Posted by: christinelaennec | May 21, 2012

On the subject of obedience

I was recently struck by the fact that the last three books I’ve read are about obedience.

A dear friend in the States sent me the ‘Lizzie’ novels by Amish writer Linda Byler.  As you may know I’m fascinated by the Amish and so to read a series of novels written ‘from the inside’ was a real treat.  I was surprised (though why?) by how the characters in the book have all the same feelings that the rest of us do – family tensions, frustrations, and so forth.  And I was interested to read how Lizzie struggles with the question of obedience – to God, to the Ordnung (church rules) and to her future husband.  By the end of the last book, it seemed to me that insofar as obedience to her husband goes, Lizzie and her husband both discover that they must each be ‘obedient’ to the other and create a marriage built on mutual respect.  Their struggles, like Lizzie’s parents’ own struggles, would be very familiar to any non-Amish family who has had to work out juggling careers, children, work, where to live, responsibilities towards other family members, and so on.

Recent reading: BIG Decisions, the third of the ‘Lizzie’ books by Linda Byers; I Leap Over the Wall by Monica Baldwin; and Hinds’ Feet in High Places by Hannah Hurnard

I Leap Over the Wall is a book I’ve read at least three times before now.  (This 1957 paperback has a cover that seems to anticipate The Sound of Music in 1959.)  Baldwin was the niece of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.  She entered an enclosed order of contemplative nuns in 1914 and left it in 1941, when she was in her late forties.  The wall that she “leapt” over was, in her words, a spiritual one rather than a physical one.  Her account of emerging into wartime Britain after having been cut off from all developments since before the First World War is intriguing.  She recounts the effects of her vow of obedience in the convent – useful if your sole object is union with God, but not so good in a war-torn worldly setting.  For example, she has to learn to make noise so as not to startle people, and has to break the 27-year-long habit of keeping her eyes cast to the ground.  Her greatest challenge is to discover a new obedience – no longer to a Rule imposed from the outside, but to her own instincts and to what she calls Inward Urges.  These guide her in sometimes startling ways to create a new life for herself.

Lastly, with some misgivings I began Hannah Hurnard’s Christian allegory, Hinds’ Feet in High Places.  I’d expected it might be horribly didactic, but found it a compelling and thought-provoking read, and I plan to re-read it sometime.  It’s the story of Much-Afraid, who journeys from the Valley of Humiliation to the High Places.  All along the way, she has free will to leave off her arduous journey but she decides to be obedient to the guidance of the Shepherd.  She is assisted on her journey by Sorrow and Suffering.  I was very interested to discover, having finished the book, that it was written in 1955 and that its author was brought up a Quaker, became a missionary, and later apparently was much criticised for her interest in New Age thought and reincarnation.  I like the sound of this woman – talk about following your own path!

So I’ve been reflecting on obedience.  It seems an extremely old-fashioned concept.  Our society is much more interested in winning competitions, material success, and asserting one’s individuality.   I’m all for critical thinking, and I myself have on occasion been extremely disobedient.  In fact, here I am committing Civil Disobedience during the 1984 strike at Yale University:

Being very kindly escorted by a policeman to a waiting bus.  This was a civil disobedience demonstration, led by Bayard Rustin, a stalwart of the Civil Liberties movement.  450 people lined the streets while the Board of Trustees met, and refused to move until they recognised the workers’ union.  We were duly and very peacefully arrested. (Clipping from the New Haven Register, Nov. 11th 1984.)

A few years later, a reader’s report on my Ph.D dissertation on the medieval writer Christine de Pizan stated that I had “committed the heresy of feminism” just as the subject of my study had.  This was amazing to me, as I’d been completely disinterested in feminist thought until that point.  I embraced my disobedience, and began to read the feminist classics to see what exactly I’d been accused of.  I ended up teaching Women’s Studies for many years!  Throughout my life, I’ve been fairly headstrong and independent, for better and for worse.

But the older I get, the more interested I’ve become in the deeply unfashionable concept of obedience.  It’s not just that I believe we should stick to the speed limit and other external regulations.  It’s the inner work of being obedient that is challenging and fascinating.  For example, at work I see students who increasingly chafe against being told what to do.  One recently declared to me, “I am not going to edit my essays!”  I replied that the choice was hers, but if she wanted to improve her writing she would have to edit.  Many young people resist having to follow conventions, and I find myself in the odd position of defending obedience to convention, at least in academic writing, as a path to clearer communication.  (Of course in other ways young people, as always, are hugely conventional – witness the amusing sight of skirts just at knicker length, and for boys, trousers that are held around their hips only by a kind of cowboy walk.)

