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Excerpt: The Obedience Paradox: Finding True Freedom in Marriage

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Excerpt: The Obedience Paradox: Finding True Freedom in Marriage

Mary Stanford has just published a new book The Obedience Paradox: Finding True Freedom in MarriageI chatted with Mary about the motivation behind this book. 

Stanford said her inspiration for writing was that "it really did seem to me that spouses were hungering for some clarity. What also spurred me to do this book was hearing the occasional priest courageously tackle Ephesians 5-- at wedding masses or when the epistle rolled around in the liturgical calendar. So often they spent the majority of the homily trying to allay fears, assuring wives that obedience does not imply that we are doormats or second-class citizens and, of course, that the husband is called to sacrificial love. While these assurances were true and good, it just felt so unsatisfying! It is one thing to tell wives what obedience is 'not'; it is another thing to articulate what it does mean."

One of the deepest insights Mary says she had was from St. Edith Stein. "For me, the insight I gleaned from Stein on the spiritual differences between the masculine and the feminine was a game-changer; it actually supports the idea that when we live headship and submission as gift and receptivity, we actually succeed in making one another feel loved at the deepest level of our nature." 

"I hope and pray that my book helps wives to discover the power of their receptivity, not only in its capacity to build marital unity, but also in its particular ability to affirm their husbands' identities," Mary explained. "And I do pray that their husbands will read it too...there is a hefty chapter explaining "how" to sacrificially love their wives."

Excerpt from The Obedience Paradox

By Mary Stanford

In the opening chapters of Genesis, the serpent tempted the woman with the idea that God was not to be trusted, and that His command regarding the fruit of the mysterious Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not for her and Adam’s good, for their protection and flourishing. Rather it was a power play, the serpent suggested: a jealous Creator’s attempt to control and manipulate them. Recall the serpent’s response to Eve after she protested that she and the man would die if they partook of the fruit: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gn 3:4–5).

From the beginning, we see that humanity has been tempted to doubt the very identity of God. Is He a personal God, who can only be known through a trusting relationship? Or is He a mere object, whose mystery is no more than a puzzle for us to solve and appropriate through detached, calculated grasping? If God is an object, then a free creature cannot respond to such a mystery through trust, but instead only through a bold taking of what was not really offered. Viewed in such a light, God’s supposed generosity can be dismissed simply as a restriction on our freedom, rather than its source.

John Paul II argued in his Theology of the Body — reflections articulated over the course of his weekly papal audiences from 1979 until 1984 — that no biblical evidence supports such an understanding of God. We have no indication that the Creator is an object to be controlled, or a puzzle to be solved. Rather the Bible indicates that God is a person we can trust. In the first books of Genesis, the primary way in which God reveals Himself is as Creator and Giver of everything that exists. When we observe that He was totally free (not compelled) to make or not make the universe, we face the personal reality of God as we reflect on the words, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gn 1:31). Through these words, John Paul II said, “we are led to glimpse in love the divine motive for creation,” for “only love, in fact, gives rise to the good and is well pleased with the good.” God reveals His power through His love and His acts of giving. The first man and woman received everything, including themselves, from the loving hand of God. From the beginning, they experienced nothing else but God’s total generosity and care for them in the Garden. He was the Giver, and they were the grateful receivers.

Yet here, perhaps, is the sticking point: Being the receiver of a gift requires trust. One who receives is vulnerable to the initiatives of the giver. The receiver is invited to trust that the giver offers the gift freely, with only the hope of a grateful reception in return. For when someone gives with “strings attached” — that is, intending to use the receiver or to rob the receiver of freedom — the giver makes a mockery of a true gift. The serpent’s suggestion, however insupportable, was that God was doing just that. “By casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning of the gift, that is, on love as the specific motive of creation,” John Paul II said, man and woman accepted the devil’s implication that God is not loving, but jealous — that His command is not part of His gift to humanity but is only a tool to withhold knowledge from us in an attempt to diminish our freedom.

Such a doubting disposition stands at the foundation of the fateful error that we continue to witness today. Our first parents — refusing to make the trusting leap that is essential to knowing a person — mistook God for an object. They were deceived into thinking they could gain “God’s knowledge” by force, by “stealing” His secrets, as it were. Sound familiar? Recall from chapter 1 that Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern science, boasted of “tormenting” nature to give up her secrets. His words should only highlight our first parents’ mistake. Adam and Eve saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gn 3:6) and thought that it would give them power. “Knowledge is power” is the battle cry of modern science; it exalts putting its subjects “to the test” to gain from them useful knowledge of the material world. Such an approach to a person, however, is a fruitless endeavor, for “God’s knowledge” is hardly the same as “knowing God.”

God is not some object we can study and re-create in a lab. God is a loving communion of Persons! Becoming like God is not as simple as extracting what He knows and using it to imitate Him. That Adam and Eve thought God’s knowledge is something separate from God himself reveals their profound underestimation of His identity. God is not a material thing, but a spiritual being. Adam and Eve should have been striving for a deeper personal knowledge of God. But such knowledge comes at a steep price: We can attain it only through a trusting relationship. Instead, Adam and Eve tried to acquire a kind of scientific knowledge of God’s secrets. They were duped into thinking that they could become like God by information — some set of facts — rather than by transformation, through a loving and grateful union with their Creator in Whose image they were made. In approaching God as an object rather than on a personal level, they strove to attain knowledge without relationship, power without vulnerability. They allowed the serpent to distract them from the fundamental truth that God’s power is manifested first not in His knowledge but in His love — the grand display of His free gift of creation. By seizing the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge against God’s will, Adam and Eve were transformed right in front of us, from receivers into takers. They operated outside the dynamic of trust that alone brings about intimacy between persons. Instead, they grasped at what they desired without any regard for the relationship that the initial gift of creation had established between themselves and God.

What Adam and Eve failed to predict was the effect that such an alienation from God would have upon their relationship with one another — an effect that continues to mark our relationships today, and especially our marital relationships. The sudden and rather jarring experience of bodily shame drove the man and woman to conceal themselves from one another immediately after their act of disobedience. This shame reveals a profound connection between personal intimacy and vision. For when we are in a relationship, when we know a friend spiritually, we see differently. Our friendships with others cannot help but affect the way we see the world, as each friend’s unique perspective broadens our own. We begin to see as the other person sees and to appreciate things we never noticed before. 

Excerpt from The Obedience Paradox © Mary Stanford. Published by OSV. Used with permission, no other use of this material is authorized.

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