Obedience vs Co-operation

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November 17, 2018 by lucieromarin

The question here is not whether obedience to God is good or bad. The question here is what to do, even if obedience is good, once it has become a toxic concept for you, thanks to the lived experience of obedience to men (or women, too. It’s not like there are no abusive mothers, religious, female teachers or managers in the world.)

(I have a feeling that this problem is understood only by those who have experienced the abusive kind of obedience. People who haven’t lived through spiritual abuse can say very easily, “Oh well, I’ve always seen the distinction between bad people and God/sinful bishops and objective truth” etc. All I can say is, sorry, but your awesome twenty-twenty vision only means that no one’s ever poked you in the eye with a stick.)

What to do, though, when you have been thus poked?

On the one hand, you don’t want to live in the strain of some kind of pointless rebellion against the Being who clearly outranks you and is equally capable of sending you blessings or crosses without consulting you beforehand. All the positive/rational/skeptical/magical thinking in the world is not going to stop that car turning you into a quadriplegic if that’s how things are going to go. There’s not point pretending you’re the boss of reality.

On the other hand, you’ve seen what happens to characters, who, damaged by life experience and fear, retreat into the concept of obedience, so that it becomes a form of protection against serious self-reflection, the challenge of confrontation, or the energy needed to change. Sometimes, the results are just silly: “Well, I didn’t get the job, so it was obviously not God’s Will.” Well, possibly, but is there any chance at all that you also need to learn to write a decent cover letter and change the outdated font on your resume? More serious is the effect in the lives of those who, after a lifetime of denial about the failings of their fathers (both natural and supernatural), find themselves making a virtue out of being mistreated, and believe that, if only they can totally accept this as God’s will, it will stop hurting or will go away.

You also have your own bad memories to deal with, so that, even if you can make an intellectual distinction between ‘obedience’ as meant by some people and ‘obedience’ as meant by others, it is still your own experience that will rise up before you every time you hear words preached about it or have pious memes offered to you on the subject. So, what to do?

Remember that trauma is stored in the body, not the intellect; the stuff that comes out of your mouth and sounds to your pious interlocutor like Bad Catechism is just the froth on top of the deeper wound, which is your bashed-up, mashed-relationship with God, and relationships aren’t just syllogisms and strings of logical thought. Instead of agonising over whose concept of obedience is right, I suggest you stop thinking about or worrying about or praying about obedience altogether and start praying for the grace of co-operation. Ask God to help you co-operate with Him. Yes, I know it’s not quite the same – there is a nuance of autonomy in ‘co-operation’ that is absent from ‘obedience’. But the thing is, God doesn’t actually want you to be a slave, and He’s not an off-grid home-schooler looking for a reason to cast you out of the parish. I know that shifts in language can be dangerous, but He knows what you’ve been through. He understands your intention in your prayer. So, He’s quite happy (if you’ll excuse me speaking on His behalf) to have you ask for the grace to be able to work with Him, rather than against Him.  He’s quite happy to hear you be open to a future with Him that includes something other than rage. It doesn’t mean you’re trying to steal His right to make you a quadriplegic, if that’s what He really wants for you. It does mean that you want to stop seeing reality as a case of God being able to throw things at you to test how low He can make you grovel (and then punish you if you don’t grovel enough); now, you want to start seeing reality as it is – a place in which you have some choices to make about your effect on other people and some control over tiny daily things, as well as a whole lot of non-control over all the things that life can throw at you, from the annoying person on the bus to the careening car. It means that, instead of seeing God as someone who is just testing you in all those moments, you see Him as someone Who is present in those moments as an agent Who, with your co-operation, can make those moments powerful.

God would rather be in a relationship with you than not be in a relationship with you. The example of others may have stung your concept of obedience. Focusing on this concept is not the same as being in a relationship with God. Trying to conform to the will of the stingers via conformity to their expectations around obedience is also not the same as being in a relationship with God. It’s like spending a lifetime trying to totally get the viewpoint of the wasp instead of walking away from it and applying some ointment that will get your arm moving again.


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