The Sweet and Sour of Obedience
A nineteenth century friend of mine, John Ruskin, wrote an excellent book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848). Each lamp is a value or principle to be respected. One of those lamps he called the lamp of obedience. Concerning this lamp we might say there is sweet and sour news. We begin with the sweet. Here is the description he gives of the value of obedience. To obedience:
Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance.
Reading this Christians will most likely respond, “Three cheers and a hurrah, a perfect description of the value of obedience.” Christians seek to emulate the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus to the Father. That is the sweet part. Now the sour. If we honor obedience what happens to the notion of liberty? Of liberty Mr. Ruskin writes with passion and elegance.
… how false is the conception, how frantic the pursuit, of that treacherous phantom which men call Liberty; most treacherous indeed, of all phantoms; for the feeblest ray of reason might surely show us, that not only its attainment, but its being, was impossible. There is no such thing in the universe. There can never be. The stars have it not; the earth has it not; the sea has it not; and we men have the mockery and semblance of it only for our heaviest punishment.
Ouch, that does sound sour! Especially to Americans who have founded their nation on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Is liberty really the albatross John Ruskin described? It would seem we have the basis for a great novel, the incessant conflict between obedience and liberty, or do we?
A Danger To Avoid
Today we must be especially careful before determining obedience and liberty are contraries because many Christians have been beguiled by the mistaken idea that the truth is found midway between two extremes. I say beguiled because that idea is a Marxist rhetorical trick to make Christians abandon their faith in absolutes. Using Marxist reasoning it is logical to conclude that we should live our lives someplace between obedience to God and personal liberty. But before we take that step, perhaps we should pause and cogitate upon the two words a bit longer.
Ruskin offers more thoughts. He notes the opposite of obedience, akin of law and order, is not liberty but disorder or disease. He then asks, from whence comes the increase in honor and beauty? His reply, not from liberty but restraint. In this way he greatly increases the stakes of getting our thoughts about obedience right. A mistake here risks the loss honor and beauty while reaping disorder and disease. So are we in a quandary? Is there a conflict between obedience and liberty?
Two Contrary Meanings of Liberty
The answer was hinted at above when it was noted the opposite of obedience is not liberty but disorder or disease. The trouble lies not between obedience and liberty but between two contrary meanings of the word liberty. Mr. Ruskin writes:
If by liberty you mean chastisement of the passions, discipline of the intellect, subjection of the will; if you mean the fear of inflicting, the shame of committing a wrong; if you mean respect for all who are in authority, and consideration for all who are in dependence; veneration for the good, mercy to the evil, sympathy with the weak; if you mean watchfulness over all thoughts, temperance in all pleasures, and perseverance in all toils… why do you name this by the same word by which the luxurious mean license, and the reckless mean change; by which the rogue means rapine, and the fool equality, by which the proud mean anarchy, and the malignant mean violence?
What Ruskin has importantly pointed out is that as English speakers we carelessly use a single word to name two very different things.
The first meaning he describes is the original meaning of liberty, the freedom to accomplish something. Liberty allows one to practice playing the piano. The second meaning is “doing whatever one feels like at the moment”.
Let’s review just a few of the problems the second idea of liberty, “doing what I want”. First, it is physically impossible as every child learns, no matter how much they want it to happen, they cannot flap their arms and fly. Secondly, it is intellectually impossible as Saint Paul described. He wrote, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Saint Paul may be dismissed because he was a Christian but can anyone honestly say they do not have the exact same experience when they attempt to follow their own values? Further, does this mean we should ignore people who suffer from addictions or self-destructive behavior because they are doing what they want? Indeed why does society have mental hospitals, jails or laws of any kind? When liberty is used to mean “doing what I want” the word becomes a camouflage for topsy-turfy chaotic bedlam which is unsustainable just as Ruskin described it. Clearly liberty cannot reasonably mean, “doing whatever I want”.
What then is the proper understanding of liberty? Early Americans understood liberty as the opposite of despotic and arbitrary rule. For example, I have liberty to worship means I may consistently and without interference from the government accomplish my goal of worshiping and serving the Lord Jesus as he has asked me to do. Liberty allows obedience to God, tyranny forbids it.
Liberty is not contrary to obedience, it is the condition that allows a nation to practice obedience. Obedience is the careful attention and self-control necessary for the Christian walk with God. The sweetness of obedience is the certain knowledge that one is in harmony with the Triune God who gave us our life. Christian obedience is the sweet service of and participation with the Lord in everything we do.
Those who are not obedient do not have liberty, they have the sour life of slaves. They are slaves to their compulsions, prejudices, ignorance or to despotic government rules. To expect the sweetness to come from a selfish convoluted misunderstanding of liberty is as good a definition of foolishness that any dictionary might offer.
As English speakers we face a difficult challenge. We need to make this correction in our thinking and speaking. Liberty is having the freedom to accomplish the tasks our Lord has called us to. Obedience is not contrary to liberty, it is a companion that follows from liberty. At the same time liberty is not “doing whatever I want”; better to call that something else– caprice, egoism, anarchy, narcissism all come to mind.
Obedience is the reality of the how God’s creation works. The stars have it, the earth has it, the seas have it, and humanity yearns for it but knows it not. This is the sweet and sour of obedience.
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