Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Who are You to Tell me How to Live my Life?"

When I was in England, I was told this is an attitude common among Englishmen toward their clergy.

One readily sees it’s a valid question, and the implied answer has some validity, too; since even God leaves me free to obey Him or not, who dares dictate to me? To anybody who would try, I’d ask the same question: Who do you think you are?

But Christian obedience is not supposed to work as an authoritarian system. It isn’t a case of the preacher telling me what to do and I do it precisely because he has told me and he is backed by God’s own authority. That latter bit may or may not be true, but to say that’s the reason we obey would be, for the Orthodox Christian at least, a bit of a distortion.

To see why, let’s first recall how “authority” works among Orthodox Christians. There is what I would call “formal” authority, vested in a person by virtue of his office. And then there is informal authority, which we freely accord to certain persons among us, clerical or lay, male or female. “Authority” in this sense denotes the deference we give to people who by walking the Orthodox Christian path, have come very closely to resemble Christ, people in whose flesh and blood Christ is recognizably living. These are people who embody all our theology, people who make our hearts sing and our eyes weep for joy, people who more or less already are the Person we all want to become. To such radiant souls we give heed. We beseech them, “Give us a word!” The Holy Spirit in our hearts leaps when they speak, and with joy we recognize the soul-liberating Truth in their words. We take their advice to heart because in effect, they are telling us how they came to be who they are, who we all want to be. We take joy in serving them, too, as they take greater joy in serving us. Who are they to tell us how to live our lives? They are Christ with skin on, and they do not tell us how to live our lives unless we ask, and even then, they only tell us as much as they perceive we are ready to hear. And they are advising, emphatically not dictating. They are not controlling us, but the very opposite, teaching us how to be free.

And they are bearing witness to why we ought to live a certain way: because it’s good for us! Because there’s a certain way of life that (as we can see and experience for ourselves by being around such people) approximates heaven on earth. Because this is the way of peace, of wholeness, of joy, of love, of genuine fulfillment at every level of our being.

Imagine what would happen if there were no Ten Commandments, if it were perfectly acceptable to steal and lie and commit adultery and murder and dishonor parents. Well, no need to imagine! We see it all around us, our society falling apart as these basic rules fall into disuse. If the Commandments seem restrictive, it is only our madness they are restricting, our tendency to self-destruct.

There is no commandment given by God just to please Himself. He does not simply decide for no reason that He likes this behavior or dislikes that one and we’d better obey or else – even though that is the way it sometimes sounds in Scripture. Instead, He who is all-knowing and all-wise knows what will promote our well-being, body and spirit, here and in the ages to come. In the end, we obey as much for our own sake as for the love of God.

Since Christ was obedient at all times to His Father, even to the point of accepting His cross, then obedience cannot be beneath us. But it isn’t because we are brow-beaten or spiritually or socially or emotionally blackmailed into it. Obedience is always offered in freedom. Nobody can dictate to us how to live our lives.


Anam Cara said...

nicely put

James the Thickheaded said...

Increasingly seems to me obedience is the conformance of one's life in the direction of His life... out of love. The Church doesn't know everything, but it does know a great deal how we conform our life to Christ's - if we are willing.