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Ian Semple, former member of the Universal House of Justice, gave a wonderful talk on Obedience, in which he talks about coming to obey the laws of Baha’u’llah as being a 5-Step process:

  1. Accept ourselves as the ultimate source of authority

Bahá’u’lláh’s first call to us is not to obey, but to use our minds, to judge fairly, to recognize, and then to believe and then to obey. He assures us that we have the capacity to recognize the truth and to follow it.

We know that ultimate authority resides in ourselves, whether we understand it or not. We can choose not to use this authority, drifting along like a bit of flotsam at the pull of the tide, or we can take charge of our own life.  The choice is ours to make.

Many people exist from day to day, following the fashions and whims of the society in which they live, absorbing its prejudices and pursuing its standards.   Making the choice to take the steps necessary to change may take effort and result in hardship, and we may decide it’s not worth our while, but that is our decision.  We always have a choice.

  1. Recognize our insufficiency.

As soon as we begin to consider not what we can do to please ourselves, but what we ought to do, we begin to look around for examples, for patterns of behaviour that are apparently successful and which we can follow to achieve similar success.

We start out with a whole range of behaviours learned in childhood and absorbed from society around us, but unless we find a central point of reference outside ourselves, we will find it very difficult to rise above our current level. It’s like pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps– you just can’t do it.

So long as he remains the centre of his own universe, he remains limited by his own nature. To enable the full development of the individual and enable it to work in harmony with others for the betterment of the world, it is essential for each of us to recognize our own insufficiency and seek a collective centre outside ourselves. 

  1. Validate a source of authority outside our self.

If we are going to submit ourselves to an external authority, we have a duty to validate the source of that authority.

The essential difference between religion and philosophy is that religion claims to be linked to God Himself, the Creator, Upholder and Mover of the universe. It is not merely a formulation of well-argued ideas, but a revelation of eternal truth. The authority it claims is absolute. When we are linked to God, we are in harmony with all Truth and Justice and Beauty but if we give the obedience due to God Himself to a false prophet, we can descend into a perversion far worse than any that a philosophy can create.

No knowledge is more important than the understanding that, while we are responsible for seeking truth and distinguishing it from error, once we’ve found it, we have the obligation to follow it wherever it may lead. God cannot be bargained with.  As we come to realize that, if God is God, we can’t say anything to God; we can’t bargain with God.

C.S. Lewis commented on this once. When he was drawn to recognize the reality of God he realized a demand was being made of him. God wasn’t saying “Give me all or nothing.” There was no choice; He said, “All.” That’s it, there is no alternative. God is God.

There is no way for us to understand the nature of God or His purposes, and we have to accept that.

To admit that God is God, to accept that we are a tiny part of His creation, and to understand that we need to surrender our will to the authority of God, can be a very humbling and painful experience. Once done, however, it brings an increase in joy and strength that can scarcely be imagined.

  1. Understand the requirements of that source of authority

Finding Bahá’u’lláh is not the end.  When we accept that He is the Manifestation of God, that He and His actions and His words are a perfect mirror of the nature of God, of His Truth and of His intentions for this age, then we begin the long task of learning exactly what He is telling us, putting His commands into practice and permitting the light of His Revelation to illumine our hearts and our understanding. We need to draw ever closer to Him, to absorb His teachings and to integrate them into our lives.  In order to deepen ourselves in the teachings, we must think about them, relate them to one another, try them out and study them in the light of experience.  It is only through independent, clear thinking about the vast range of the teachings that we can foster the growth of our understanding.  This cannot take place if we close the shutters of our minds.

Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings will be in effect for at least a thousand years. Can we imagine then that, without a lot of profound thinking, we can really understand what He is saying and what He intends us to do?

What can we do when we find ourselves unable to accept His requirements?

This can happen at various levels, and is a problem that should be squarely faced and tackled:

  1. there may be a law of Bahá’u’lláh’s which we either fail to understand or feel averse to obeying
  2. there may be a principle of the Faith or an instruction of the Guardian or of the Universal House of Justice which causes us great inconvenience or even danger to obey
  3. there may be a decision of a Spiritual Assembly which we are convinced is wrong

How are we to react in such cases?

They all lead back to validating the source of authority. If we have trouble with understanding or obeying a law of Bahá’u’lláh’s, we should not balk from examining the basis of our faith. We have accepted Him as the Manifestation of God for reasons which we were convinced were valid.

What does this one disagreement with His Writings signify? Is it sufficiently serious to throw into doubt all the evidence on which we have accepted Him in the first place, or is it an indication of a shortcoming in myself?

If we find that our faith in Bahá’u’lláh is not shaken, and that it is merely the particular law that is a problem, we should obey on the basis of faith. This is not blind faith or blind obedience. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said:

By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.  (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 383)

We have a solidly based reliance on Bahá’u’lláh as a source of authority in all things. Sometimes we can go forward in clear understanding of what He wants us to do. Sometimes we are left in the dark because our understanding has not yet grown sufficiently. The light that enable us to go forward through such dark patches is our faith in Him, our conscious knowledge that, in spite of immediate appearances, He is right, and He really does know better than we do. This knowledge enables us to act with full confidence.

