Just say yes

  • April 24, 2008

Have you ever said no to God? Consciously, that is, and deliberately. Very likely, most of us have a constant “no” running through our bloodstream, even when we think we’re saying yes. But occasionally we may be aware of ourselves saying no.

A certain young woman was shocked to hear how loud her own no was — a shout, a scream, “No, I will not do this.” A friend was leaving, a bosom friend since childhood, with no hope of return. Susan had no choice about the friend’s departure; it was not in her power to change that. But, somewhat to her horror, she discovered she did have a choice: to let the friend go, or to hang on to her emotionally, or to kill her emotionally (by ceasing to love). The moment she cried out, “No, I will not let her go,” she knew she was choosing the third option: killing her love so as not to suffer the pain of being left. And she knew she was being asked to take the first option, to let the friend go and remain in love.

Telling me of this encounter, Susan was recounting a story about obedience. “Obey” is not a popular word these days. It has a ring of coercion and loss of choice, and in a society for which choice has become god, we prefer to banish such a word. In religious terms, the word “obedience” might suggest authoritarianism, religious leaders using the name of God to exert control over others. One reason we like to associate ourselves with “spirituality” but distance ourselves from “religion” is the notion that religious people must obey, conform, blindly follow rules, give up their autonomy.

What does it mean to obey — especially, to obey God? Does it mean becoming docile, voiceless and mindless? In the Catholic Church, Mary the Mother of God has long been a model of obedience. The month of May is devoted to her. 

But obedience, as Mary lived it, has little to do with shutting up, giving up, conforming, ceasing to reason, being docile. The Greek hypakoi, obey, means to listen attentively, to hearken and answer. One of the best ways to learn about obedience is to listen attentively to Mary’s few but poignant words in the Gospels.

Luke 1:  She is greeted by an angel and called “blessed.” She’s deeply troubled. She wonders, speaks, asks. Finally, she names herself doula — slave or servant, in Greek — and speaks the words Jesus will later echo in Gethsemane: “Let it be done in me according to your word.” Hers is not an automatic, blind, unthinking slavery. She’s an active participant in what God is bringing about, though she may not understand just what it is or what part she will play. She listens, so deeply that her own spirit is stirred up. She asks exactly what she needs to ask. Then she says yes. She gives her will; it’s not taken from her.

What’s behind her yes? Is it with a spirit of fear and smallness, or of strength and courage? There’s a clue in the great song she sings in Luke’s Gospel, proclaiming the subversion of the world’s order by God, who throws down rulers and lifts up the lowly. She rejoices in this work and in her own participation in it.

Our obedience to God may seem less dramatic, but it’s no less subversive. For Susan, another thing happened when she cried “no.” She felt that Christ came and sat beside her, and held her, and let her weep, as she faced that dark door marked “Death,” unable to enter. He held her, and her tears, and her will, until she was able to turn and walk through with Him.

Externally, nothing at all changed. The friend left; Susan stayed. Internally, everything was different. The iron clench in her stomach vanished. She was able to breathe. She felt big inside.

What had felt like a stark, impossible, incomprehensible command became more like a revelation of truth. Saying yes brought freedom and new life.

Mary’s yes, and Susan’s after it, is not a loss of will, but a giving-over of the will to God’s. The result of such surrender, perhaps surprisingly, is that one’s own will becomes stronger, not weaker.

In human relations, it’s often my will or your will — like an arm wrestle, one side or the other ends up dominated. God works not to subdue or erase our will, but to draw it out. Sometimes He works so deeply in us that it feels invasive, uncomfortable, like the dentist getting to that impacted wisdom tooth. Our wills may be impacted in layers of fear, anger, shame, pride, hurt.

With Susan’s yes came the surprising discovery that it was the touch of Love asking. Not demanding. Loving her into loving.