Within marriage and family there are many moments of negotiation, and this can often be a disguised form of obedience.  One example is that we were discussing whether to go ahead with our summer week away, given how unwell the Dafter still is.  She agreed it would be potentially difficult, “But I think Daddy really needs to have a holiday.  Don’t cancel.”  She was being obedient to some kind of inner imperative about the balance of needs in the family.  We’re not always so self-sacrificing, needless to say!  When Michael and I are both happily settled at the end of a long day, and a request comes wafting through from another part of the house, we don’t always fight to be the first to jump up and obey.

Parenthood brings the question of obedience to the fore – both the question of how and when to try to get your children to obey you as a parent, and also of obeying the commitment to love them unconditionally no matter what.  Parents sometimes make great sacrifices for their children, and all parents make thousands of smaller sacrifices along the way.  One could see this in terms of being obedient to the demands of parental love and devotion.

When couples struggle through difficult decisions in life – do we move to a new city so one of us can have a better career?  do we stay put so that the other can enjoy their job?  Which set of parents do we visit at Christmas?  Who decides which movie to watch? etc.  – all of these could be seen in terms of obedience to the imperative of treasuring the other person in the couple.  Similar questions occur within the extended family:  who cares for the ageing parent?  who organises get-togethers? and so forth.  Obedience and sacrifice are closely connected.

And then there’s obedience to one’s inner voice.  I do believe in following my instincts.  In fact, that copy of I Leap Over the Wall came to me one day in Illinois when I was walking past a thrift shop and the thought came clearly to me:  “Go in there – there’s something for you!”  So I did, and there it was.  Similarly, I try to walk a certain route if I feel so inclined, phone someone if I feel an inner nagging to do so, and so on.  Very often it turns out there was a good reason for doing so.

If you believe, as I do, that God takes an interest in your life and wants to help, the question is:  how to be obedient and be led in the best path?  In the past I have asked for very clear guidance, and have received it.  Sometimes this has taken the form of doors firmly shutting in my face.  On the other hand, I remember seeing the ad for the job I have happily had for the last eight years.  My heart sank, as it was at that time in a section I thought was problematic.  I remember thinking/praying:  “Do I have to apply for this?” and feeling/knowing, “Yes, you do.”  It truly was what I was meant for, and has been very fulfilling.  On the other hand, I have at times been willful and only later realised that I was motivated by getting my own way, or by fear, and that I had ignored those nagging inner voices that had been trying to get my attention all along.

Lastly, I think that we need also to be obedient to the imperative of self-expression.  This can sometimes be hard to do.  For example, it might be midnight but you want to finish sewing something together; common sense says Go to Bed, but that crazy spark of life inside says, Go ahead!  Finish the project!   Or you end up walking up a side road because you’re hoping that the lilac that hung over the fence last year will be in blossom again this year.  Or you take yourself out for a walk, just because, even though there are dishes to be done.  Or you wear the slightly odd article of clothing that cheers you up.  This kind of obedience is, in my opinion, vital to living authentically.

If you’ve read this far, firstly thank you, and secondly I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the topic of obedience.



  1. I must say, Christine, there’s a lot to think about in this very well written and thought-provoking post. Firstly, the book about the nun sounds like an incredible story. Not many people will have experienced what she did, living in a convent for so long before leaving it.

    Secondly, I had never thought of listening to my gut instinct as being obedience before, but I suppose it is. I do think that listening to your inner voice and following its advice is the right course to take, even when you feel an alternative would be more interesting. Where that comes from, I don’t know, why is it that we have those instincts? Some of them must come from experience and the memory of similar past happenings, but are there other occasions when we meet an entirely new situation and still have a gut instinct about it? I don’t know.

    Thirdly, although there are some very helpful rules that enable us to live with each other as part of a society, there are a great many situations in which it isn’t obvious how to be obedient. As in the instances you give in a relationship where compromises have to be made, how do you know when you should be obedient to someone else, or to yourself? It can be very tricky, and I’ve been in the situation where both I and a partner have had different gut instincts. It can become a stalemate, but I’ve felt I couldn’t disobey my gut instinct.

    • I’m so glad you found it interesting, Lorna! Yes, I Leap Over the Wall is a fascinating book, especially if you’re interested in nuns and spirituality.

      Re. following one’s instincts, it is certainly mysterious. I think of Albert Einstein’s remark that one of the most important decisions a person makes is whether or not to consider the universe benevolent. For me, those instinctual warnings seem like communications from a universe that is aware of me and wants to help. The singer / songwriter Beth Neilsen Chapman said when she’s writing music she “tries to keep her antenna up” and I like that image too.

      I completely agree with what you say about the conflicts that happen in relationships when both people feel strongly led in different directions. There’s also a danger that if one person puts their own desires second, they will feel resentment and unhappiness… very tricky for sure.

  2. How to do justice to your post? I don’t think I can. A long day at work has knocked the self-reflective stuffing out of me. But just to say that I have read ‘Hinds’ Feet on High Places’. It was a parting gift from my very dear 40-years-older-than-me born-again charismatic Christian second cousin in California, after I’d spent a summer with her. I treasure it, and struggle with it at the same time.

    Obedience within a marriage is interesting! I think the thing is to be obedient to each other. I could never just be obedient as a one-way thing – certainly not in such critical matters as choice of paint colour with a colour-blind husband. I’m fascinated by the modern American reinvention of wifely obedience to the husband as a Biblical imperative – evidenced through many blogs. Sometimes I think it must be quite relaxing. Then I think not just of myself, but of my feisty daughter and feel horrified that her spirit might be stifled. I don’t mean that marriage should be a constant argument/battle for victory, but sometimes, men are just plain wrong, in the way that people are just plain wrong, and I don’t think it does the world any good to be obedient in those sorts of situations.

    • Thank you, Linda. How interesting that you have a copy of Hinds’ Feet. I want to read it again because I couldn’t quite decide what I made of it. Thought-provoking for sure.

      Yes, the topic of obedience within relationships is interesting. I like the feminist concept of ‘power-with’ rather than ‘power-over’. It’s horrible to see a couple where one constantly keeps the other down. (I hadn’t realised that wifely obedience was back in some circles!) And of course, men and women are both occasionally wrong and we must speak up when things are about to go badly wrong.

  3. Well, Christine, you certainly have opened up the view of ‘obedience’ to our eyes here with your very thought provoking and well put together post. I think you have captured that fine line between being obedient to your inner voice and being obedient to an ‘other’. It does take a certain amount of inner reflection and maturity to understand the real reason for obedience and why it is important in society and when to disobey something that doesn’t feel quite right. It surely is a personal experience. It’s all a matter of choice and I think you have used some excellent examples of this. We all choose what and whom we will be obedient to according to our own personal experience, moral imperatives and objectives. At least now, in our society, we are able to make that choice. It wasn’t always so and people fought long and hard to win the right to choose who they were willing to ‘obey’.

    Then there is the counter point that you so eloquently point out with regards to obeying the desire to do the right thing, such as a parent obeying their duty and a spouse obeying the sanctity of the marriage. And of course, obeying the laws of the land. These are things that foster smooth relationships with others and something we need to keep society civil.

    That being said, there is also civil disobedience and your lovely face marching for your cause brings to light the importance of having the choice.

    All very thought provoking and interesting. I may have to think on this a while. Very excellent post. Well written. Now I must go and think! xx

    • Thanks so much, Karen. You’re so right to point out that it’s a matter of personal choice. I hadn’t thought about the fights that people have waged in order to have that choice. The Amish, fleeing from persecution in the 17th century, are a case in point.

      What you say about disobeying a wrong order is also so true. I was reminded of that when a number of people working as admin assistants were arrested recently on charges of helping their bosses pervert the course of justice by destroying evidence. I wondered if I would have had the courage to say, “No I’m not doing that, I quit,” or whether I would have thought, “Well, I guess they know what they’re doing”.

      Ha ha re. my lovely face. Half the policemen seemed to be married to the clerical workers, so they were incredibly nice and gentle with us.

  4. wow. i well-written and thought out piece of writing. as i read through your thoughts, i was thinking that sometimes obedience is an act of love. if we do something for others and in thinking of them first, we play out “love is patient, love is kind,… it is not self-seeking”. sometimes obedience is hearing in our hearts what is true and acting on it. i like what you said about being true to ourselves and about being authentic.

    • Thanks, ajb. Yes, I hadn’t thought of that verse. Many times being obedient can be an act of love, you’re right. And how difficult it is to be true to ourselves and be authentic…

  5. Amazing post. I sat and read and read. Now I am away to think and think. May come back and comment again. Blown away.

    • Aww, I’m glad you got something out of it. Do please comment again if your thinking and thinking leads you to do so!

  6. Interesting post. I was struck for two reasons, one deriving from my own education, and the other from the difficulties of educating children in an culture that’s pushing “creativity” as a means of solving the huge dropout problem in the US.

    I was taught almost exclusively by nuns through the 12th grade. My first school, Little Flower School, was about two blocks away from a cloistered discalced Carmelite convent in San Antonio, Texas. I remember delivering groceries bags to their lazy Susan and waiting for the invisible nuns to turn it. Later, we’d be brought there for visits to learn about their lives. They were very happy, they said, and I don’t doubt it. One heavily veiled nun would come and talk to us through a grill. It all seemed so mysterious and holy! The advantage of their kind of obedience is relinquishing the will, first to God and then to the order. They’re protected from the stress of secular life, and everything is decided for them. If you go to their website and look at their pictures, they look perfectly blissful. I couldn’t do it, but it works for them.

    When it comes to educating children, the way things stand in the school systems now, children are encouraged to “think divergently”…which is good…for some purposes. The problems arise, when they don’t understand that frequently, the wheel has already been invented, as in the case editing a manuscript or learning piano fingerings. Brilliant minds have contemplated these problems for centuries and pretty much honed everything to the point that following basic directions will yield the absolute maximum result, regardless of intellect or “talent.” A little “blind” obedience (and humility) could save a lot of time for the teacher and the student. I suspect students argue, because both editing and studying a piano score tend to be tedious and involve some self-criticism. When I taught writing to 4th graders (second language learners and low income), editing became a waste of time. Even if I did it for them and sent them back to copy, the end result would have as many, or more, mistakes than the original!

    The purpose of obedience, I think is to submit to authority in order to produce a result that is most beneficial to all parties or to a community. If the authority is good, as in a good spouse or teacher, obedience isn’t passivity or submission, it’s really opportunistic. When authority is bad, and people submit blindly because they’re so habituated to it they can no longer be rational, then obedience is destructive.

    • Dear Marian, Thanks for your comment! How fascinating that you were educated by nuns. I watched the series called “The Convent” about the Poor Clares with great interest. I think there are definitely women for whom it is the perfect life.

      I found your comment about recent trends in education very interesting. I haven’t heard the phrase “think divergently” but I completely agree about the wisdom of not overly questioning tried and true methods and skills. In music, I would imagine that only after one has mastered the basics can one then “think divergently”. I like your thought of obedience as potentially opportunistic!

  7. What a thoughtful post. I’m going to reflect on your idea of obedience. I tend to have problems with authority, but I never connected it to my strong sense of following my own ideas. Sometimes I can’t even manage to follow my own marching orders as they tend to change from day to day. I guess that’s part of your point too, we might have to be true to the moment as well as the idea. I’m going to look for that Baldwin Book. I could only hope to find one with such a great cover!

    • Sigrid, I’m very complimented that my post could give you, who have such deep and interesting thoughts, something to think about! I’m sure you can find a copy of I Leap Over the Wall – I’d recommend a hardback copy as that paperback copy is falling apart.

  8. As always, you give us readers a thought provoking, well written post. I had never thought of being obedient when I do some of the things that are quite normal every day things to do. I do like to be a little ‘rebellious’ from time to time and do something that I know is quite out of character for me. It make me feel alive and young. Why should young people have a monopoly on being daring!
    Much love to you and the rest of your gang xx

    • Heike, thank you. I completely agree, why should young people be the only ones to be daring! Yes, we can be alive and young at any age. Thanks for your good wishes. x

  9. I really love your last paragraph. But, since you ask, I will tell you what I think about obedience. I was very hesitant at first to promise to obey Jeffrey when we got married. To be honest, I found the idea offensive. But, I prayed about it and studied The Word. And, you know what? I promised. I made the promise, I kept it, and I have never been sorry. Obedience brings with it its own reward.

    Of course, I do have a husband who is easy to follow, a Godly man, and one who doesn’t expect me to “jump to it.” In fact, there have been very, very few times in our twenty year marriage where I needed to obey. But, when those things came up, he was always very prayerful and I was always glad that I complied.

    • Dear Relyn, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. I honestly cannot remember if I promised to obey my husband, or him me! It was half a lifetime ago now. But we’ve always had respect for each other at the heart of our relationship and I think that’s what makes any form of obedience meaningful. ‘Power-with’ and not ‘power-over’. There have been times when each of us has bowed to the wishes of the other, in little things and in big things. I’m glad you liked the last paragraph – you seem to be someone who instinctively obeys the imperative of self-expression, but in a way that isn’t self-centered, but giving to others.

      • What a lovely compliment. Thank you.

        And power-with – I love that expression. It’s absolutely perfect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: