Dublin Coat of Arms in City Hall

Last November each of the girls had friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. While the turkey was in the oven, the kids were sitting around the table talking. I was reading a new book about Dublin called, Hidden City. In one of the early chapters, I read a brief snippet about Dublin’s city motto.

In any city I’ve lived before, I never considered whether they had a motto. I have since learned that three of them do not have mottos: Dunkirk, Oswego & Ithaca (all in New York). And no, “Ithaca is Gorges” is not a motto.

The fourth New York city where I lived, Albany, does have an official motto, “Assiduity

In case you’re curious, the word assiduity means “the quality of acting with constant and careful attention”. Now go out and use assiduity in a sentence three times today.

When I first read this, it felt a bit jarring—enough so that I interrupted the kids to tell them what I’d learned. They responded that the motto was awful and needed changing. (In fact, this last summer a former Lord Mayor of Dublin also suggested it was time for a change.)

So here’s the motto: Obedientia Civium Urbis Felicitas. That translates to “The citizens’ obedience is the city’s happiness”.

I’m guessing you figured out that happiness is not the word causing concern.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of us hear obedience and immediately think of words like oppression and subservience.

I came across one blog while researching this, and the writer was not a fan of the motto either. However, this person misinterpreted the motto, stating that its point was, “The Obedient Citizen is a Happy Citizen.”

But, this motto is not saying all you have to do is obey the laws of the city and you’ll be happy. It is more likely in fact the opposite.

Think about your commute to work this morning. Whether you drove, cycled, walked or took public transport, if you obeyed every traffic law and no one else did, you were likely not a happy citizen.

You were more likely be an angry citizen. (And potentially an injured or dead one. Although I guess if you’re reading this, you’re not dead). But, if every other commuter also obeyed the traffic laws…for example they actually stopped when the light turned red rather than speeding up…crossed when and where they were supposed to…etc., your level of happiness probably went up.

Or imagine if everyone obeyed property laws. They didn’t steal or damage your stuff.

This came up again recently. Liz and I have been reading through the book Centre Church with a group of people in Dublin. In the book, Tim Keller contrasts religion and gospel.

Religion says, “I obey, therefore I am accepted”. Gospel says, “I’m accepted; therefore I obey”.

Obey is a word that we’ve twisted a lot. Even in the church, talk about ‘obeying’ God is sure to cause cringing. We often do what the blog writer I mentioned earlier did and make obedience something done to earn us something else.

Citizens who obey the government will receive happiness.

Christians who obey God will receive God’s love (or pleasure, or favour).

But they’re both backwards.

People often look at obedience as a way to get something from God. But the drudgery of trying to obey enough to earn love is life-sucking. (Those who grew up in families where love was given based on behaviour can attest to that.)

God loves me, and is pleased with me, so I want to obey him…I want to do what pleases him.

It may seem like a small shift, but it is a totally different way of looking at it. Think about it this way; which marriage would you say is healthier:

“I don’t cheat on my spouse because they would divorce me if I did.” (Don’t-break-the-rules based)

“I don’t cheat on my spouse because I would never want to hurt them like that.” (Love based)

When obedience flows from love, we avail ourselves of the grace we need to find life…and even happiness in the midst of it.

The more I think about it, I kind of like the motto.