I wrote something five years ago and I want to run it by you. I know it was five years ago because I referred to my wife, Maggie, and I being married for 30 years, and now we’ve been married for 35 years. I’m good at Math. We no longer have that second Saturn, although we had it for 11 years before trading it in on another car, a Scion xB, if you must know. It’s sad that GM seemed to intentionally let their Saturn branch die like it did. That story might be for another blog, since that story is really about corporate managers wanting more external control. Anyway, here’s some thoughts on obedience.

On Obedience

What is the antonym of arbitrary? What word or phrase captures its opposite? Over the next few minutes, as you read the following ideas, I invite you to answer these questions..

I was recently reading from the small devotional book, As Bill Sees It. This particular Bill isn’t Bill Glasser, whose ideas I also like to read. No, this Bill is Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Over a twenty-five year period he wrote books and articles about the A. A. way of life and As Bill Sees It (Wilson, 1967) contains short excerpts from this literature. The following passage really got me to thinking.

We of A. A. obey spiritual principles, at first because we must, then because we ought to, and ultimately because we love the kind of life such obedience brings. Great suffering and great love are A. A.’s disciplinarians; we need no others (p.27).

It was the phrase we love the kind of life such obedience brings that caught my attention. Christian choice theorists don’t know exactly what to do with the word obedience. Obedience, as either a word or a concept, is found throughout scripture. Jesus himself used the word to describe the standard for our behavior. Yet the word conveys the idea of the control of one person over another. It conveys the idea of compliance. Words like control and compliance raise caution flags in the eyes of a choice theorist.

During one of my interviews with Dr. Glasser, I asked him to do a word association exercise with me. He agreed to the exercise and I said the word obedience. He replied, “Well, I don’t really like that word.” I then said the word forgiveness. “Oh,” he said, “I like that word a lot.” Is he so different from us when it comes to our gut reactions to these words?

But again, I am joyfully confronted by the A. A. principle that we love the kind of life such obedience brings. As the words wove their way through my brain cells a picture came to me.

Twice in our thirty years of marriage, Maggie and I have owned a new car. The first time was in 1996 when we bought a gold-colored Saturn SL2. The second time was when we traded that Saturn in for another new Saturn in 2000, which we still drive to this day. I don’t know if they still do this or not, but when we purchased these new cars the people at the Saturn dealership made a big deal out of it. They all gather around and congratulate you and sing to you and take your picture. It’s like you’ve now become part of a special community. I thought back about how I felt as we drove away from the showroom. It was a need-satisfying moment, to be sure. I felt joyful and powerful and free. As Maggie drove us home to the friendly, waiting garage, I looked in the glove box and pulled out a crisp, new car manual for the model we had just purchased. It contained all kinds of helpful information. It described little details on how you could custom program the automatic door locks; or on how the posi-traction worked; or on how to make the change your oil light go off after you changed your own oil; or on the kind of oil you should put in the car; or on how much oil should go in the car. And on and on the information went.

So think about this for a moment—If I put the kind of motor oil in the car that Saturn recommended in the manual, was I obeying Saturn? When I change my oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, am I complying with a Saturn demand? It seems silly to view it this way. We don’t view Saturn as an arbitrary car company out to make our lives difficult. We figure they built the car and they probably know best how to keep it running well. Obeying Saturn, if you will, rather than being restrictive, simply makes sense. Further it leads to a more joyful car experience now and in the future.

With my Saturn experience in mind, the A. A. principle that we love the kind of life such obedience brings begins to appear in its true light. Such obedience is really not like the obedience we usually think of. If the A. A. passage above is accurate, and I for one think the passage is on the right track, then there are different levels of obedience. Level one is based on I must, probably for reasons of survival. Level two is based on I ought to, which reveals a growing sense of personal responsibility to one’s self and to others. Level three is based on the idea that we love the kind of life such obedience brings, which is the highest and most secure level of obedience, where we obey because it makes sense and is for our best good.

I can see how God would have a challenge on his hands when working with the human race. At times during our earth’s history our very survival has been at stake. When the Hebrews were rescued by the mighty arm of God from Egyptian captivity they formed a massive group, probably approaching two million in number. Although impressive in numbers, they had almost no knowledge of their Rescuer God, had minimal knowledge on how to create and preserve effective relationships, and no knowledge on principles of health. It indeed was a situation calling for God to be extremely clear about who He was and what His expectations were. The boundaries for behavior had to be very specific. For instance, without modern medicine an illness could easily wipe out every one of them. Therefore, cleanliness procedures were vital, not because God was arbitrary, but because their very lives depended on it. It truly was an obey and live moment in time. If they weren’t ready for level two or level three obedience, God was willing to work with them at level one, even if it meant being misunderstood, even if it meant later generations might struggle with the word obedience.

And so we come back to the question that started us off—what is the antonym of arbitrary? Because I think Christian choice theorists would be very interested in those words or phrases. Could it be that God is more like the Saturn car company than we realize?

Wilson, B. (1967). As Bill sees it: The A.A. way of life (selected writings of A.A.’s co-founder). New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.