It isn’t reluctant obedience to a law that one disagrees with; it is full-hearted obedience to a law one cannot understand but knows must be right. As Shoghi Effendi wrote:

Is not faith but another word for implicit obedience, whole-hearted allegiance, uncompromising adherence to that which we believe is the revealed and express will of God, however perplexing it might first appear, however at variance with the shadowy views, the impotent doctrines, the crude theories, the idle imaginings, the fashionable conceptions of a transient and troublous age? If we are to falter or hesitate, if our love for Him should fail to direct us and keep us within His path, if we desert Divine and emphatic principles, what hope can we any more cherish for healing the ills and sicknesses of this world?  (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 62-63)

The authority of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice go back to the authority of Bahá’u’lláh Himself, so similar principles apply. We should obey them because we know that they are divinely guided. The ways of God are mysterious, even when they come through His institutions. We can’t expect to know everything at the outset.

Obeying out of faith causes us to grow spiritually, enriches our understanding and promotes the growth of the soul.

Obeying a Spiritual Assembly which we believe to be wrong can be much more difficult. Here we obey because of the overriding principle of upholding unity in the Faith.  If we judge the matter to be serious enough, we can always appeal the decision.

Although we have the right to appeal a decision, we should consider not only our own interest or the principle of the matter, but also the interests of the Cause.  Consider:  Is it right to occupy the time of the Assembly by insistently pursuing the point, even if we are sure that its decision is wrong, or is it better to pass it over and allow the Assembly to carry on with its main task, which is the teaching of the Cause of God?  Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong; sometimes we should insist, sometimes we should let it go.  It’s a matter of judgement and good reason.

  1. Exercise judgement in carrying out these requirements.

There are two different sources of authority we need to think about, because they are a little bit different. One is an issuer of commands, and the other is laws and regulations.

A specific command coming from a source of authority is often quite clear, explicit and related to a particular matter, while a law or regulation is usually a more general commandment and its application to a specific case may need study and correlation with other regulations.

For example:  During the 1960s in America was a time when there was great tension between the races. The problem put before the House of Justice was: What happens if you’re in one of the southern states where there’s a law that prohibits a certain degree of association between people of different colours?  Do the Bahá’ís have to obey it because we obey the civil law and it’s a principle to obey the government, no matter which one it is?

The House of Justice said, no, the Bahá’ís should carry out the principles of the Faith as far as they can, but if a person in authority says, “Don’t do it”, you don’t do it. In other words, if the law says that whites and blacks shouldn’t be around together, the Faith obviously says they should be. All right, they should go around together. But if a policeman comes up and says, “You sit in different places,” you go and sit in different places.

This came up in similar situations in Nazi Germany. I am told that there, for example, when the Nazi authorities instructed the Bahá’ís to segregate their meetings between Jews and non-Jews, their solution was simply to stop having meetings. You can get around such problems in various ways.

There is also the matter of obeying laws and principles of the Faith when to do so causes one difficulty or even suffering. Obedience through faith and accepting unpleasant choices makes us grow spiritually. It is a difficult balance to be firm and principled, but not fanatical or bigoted.

Life is not easy, nor was it meant to be. If we acknowledge and accept this and work with it, we grow and progress through all trials and tribulations.  All growth in life causes pain at certain stages.

True obedience requires courage, endurance and the exercise of judgement in carrying out the requirements of the authority we have accepted.  We need to know when to be strict, when to be lenient, which exceptions are justifiable and which are not; how to be forbearing without sacrificing principles, how to be righteous without being fanatical. Generally speaking, it is a good guideline to be very strict with ourselves and lenient with others.

The exercise of our minds and the use of judgment in obeying a law or instruction are also avenues for divine guidance. I was profoundly impressed by something that the Hand of the Cause Paul Haney once related. He said that sometimes when the Universal House of Justice asked him to undertake a task, he was able at the outset neither to see the wisdom of it, nor how he was to carry it out but, confident in the divine guidance given to the House of Justice, he would set out to do it, and he would find that at every step that he took forward a door would open and the next step would become clear, and he would find at the end that he had been enabled to achieve just what he had been requested to do and he could see the reason for it. This is a perfect example of obedience, faith, wisdom and judgement.

The processes of accepting personal responsibility, recognizing our insufficiency, seeking and validating an external source of authority and finding the Manifestation of God, understanding His teachings and using our intelligence in implementing them are essential for the development of our souls and enable us to fulfil our destiny of coming into harmony with the purpose of God and living in perfect obedience to His designs.

Only the guidance of God and Bahá’u’lláh’s system of united and willing obedience of individual souls to His guidance can carry mankind from a world of tyranny and oppression across the narrow bridge over the abyss of fragmentation and chaos to the bliss of the Kingdom of God on earth. Then all peoples will recognize the truth of Bahá’u’lláh’s words:

The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.  (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 336)

When we have gone through this process and learn to obey out of love for Baha’u’llah, it will be because our whole lives have been transformed and reoriented towards God:

In this way they will obey them not through fear of punishment but out of love for Baha’u’llah and because their whole lives have been transformed and re-oriented in the Way of God.  (Universal House of Justice: Lights of Guidance, p. 342)

How has this helped you better understand obedience?  Post your comments below!

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