Obedience. Here’s a word that gets a terrible rap. Toss it around with any conviction in public and you’ll likely have your head handed to you.

I have to admit…I used to bristle at that word when I was a teenager. Having a very strict Dad who was not too amenable to the question “Why?” caused quite a bit of friction between us. “Because I said so” or “Because you’re 15 and I’m the parent” were equally off-putting to me.

Obedience? No, thank you.

Understanding Obedience

But as I matured, I started getting a little different perspective on it as I began understanding the military and its chain of command. The general often has a battle plan to implement and it’s usually complicated with many factors to consider. He or she is responsible for the lives and well-being of his or her subordinates and is responsible for winning battles and conquering the enemy. To fill every last soldier in on the details and listen to hundreds of opinions is not feasible and can also be deadly. With good reason, there is a chain of command and obedience is imperative to safety and success. Submitting in obedience to the person with the best overall perspective and strategy is not degrading. It is something voluntarily chosen as part of what a soldier signs on for. In fact, many troubled kids from chaotic homes have found great solace in the clear structure and chain of command of the military and have turned their lives around quite dramatically.

Understanding this helped me to understand why we need to be obedient to God, and to his rules and his commandments. He has an omniscient perspective that we can’t see or appreciate. He knows us better than we know ourselves and he can see every factor and how they will interplay for good, or for harm, in our lives. Of course, we think we know better. We think he doesn’t understand. We think he just wants to kill our good time. But the reality is that he knows better. And, as hard as it may be for us to imagine at times, he loves us more than we even love ourselves. He is not content to give us chicken feed when he knows that we need and will enjoy a gourmet meal so much more.

Submitting in Fear…Or in Love?

Obedience to a parent or to God might at times be difficult, but what about obedience in marriage? This may be pushing it. Heck, if we didn’t like being obedient to parents, as adults, submitting to a spouse is even less appealing. After all, we’re grown-ups and have equal rights and dignity, don’t we?

I think there’s a good analogy here between our obedience to God and our obedience in marriage. If we think of God as a capricious slave driver, we certainly won’t trust him and being obedient will be a chore at best. We may obey the rules to avoid hell, but that is very far from what he actually has in mind. Instead, God wants us to love him and trust him …in other words, to believe in his love for us. He gives us the freedom to follow or not. It seems mysterious. After all, he could make us comply and the world would be a better place, right? No more lying, cheating, stealing, or murder. But the problem with that would also mean no more love. No joy in knowing that the man or woman of your dreams chose you freely. No more fun at surprise parties since we know the one throwing it, and those attending it, were compelled to be there. Freedom is absolutely essential to love and ultimately to happiness.

So, if we think of obedience as a big mean God waiting to pounce and, we, his subjects trembling in servile fear, we have a wrong understanding of the whole concept. And due to our fallen nature, we have a similar misunderstanding of obedience in marriage as well. And that understanding has surely led to much abuse by men who seek to lord their power over their wives.

Obedience to God is manifested on a daily basis in big and small ways: when we could do the wrong thing when no one is looking, but do the right thing because we know God is looking and will be displeased…but not in an angry sort of way, but in the forlorn look of Jesus on the cross…for the pain our sins ultimately cause him. Obedience in marriage is pretty much the same thing. It’s not about following rules or quietly going along like a doormat and never voicing an opinion or desire. It’s about love…and respect.

Mutually Dying to Self

Believe it or not, obedience in marriage should actually be a joy…maybe not every time, but in general. It’s doing the simple things you know your husband likes and avoiding those little annoyances he doesn’t. And it’s not limited to wives. Husbands should also do those little things their wives like and avoiding those irritating things that drive them crazy. Obedience is manifested when you’re alone with friends and you’re tempted to tell that embarrassing story that you know your husband wouldn’t like and you refrain. It’s a husband foregoing golf because his wife is overwhelmed with the kids. It’s being faithful to your spouse even in the face of strong temptations or when your relationship is challenging.

The foundational need that men express about marriage is to feel respected. The foundational need for women in marriage is to feel loved. Therefore, in St. Paul’s famous exhortation for wives to be obedient to their husbands, he makes an even greater demand on men—to love their wives as Christ loved the Church—to lay down his life for her. When a woman feels that kind of love and commitment from her husband, obedience is put in a whole new perspective. But since the call for most husbands to actually lay down their lives for their wives is rare, for a man to die to himself and his desires on a daily basis, for the good of his wife seems more the point that St. Paul is making. Hence, short of lording his authority over his wife with selfish demands, a man dying to his desires for her good and a woman, submitting in love and fidelity to his desires implies a reciprocal obedience that is ultimately key to marital happiness.