How to Enjoy Obedience

7 August 2009. Friday of the 18th Week in Ordinary Time
Dt 4, 32-40; Psalm 77; Matthew 16, 24-28

Why is it very difficult for us to obey? I guess obedience needs so much effort from us because we are trained to obey out of fear. When we were young, obedience meant following our parents at the brink of anger and threatening us with pain — a whack on our behind, a withdrawal of affection, a curtailment of freedom, or a limited allowance. We were also trained to obey God in this manner. If we did not behave, God would punish us in one way or the other. Moreover, obedience meant not getting what we wanted; what we believed was good for us. Thus, it was almost automatic that any mishaps, misfortune or failure was always associated with a sin committed against God. Obedience was always associated with reward and punishment.

But not without blame. The material in the first reading was included in Deuteronomy during the Exile (587-539 BC). The situation forced Israel to reflect on their relationship with Yahweh. They concluded that their exile was Yahweh’s punishment for their infidelity and disobedience. When Israel disregarded the commandments of God, disaster followed. If they did not keep the covenant, they were exiled. God did not tolerate infidelity, such that when Israel was disloyal, His wrath was proportional to His love. Thus, a large part of Deuteronomy were statutes, laws, commandments that when followed ensured Israel’s long life on the Promised land. If they did not, they would soon experience defeat and death.

However, a close reading of Deuteronomy gives us a different picture. The Collegeville Bible Commentary tells us that:

“The Book of Deuteronomy as a whole…speak of the fundamental loyalty that is essential to Israel’s unique relationship with God… Once Israel realizes what befalls those who are unfaithful, repentance is possible (v. 29-30). Finally, the compassion of God does not allow Israel’s infidelity to end the relationship between God and Israel, since God remains faithful to the promises made to Israel’s ancestors (v. 31). As disastrous as was Israel’s disloyalty, it still did not mean the end of its relationship with God.”

Thus, obedience is about being faithful to a God who loves. A God who continues to care for us no matter how we have turned away from Him. Breaking from God is our decision, not His. In fact, He does not let us go; He clings to us. He wouldn’t allow it. This image of God is consistent with the father who waited for his son to return; with God who sent His Son to restore us to Him. Thus we obey God because we know and trust that what He wants from us is what is good for us. That whatever misfortune and failure we experience is not from God, but a result of our lapses in judgment and action. Or, we are victims of other people’s bad decisions. A failure in our exam tells us what we don’t know or how we studied. A corrupt government is the result of several decisions based on greed. Natural calamities are attributed to climate change brought about by the destruction of the environment. Sometimes we accord to God what we humans usually do: the enjoyment of having people who bid our every word comes from our egos and our penchant for power-tripping. But God’s ways are not ours.

And thus, what would enable us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus? What would make us give up our lives and obey God? Obedience entails self-denial because it demands a surrender of our will. To obey means to feel the pain of denying ego gratification. To follow means to willfully decide to have someone else stretch out our hands against our will as Jesus reminded Peter. It means to freely and consciously decide to be determined by God, and not by ourselves. To have our lives and our schedules revolve around someone else, usually by people we respect and love.

I guess it would be easier to obey if we are deeply and truly convinced that whatever God desires is good for us. And what proof is there to know God’s goodwill? Take the responsorial psalm: “To remember the deeds of the Lord.” They are engraved in Scripture and in history. We obey as a result of our debt of gratitude. A deep thanksgiving for all that the Lord has done for us. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that gratitude to the Lord is a fundamental grace: all other virtues will spring from it. We forgive because God has forgiven us. We humble ourselves because God has chosen to be one of us. We do our work well, because God has created us better than what we thought we are.

It is true. I have with me a scrapbook that traces its content to the very first letter of acceptance I received in high school for a Jesuit vocation workshop. From then on, I have pasted memorabilia from people who have been my support system throughout my life. Once in a while, I flip its pages, especially when things are difficult and challenging. I flood myself with memories of how the Lord showed in various ways His steadfast love to me. It is this gratitude that makes us stronger and obedience easier, and believe it or not, enjoyable.

Simple. Think of a person you love. When your beloved requests something, you happily do it without protest or a heavy heart. We actually find doing something for our loved ones a source of joy. And for those who deeply love, even a cause for excitement.

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