It is easy to think of obedience as submission to authority, as something we do out of duty.
There is truth in this, but obedience to God is about much more.
Archbishop Luis Martinez explains why in his classic The Sanctifier. Perfect love, Martinez says, seeks the good of the beloved. In ordinary human relationships, this means willing the best for the other person, whatever that might be. But when it comes to loving God, seeking His good becomes something different. As Martinez notes, “when the beloved is God, it is the infinite Good, the fullness of good that lacks nothing, to which nothing can be added.”
The first thing to do, then, is to rejoice in God’s goodness and praise it unceasingly, Martinez says.
But, he adds, there is still a way, through loving God, that we can seek the acquisition of some good. Here’s how he explains it:
Love might console itself for not being able to do good to the Beloved by having complacency in the fact that the Beloved has the fullness of good and lacks nothing. … But there is a good that we can do to God, accidental and extrinsic to his fullness: we can lovingly fulfill his will. The will of God is to reflect himself in creatures (The Sanctifier, 113).
In other words, seeking the good of God, exterior to His own infinite goodness, means seeking the good He has in store for us and our fellow man. It means accepting His plan for our lives. In other words, loving God leads to obedience. Martinez holds up Christ as the ultimate model for doing this:
Therefore Jesus, who loves the Father with a divine passion, had, as a secret nourishment, the fulfillment of the will of him who sent him. And therefore also, true devotion to the Father consists in a filial love that rejoices in loving adoration of the divine goodness and aspires with all its strength to fulfill the divine will (The Sanctifier, 114).
Philippians 2:8 speaks of Christ’s submission to the will of the Father as obedience—obedience ‘to death, even death on a cross.’ Even this kind of radical obedience however, arose from a place of love—not a grim acceptance of fate, or begrudging submission to authority. As the medieval mystic Nicholas of Cusa puts it so beautifully in one of his sermons on Christ’s descent to hell:
I am speaking of living-obedience. For obedience that results from fear is not alive in a rational, free nature. In fear there is coercion and servitude, not freedom. Living-obedience is only from love. Accordingly, perfect obedience in the rational spirit is perfect love. Hence, in one who obeys perfectly, the only reason found [for obedience] is love. Hence, the law of obedience is nothing but rational love. This law enfolds every rational mode of living. For love is life that is delightful. That which the rational spirit especially loves is life; that which especially lives within the rational nature is love, which obedience manifests. Therefore, rational love is that there be loved that Fount from which [the rational spirit] has life, reason, and love. For to love the Fount of life is to live in gladness. And this love is manifested through maximum obedience, which all the virtues attain to.
The contrast Nicholas draws between obedience from love and obedience that is of fear is an interesting one. We might draw an analogy with the concept of perfect and imperfect contrition. Imperfect contrition is sorrow for sin motivated by fear over losing the joy of heaven or suffering the pains of hell. Perfect contrition, on the other hand, is sorrow that comes from having offended the love of God.
Obedience and contrition come hand in hand. Contrition is what happens when we have not been obedient. In both instances, perfection is achieved when our actions are motivated by love.
Specifically, what does obedience to God entail? Two things come to mind. The first is obedience to His commandments. The Ten Commandments come to mind, as do the teachings of Jesus, and, finally, the firm teachings of the Church on sexual morality and other issues.
The second thing that comes to mind is obedience to God’s plan for our lives. Do we heed what He is calling us to do? It might be something as simple as helping a neighbor with groceries or as big as moving across country to a new job.
There is always one place where we all find it difficult to obey. It might be one of the commandments or it might be accepting a certain aspect of God’s providential plan. This author in no way intends to claim that obedience, when it is tested, will be easy. But the crosses obedience calls us to should be sweeter if that obedience is coming from love rather than fear.