Welcome back to Week Two of our experiment in Virtual Immersion!

Now that we’ve become more aware of how our current habits and practices really do reveal who we are and who we will become (for better and worse), and have taken note of where we might need to both limit and nurture ourselves, we’ll move on to our second spiritual discipline: the discipline of submission.

Definition

Like the discipline of rule, the discipline of submission isn’t so much an action as it is an attitude of mind and heart. Submission is simply the willingness to yield to another’s thoughts or actions, and it is rooted in the belief that serving others is the path to true greatness. Its directive is found in Ephesians 5:21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The phrase “be subject” can also be translated “submit”: We are to submit to one another. Why? Because others hold power over us? Because they are better at something than we are? Because they’ve earned our submission? No: We submit to them out of reverence for Christ, which means that we submit to one another not only because we are trying to follow Jesus’ example, but also because Jesus had a hand in our creation and created all of us in his image. We submit to each other to honor both his example and his handiwork. Even and especially when they (and we) don’t deserve it.

The Boundary and the Freedom

As we will see in the weeks to come, each discipline limits a particular harmful characteristic while growing a particular virtue. Submission limits our pride and demanding spirit, which results in the freedom from needing to control our lives. In this freedom, our own rightful gifts and responsibilities have room to grow. We live more and more out of the true self, rather than being hampered by responsibilities that are not ours.

The True Self and the False Self

The discipline of submission appears early in this study because it above all brings us face-to-face with the fundamental paradox of Christianity. On one hand, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1) and his goodness is stamped indeliably upon every single human being. On the other hand,  Jesus taught that to save our lives we must lose them and says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11ff). Without delving into the meaning of the latter passage, let’s name the obvious paradox: how can we be both good and evil?

The answer can be found in the concept of the true and false self. We can be both good and evil because we all really have two selves within us: the true self that God made in his image before we were born and that is good and will live forever, and the false self that we created ourselves out of defensiveness, fear, anger, and hatred. Every moment we choose to live out of either our true self or our false self. The apostle Paul calls these the “old self” and “new self,” as we saw last week in Ephesians 4:22: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

These words sound offensive if we think Paul is calling our whole self “corrupt and deluded by its lusts,” because we all know by experience there is some seed of good in everyone, no matter what they’ve done. Not everything in us is bad and needs to be rooted out. But he really is talking about two different selves that are already in us: we must nurture and grow the true self and relentlessly kill the false. God is already working to help us do this, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’ve ever felt everything in your life is turning to ash, it’s not because God hates you, but he is likely trying to help you kill the false self that is rooted in anything other than submission to God. (Even if you are pursuing what seems like an unquestionable good. God wants us to relate with him directly, not mistake the gift for the giver.) In contrast, when you notice a place in your life that is taking off with almost no effort of your own, that may be God helping you see what is true and living and eternal within you, and thus helping you grow the true self. Just as God wants us to interact with him directly and not just the good things he’s given, God also only interacts with and grows our true self, however stunted it may be. Which may be why our demands of him usually go unanswered – when we grow demanding, we’re almost always operating out of the false self.

This is why the discipline of submission is so foundational. Practicing submission often quickly reveals the presence of the true and false self within us, and how often we live out of the demanding false self when dealing with others. Our false self has to be perceived as right and has to control the outcome. Our true self sees and honors the image of God in others, and considers their needs before our own.

If we are accustomed to living out of our false selves constantly, this concept of having two selves can feel much like being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. When I first fully internalized this concept, I was extremely disoriented – I had so fully lived out of the false self in my life (needing to be right, needing to be in control) that I had absolutely no awareness of the seed of a true self that never really developed. If this is your situation, rest assured that your true self is indeed still alive – it’s just pure potential. When put in the right environment – like practicing the disciplines – God will give the growth. It’s how you were designed. Your true self just needs to be named and invested in, but it will take time.

Contemporary Context and Common Obstacles

Even though submission is foundational to the practice of Christianity, Immersion Week participants usually find it the most difficult and controversial discipline to understand and to practice. Why? 

Our culture

First, our American culture and values are dead-set against submission. Instead, we are to defend our rights (woven into the fabric of our nation’s founding), prioritize our own needs and wants (via consumerism), and simply barrel through others to get what we want (the rogue or rebel is usually glorified).

