But Peter and the Apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Acts 5: 29
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. . . . Whoever has received his testimony sets seal to this, that God is true.
John 3: 31, 33
What exactly do Peter and the other Apostles mean when they say, “We must obey God rather than men.”? We speak often of obeying God, but how, exactly, do we do this? We have the words of scripture and the teachings of the great traditions. Yet, even as we attempt to follow these, we experience the question that remains: Knowing what we are not to do, how do we know what to do?
A typical day for most of us is one filled with family and relationships, work, and consistent interactions within our culture and with many other persons. It is a life in relationship to and largely influenced by the values and requirements of the interpersonal world in which we live. Much of our life consists in “finding our niche” and following it. Of course, we occasionally encounter a person who stands out from he crowd and seems to be following a different voice.
As Henry David Thoreau described it: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” There are always some persons who seem to hear a music that is “far away”,” and so who seem themselves to belong not merely to the earth.
To this day I retain a vivid memory of seeing on television Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations, telling the members of the General Assembly in October of 1960 why he would not step down from his post despite the pressure from the Soviet Union to do so.
It is not the Soviet Union or indeed any other big Powers who need the United Nations for their protection. It is all the others. In this sense, the Organization is first of all their Organization and I deeply believe in the wisdom with which they will be able to use it and guide it. I shall remain in my post during the term of my office as a servant of the Organization in the interests of all those other nations, as long as they wish me to do so. In this context the representative of the Soviet Union spoke of courage. It is very easy to resign; it is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist. As is well known to all Members of this Assembly, I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions. If it is the wish of those nations who see in the Organization their best protection in the present world, I shall now do so again.
Although I did not at all fully understand the complexities of the dispute, as I watched the face of Hammarskjold utter the words, “It is very easy to resign; it is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist.”, I was able to recognize a person who gave direction to his life not by the demands of society but by the will of God and to experience the desire to somehow emulate him.
Our daily lives, however, are more than filled with the pulsations of our culture, the urgencies of our daily responsibilities, and the demands of those with whom we live and work. The human voices are very dominant, while the far away music of the voice of God is almost inaudible. Reflecting on the struggles of so many persons with whom I have spoken over time, I have come to understand that so many of our deeper sufferings in life come from the inadequacy we experience of a life that is built exclusively around human relationships and social expectations. What constitutes us most distinctively as human persons is spirit; it is our own spirit’s longing for communion with the Spirit of God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” said St. Augustine. Human fulfillment depends, finally, on our realization that we must obey God rather than human beings, rather than the demands and pulsations of the culture and society which we inhabit.
Our lives are not truly human unless we live from and in obedience to the call of spirit in us and the Spirit of God. To receive the testimony of the One who comes from heaven requires that we create spaces in our daily lives to hear the “far away” music. Prayer is not a duty we do for God or a means of self-actualization or ethical probity. It is our spirit’s breath. Without it we our spirits suffocate; we cease to be fully human in our deepest capacities and become mere functionaries. It is in prayer, in attention to what is most deeply within and most completely transcendent of us, that we receive our unique life direction and call. As we receive it, as did Peter, the Apostles, Hammarskjold, we shall know the experience which they speak of, of how we too must “obey God rather than humans.”
In the enlightened person who is ascending to God, the life of the senses adheres to the spirit. For this reason his sensory powers are turned to God with heartfelt affection and his nature is filled with all good things. He feels that the life of his spirit is joined to God without intermediary. His higher powers are thereby raised to God with eternal love, pervaded with divine truth, and set firm in a freedom devoid of images. With this he is filled with God and overflowing without measure. In this overflow occurs that essential flowing away or immersion of oneself in the superessential Unity, where the union without distinction is found, as I have often said. All our ways end in this superessential being. If we are willing to walk with God along the lofty ways of love, we will rest with him eternally and without end. In this way we will eternally approach God and enter into him and rest in him.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Little Book of Clarification, Conclusion