Obedience vs. Compliance

Obedience vs. Compliance

I attended a Benedictine Oblate retreat this spring at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, WI. The topic was on “obedience,” led by oblate Brad Lutz. He did a phenomenal job with the material and I’d like to share some of it here.

In the fifteen years the oblate community at Holy Wisdom has been holding roughly bi-monthly retreats, I don’t believe it has ever focused on this theme of obedience. I serve on the oblate community’s formation circle and I know that not only has obedience not been a retreat focus, it’s rarely even mentioned in retreats. But this spring, more than seventy oblates came to hear Brad talk about obedience.

I was leary of the theme myself and yet I too was attracted to it. Isn’t there enough obedience in my life? In approaching 50, isn’t it time to be disobedient anyway? When Brad delved into the material he had prepared, I quickly saw why I was attracted to it and why I needed to be there.

We tend to think of obedience as unquestioning compliance. We lose our sense of self and purpose as we follow or do something in order to be compliant. We don’t want to be seen as noncompliant or nonconforming after all, do we? There isn’t a sense of the divine in this but rather a sense of obligation. However, this is not obedience as Benedict intended in the Rule of Benedict. Obedience is the act of listening and responding. Obedience is the act of listening for the heartbeat of God. We listen from the heart and not from the head. This is deep, inner listening that we might not be accustomed to, especially if we live much of our lives in a compliance mode.

After we listen, we then respond out of the loving relationship we have with God. We are obedient out of a loving relationship with God and not out of blind compliance. We respond freely, out of the love in our hearts. This is different from compliance where there is no freedom. Obedience actually returns us to God. Where does compliance take us? Probably not to God.

One of our greatest role models for obedience is Jesus. William H. Willimon says, “Before we meet Jesus the compassionate healer, the wise teacher, the fierce prophet, we meet him as fully obedient to God rather than to the whims of the carping crowd, or even the calls of omnivorous human need.” Jesus was ‘fully obedient to God.’ The path of obedience is to embody the way of Jesus in everyday life.

Following the retreat I developed a new spiritual practice. When situations arose that required my action or compliance, I first stopped to listen. How did I truly feel about doing XYZ? I listened. I listened for God’s love within me. I would ask myself, “If I do XYZ, am I being obedient to the love of God or am I merely being compliant?” It doesn’t involve any negotiating or mental switching so that compliance becomes obedience. Rather, it is an honest examen of what you feel, what you hear, and how you respond out of the love of God. Give it a try. You might find you are living and doing more from the loving relationship you have with God.

William H. Willimon quote is from The Christian Century, “Living the Word,” December 30, 2013.

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