Scott Benhase: Obedience as holy listening

Faithful action depends on faithful hearing, in communion. And do we ever need that in our individualistic culture.

The second of three posts on the Benedictine promises of Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life. I hope we can see how the Benedictine promises can inform and shape our leadership.

“I shall cleave to thee with all my being, then shall I in nothing have pain and labor and my life shall be a real life, being wholly full of thee.” -- Augustine of Hippo

In the Benedictine promise is this daunting word: Obedience.

Obedience for Benedict was not following orders or doing what one was told. It was and is holy listening. It is coming to the truth that our only way is Christ's – he who came not to do his own will, but the will of the One who sent him. The practice of stability grounds us so that we have the space and time to truly practice obedience. Thus, our holy listening can become fruit as it leads us to holy action. There is no way to shortcut this. Faithful obedience must come before faithful action.

Obedience is grounded in God’s word as revealed to us in Scripture as we read it with others in community and pray over it in the church. Obedience to the Word of God is obedience to Jesus. It is not obedience to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. That is a distorted understanding of Reformation theology that is still very much present in our culture today. This distortion has become secularized in the ethos of hyper-individualism where everyone gets to be their own spiritual tyrant.

Obedience is an anti-individualistic practice. Left to our own devices, we can construct all sorts of rationales and justifications for our actions. We can all live in denial about our obedience and subsequent actions. The practice of obedience liberates us from the shackles of the distorted ethos of hyper-individualism, which undermines every level of community in our culture today.

Benedict understood how central community was to obedience, and vice-versa. It is our communion with one another that creates obedience. In communion, listening, and discernment, we seek God's will. In communion, hope, and decision we seek to obey and act. We need an obedience that is not grudgingly given, that does not foster, as Benedict wrote, “a grumbling in our hearts,” but rather an obedience that intentionally places us vulnerably open to the communion of saints. This is how we bear the seal of Him who died.

Faithful leadership in the church incarnates such obedience. You and I will often have to insist upon it because we serve a culturally-infected church; one that so often acts first and then even fails to do any significant reflection on the action. Obedience insists that we first listen to God’s voice with one another, then humbly act, and then reflect critically on our actions. In a culture of the “quick fix,” “just do it,” “winning is everything,” taking the needed time to be obedient is one of the greatest challenges of leadership.

Let’s not fail to be obedient.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.