Active, not passive

Second, we often misunderstand submission to be passivity and equate with the loss of self. It’s quite the opposite: submission requires action, not passivity. You must choose it freely, or it is slavery, not submission. And it certainly results in the loss of self – but only the false self. Jesus taught that to save our lives, we must lose them (Matthew 16:25), and submission helps grow our true selves more and more so that we no longer need to be right or superior – we can be content in being ourselves.

The limits of submission

And third, we rightly discern that there are limits to the discipline of submission – limits that were embodied and intended by Jesus himself. He said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). So it works both ways: even those in authority are to be more like slaves than lords to their followers.

Slaves? Really? But what about those who have no intention of pursuing our good? How do we practice submission in the face of injustice or outright harm? Many come from a background where they didn’t have a voice or a self at all, and must constantly work against the grain to believe that they are indeed valuable and have the right to speak up and establish good boundaries for themselves. Does submission ask them to undo all of that? As stated above, submission is neither passive nor rooted in the belief that we are worthless doormats. It again requires us to return to the concept of the true and false self. We are to love your neighbor as ourselves. Without questions, the true self loves itself – not because we’re so enamoured with ourselves but because we choose to believe God: he created us good and in his image. On the other hand, the false self prioritizes itself, lording it over others. As we are growing the true self, we must also kill the false self – we must not take on the tactics of our enemies. We are to respond to others – even our enemies – with honor and respect.

Now if our true self is good and valuable and worthy of being protected, how can we lay down our rights? We can only do this if we know and believe that God is our creator, protector, and provider. God is our protector – not us and not anyone else. When we yield to another, God steps in to protect us – often in ways that aren’t apparent until much later. His agenda is usually very different from ours and can be hard to discern except by revelation or hindsight. Because of this, our primary submission is not to others, but to God: we can only relinquish control if we believe he is not only in control but is actually working for our ultimate good. That’s why submission is the hardest for those who do not believe God will come through for them and protect them – those who have felt they have had to take control of their lives because no one else would. If this is where you have been, then begin to take these issues up with God – tell him how you have experienced him, and point-blank ask him where he has been in your life. And then give him time and space to answer. We’ll learn how to do that more practically when we get to the disciplines of guidance, meditation, and prayer.

But yes, there are limits to submission: as Richard Foster asserts in his chapter on submission in Celebration of Discipline, the limits of submission are where it becomes destructive.When a relationship becomes harmful, it is good and right to protect ourselves and remove ourselves from that relationship – while recognizing and honoring God’s image even within that person and having the hope of reconciliation.  

Practice

So now  that we understand more about what submission is, how do we practice it? We practice the attitude of submission through the action of service. Think about your everyday experiences. For example, when you disagree with someone at work, are you willing to yield even when you’re certain you’re right? If the bank teller asks a person to come up before you when you were actually waiting longer, can you let it go? This doesn’t mean you don’t speak up when necessary – by all means, make your perspective known respectfully. But there comes a point when you can choose to yield or you choose to insist on getting your way. In both the practical action of service and conscious attitude of yielding control, we choose to practice submission rather than demanding our way. We choose to live out of the true self rather than the false.

Exercise

So for this week, I’d like you to cultivate the willingness to yield in your everyday relationships: your spouse and children, your colleagues and those in authority, checkout clerks and those in the service industries, people at the telephone company or health insurance company, etc. Do you become irate in “unfair” situations? Do you have to be perceived as being right? When you find yourself becoming demanding, internally or externally, remember that you do not have to have control over every relationship or every outcome. Loosen that grip. Affirm that God is in control and God is for you, not against you. And in that freedom, choose to honor the other person.

Also, I’d like you to choose one small project you can do within the course of the week that is purely a service to someone else. Volunteer at your child’s school; at the homeless shelter; at the church. Write a letter to someone you know is lonely. Offer to babysit for a family who is far from extended family. Any act of service allowing you to put aside your own preferences and priorities for the needs of someone else, giving you an opportunity to submit to them in a very practical way.

Again, post comments, questions, and experiences freely. This is usually the hardest discipline to understand and to practice, so be sure to process through the obstacles. In particular, in this post I took for granted that God is in control and God is good, simply because those are foundational Christian principles. If you feel you need more evidence than that, that would be a great discussion topic. Also feel free to email me directly: info@amandarooker.com.

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