After years of being the home school and co-op teacher making these kinds of assignments, I recently accepted the challenge to write a book report on Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. In particular, I wanted to evaluate whether the title character Ella ever actually obeys any order given to her after a fairy bestows on her the gift, or curse, of obedience. Throughout the story, strong-willed Ella delays following instructions and adds to her orders to created unwanted results. In Chapter 5, when her father commands her to go to boarding school, Ella defiantly says, “I’ll go but I shall loathe it.” Her father replies that she is free to loathe or love it, as long as she goes.
It seems that the definition of obedience in this book is simply to do what you are commanded, completing an action; but I don’t hold to the same definition. Like many Christian parents, I explain obedience to my children as doing what you are told to do all the way, right away, and the happy way. That definition addresses the action, the speed and accuracy, and the attitude. “Obey” is an important word throughout the Bible because we are primarily called to obey God, so it is essential that we have an accurate understanding.
The Hebrew word translated “obey” in the Old Testament is “shama” (Strong’s H8085). Strong’s gives the definition as “to hear intelligently (with implications of attention and obedience).” Other definitions include the concepts of listening with attention or interest, consenting or agreeing, and yielding to. In the New Testament, the word translated “obey” is the Greek word “hypakouo” (Strong’s G5219). In the definition, it describes a porter who at a knock on the door comes to listen to who it is.
Keep in mind Strong’s definition for a few moments as we consider obeying God as believers. The Creator and Sustainer of the universe has given commands to the creatures He created. Since He is holy and righteous, all of His commands are good and right. As Christians, we love Him because He first loved us, so we should listen intelligently with attention, being ready to obey out of love. As believers, we have a great desire to obey, to do exactly what God tells us to do, when He tells us to do it, with great joy. Our failure to obey produces sadness over sin, leading to repentance.
Besides the clear instructions throughout Scripture to obey God, Paul writes another important command from God in Ephesians 6:1 (reiterated in Colossians 3:20), “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” Since parents have the important job of teaching children about obedience, we had better get our definition right and set a good example. We need to train our children to hear intelligently, to give attention to our voice with the intention of completing the assignment. Or, in those basic terms, we want them to do what they are told all the way, right away, and the happy way. And when they fail to obey, either by their action or attitude, as part of our discipline we can point out the gospel truth that they are sinners in desperate need of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Obedience is doing what you are told to do
all the way,
and the happy way.
For a few moments in Chapter 18, Ella was commanded to be happy to be blessed with obedience, and she described it as finally free from fear. I thought that was quite profound. Of course, ridiculous events transpired in the novel, but in real life, Christians who have entrusted their soul to God can obey Him without fear (Psalm 56). We should be happy to obey God!
Reading books aloud can start great conversations about worldview issues. I think the children’s novel Ella Enchanted is one opportunity to read a creative, fanciful story together while discussing the author’s ideas. You might work with your children to write a clear definition of obedience before you begin reading, then take note of Ella’s actions, deciding whether they are obedient or not. Talk about the difference between obeying a loving God versus the cruel tyrant or selfish fool. And the next time you give your children instructions, encourage them to examine their hearts for true obedience as they respond.
Reading aloud and discussing books as a family are the first steps toward teaching your children to read with discernment. How do you practice or teach reading with discernment?