obedience was that He knew WHO He was. He was “in the form” of God, but did not insist that His equality with the Father was something He had to DEMAND or insist upon. And if I don’t know myself as a creature created, and therefore, dependent on God, I will see my life as totally dependent on myself. Where does this false view of myself lead? It leads to demanding my “rights,” dismissing the gift of suffering as salvific, misunderstanding the trials of my life as somehow my fault, or someone else’s fault. And even wasting my life always “fighting.” Watch those folks consumed by their “rights’ or making sure they are never cheated. They are never happy. They are never satisfied. They are always suspicious and expect everyone to try to take advantage of them. Their lives are poisoned by suspicion and fear. They don’t know who they are, so they try to create themselves based on how external circumstances treat them. In truth, they are slaves.
Next, Know WHOSE you are. Jesus Christ knew to Whom He was obeying and had complete trust and confidence in His Father. His relationship with the Father in eternity set Him free to face the temporary terrors of obedience with complete confidence and trust. When you have developed a relationship with God, or even another trusted friend, obedience becomes nothing more than an icon of trust. It’s when I have failed to develop a trusting relationship that I struggle with obedience. I was speaking to a man the other day about some political policy and I had to confess to him “My problem is I don’t trust these folks to create a society where my children will be safe to be Orthodox.” When there is a lack of trust and love, obedience is a struggle. But the work of relationship building makes obedience possible.
Finally, Know WHY you are. Jesus didn’t humble Himself and face death on a cross without trusting the Father’s ultimate wisdom. In fact, St. Paul says in Hebrews that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross because of the joy set before Him (see Hebrews 12:1-3). Obedience becomes an act of love and trust precisely because I trust the joy that obedience will bring. If I see obedience as something imposed on me, then I am not free. But if I understand the WHY of obedience, that it will produce such spiritual treasures as affirm my freedom and even grow my freedom, then obedience becomes a joy, not a chore.
Today, are you obedient? Does the word have such a negative connotation that you find yourself appalled by the suggestion? Perhaps it’s time to reassess the false notion about obedience that modern society has imposed so that you can finally embrace the paradox that freedom only comes when you obey! It’s the only path to being Orthodox on Purpose.