My Thoughts on the Meaning of Obedience

In this age of liberalism, obedience can seem like a backward notion. It is true that blind obedience can cause havoc to the world, especially if you submit yourself to a misguided cause, or if you follow others blindly without investigating the truth for yourself. But when you recognize a person or a cause that is truly noble, devoting your time, your energy and your will to it can contribute meaningfully to a better world.

According to my limited understanding of the Baha’i perspective, true obedience is when a person devotes themselves wholeheartedly to the Manifestations of God because the Manifestations are the voice of God and the Divine Physicians who know the remedy for the ailments of the day in which they live:

“The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth.”1 

“The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy.”2

“Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures.”3

Since the Manifestations know what is best for humanity, putting their teachings into practice is vital. Because the Manifestations have a much higher sense of wisdom and spiritual perception than the common person, each believer places their trust in these Guides. And because the believer recognises their divine wisdom, they follow their injunctions.

I think it’s important to mention that while a believer knows that the guidance of the Manifestation is of benefit to them, it is not because of this benefit that they heed Their counsels. I think they heed Their counsels because they believe in the Manifestation. Of course, I believe you can receive the spiritual bounties that this brings, but this is not the motivation behind true obedience. To truly obey is to follow directives without consideration for one’s own sense of gain.

To some this may sound somewhat blind. However, I believe that obedience to a Manifestation of God is not blind when it involves independent investigation on the part of each individual to ascertain whether they believe in the Manifestation. If a person reaches the station of certitude, they will then follow the counsels of the Manifestations. So ultimately, true belief entails both acceptance of the Manifestation and a willingness to act on the Manifestation’s teachings.

Furthermore, I think it is not enough for a person to simply follow the counsels of the Manifestation; they should also attempt to understand them: “Let us try to understand the commands of the Most High and to order our lives as He directs.”4 Humans are conscious beings who are destined to reach higher and higher states of consciousness. To obey without thinking would be somewhat counterproductive to this purpose. Also, while some of the precepts of the Manifestation can seem straightforward, others are more open to interpretation. This means that obedience to Them involves striving to understand Their tenets and teachings.

Another aspect of applying our understanding of obedience is the ability to understand ourselves. In many cases, the act of submitting to the counsels of the Manifestation or the guidance of institutions isn’t a passive task; it requires our active engagement. Each person is different with their own unique capacities. Therefore, to respond steadfastly to guidance implies the need to understand how we are able to do this. For example, Baha’u’llah stresses the importance of each believer to share His Message. However, I think that how this is done will depend on the interests and aptitudes of each individual. The Universal House of Justice has a framework of action to guide the community’s actions. Within this framework, each individual can ponder and choose how they can best contribute to these collective efforts.

Along with the understanding that accompanies obedience is the love that must infuse it:

“Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty.”5

“He declareth that observance of the commands of God deriveth from love for the beauty of the Best-Beloved. The seeker, when immersed in the ocean of the love of God, will be moved by intense longing and will arise to carry out the laws of God.”6

My understanding of these passages is that God wants us to obey Him for the sake of our own good, but He does not want us to do so begrudgingly or blindly. If we love God, we will devote ourselves to Him through this love. Our obedience to Him is not a mechanical or forced act; it is a sincere act of devotion. Of course, at first our efforts may be made with some hesitation or difficulty. But with time and prayer, our acts of servitude will become increasingly pure and loving.

In really reflecting on this, I think there is a spectrum of different levels of obedience. To start with, we have the notion of straightforward obedience: to simply do what one is asked. Above this is conscious obedience: to obey and understand what one is submitting themselves to. And higher than this is conscious and loving obedience: to not only understand what one is following, but to also be obedient with devotion.


 

  1. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 156, 157 []
  2. Ibid, p. 213. []
  3. Ibid, p. 332. []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 108 []
  5. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 332 []
  6. Abdul-Baha, The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting []

About the Author

Peter Gyulay is passionate about sustainable living, peacebuilding and the deeper aspects of life. He has a BA (Hons) in philosophy along with an M.Ed. and works in the field of education. Peter is the author of Walking the Mystical Path with Practical Feet: The Bahai Approach to Spiritual Transformation. His books, writings and music can be accessed at www.petergexpressions.com

Discussion 5 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing how you views on obedience to the Manifestations of God.
    Thankfully, we all share in the ability to investigate the world around us, including the teachings of Divine Guidance inherent in Naturevabd in Scripture and…if we open our eyes and ears and hearts, sincerely, they are right there in front of us and within us. To be experienced by ourselves alone. This can only happen with greater opening to Truth, not to a subjective human interpretation that falls into the too easy labelling of “liberal” and “conservative” and this, frankly has been plaguing most of human interaction in multiple spheres for a number of years now. For far too long, closing hearts off.

    Again,thank you for sharing your views. I see you’re still relatively young and hopefully you have years ahead of you to truly ripen and bloom.
    Warm regards,
    T.Steele

  2. P.S.
    Please pardon the typos in my previous comment…a new phone here. 😉

    I wished to add that the tone and tenor of your piece echoes a Shari’a informed view of religious life. One that is sadly gaining prominence around the world, in nearly every popular faith.
    Being extremely familiar with this approach in years past, I find it incompatible with my experience within the essential Baha’i spiritual view. Though, that is only my experience.
    Thanks for your attention.
    HW

  3. Thanks for these thoughts, which are very clear and helpful.

    I think that certitude is a state that we must continually attain to, rather than just getting there and resting. We strive to understand and to have faith and we serve. All of these things help lead us to certitude. Then, every day, we must continue to strive in order to maintain or return to that place of certitude. Because we’re doing that every day, our obedience is never blind. It is always coming from a place of wide-open eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *