The Word Among Us

Personal Spirituality Resources


The virtue of obedience applies to all of us.

By: Elizabeth M. Kelly

Obedience: The virtue of obedience applies to all of us. by Elizabeth M. Kelly

There’s probably a little bit of Eve in all of us, some little corner all too willing to be beguiled by the smooth invitation to disobey. “Go ahead, take the apple. Your eyes will be opened, and you’ll become like gods!”

Of course, we know how that turned out for Eve. No doubt there are a few “apple moments” in your life that you wish you could take back. I have certainly entertained a few regrettable apples I wish I could unpick.

Our culture doesn’t help. It could easily be argued that obedience has fallen out of fashion. It’s mocked as a weakness or a lack of self-worth, as something to be medicated, not celebrated. Rebellion has taken its place as a virtue. Certainly, well-placed rebellion can be virtuous, but it must be wielded first by a well-trained obedience. It’s all too easy to mistake my willfulness and wanting-what-I-want-when-I-want-it for a kind of pious insurrection.

In a culture that values independence and bowing to the desires of the self above all else, it’s not entirely unreasonable to ask, how can obedience as a virtue apply to me? I live in the real world, not the nursery.

Some years ago I was asked by an employer to do work that would directly contradict Church teaching. In a wild panic, I ran to my priest—an exceptionally brilliant man, holder of at least two PhDs—and told him my dilemma. He smiled and said, “I know who we’ll call.” Within minutes we were on the phone with another priest, a specialist in the ethics of this area of Church teaching.

His confidence—in the Church, in the truth—was striking. Not an ounce of panic or worry in him. In fact, he almost laughed when I told him what I was being asked to do. “Oh, no, you definitely cannot support that,” he said. He then added knowingly, “You have the truth on your side,” as if to say, “Daughter, you are completely protected.”

He talked me through the short argument and then emailed me a more thorough bullet list, working through the issue in greater detail. It was as plain as day—the work was immoral— and I had zero intention of doing it. But to tell my boss. Would I be fired? How would I pay my mortgage? Could I really do what I knew the Father was asking me to do?

Walking back to my office, something unexpected started to rise up in me, something like joy. It swaddled my fear. Such a strange pairing, but I felt that I understood the agony in the garden for the first time in my adult life. Anticipating the horror that lay ahead, Jesus asked his Father, “Let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). There was no way he would disobey his Father, no moment he would even consider it. Obedience to the Father’s will sat at the very core of his being, and as it turns out, it was the seed of joy, flourishing, and unstoppable glory.

I won’t lie; it was a rough few months for me, consulting attorneys and stumbling through some uncomfortable conversations with my boss and human resources. But in the end, the law was on my side, and I was not forced to do work that would be immoral.

Fr. Wickham writes, “The freely committed obedience of adult Christians is to God, not mainly to other human beings, whatever rank,” though sometimes we are guided by those of rank onto the best path. He adds that this will always call for “continued growth in maturity . . . [and] a great deal of prayer.”

And I’ll say this: God is constantly rewarding that tiny act of obedience in the thoroughly satisfying work that I have now. Obedience—even in the littlest things—always results in flourishing and immoveable joy. Indeed, obedience is not a virtue we leave behind in the nursery but one that we must take pains to cultivate into a robust maturity.

This is a selection fromLove Like a Saint by Elizabeth M. Kelly (The Word Among Us Press, 2021), available from