Amongst the words I dislike most in the English language “submission” is near the top. For centuries, this word has been abused under the guise of Biblical authority, all the while those using it in this way, haven’t really examined what submission means.
My negative attitude towards the word came out a few years ago when I was at the wedding of a dear friend. Before the sermon, the pastor looked at my friend and sternly told her “You’ve already failed at submission. If you would have truly submitted you would have let your groom plan the entire wedding and reception.” Perhaps the pastor meant the comment in jest or perhaps not, but either way our cultural misunderstanding of submission came through loud and clear as it was used to belittle another person.
In reality submission has to do with our relationship to Christ and begs us to examine ourselves, asking if we allow Jesus Christ to be master of our life in every way. Master is another one of those prickly words, especially for those who were in relationships where their freedom was deigned so another could prosper. For example, the passage we read this morning from 1 Peter had been used to justify both slavery in the United States and the abusive treatment of slaves. But what is Peter truly trying to communicate? That we are to serve God in all circumstances, not for our glory, but for God’s. That, brothers and sisters is submission. Not simply prostrating ourselves before Christ when we need something, but submitting our life for his glory each and every moment of each and every day. Peter isn’t telling masters to be harsh, nor is he condoning slavery. Instead, he is uplifting the imagery of the slave and saying that it doesn’t matter what circumstances there may be - if a master is good or harsh - in the end it doesn’t matter because Christ is the master of all and all will be held accountable to him.
In God’s version of submission, we submit because God knows what is best for us. God only has our best interest in mind. While others may use the word “submit” to make us into their own personal doormat, God is telling us to surrender what we hold on to most tightly in order to find the gift of life. For when we find our life in the God who gives us life, movement, breath, and being, we find that we are more free than we ever imagined we could be. God’s submission is deeply rooted in the love that only God can have for each and every one of us. The love that Paul describes in his letter to the Philippines that Christ showed by humbling himself for us and was obedient to the Father to the point of death, all to show us how deeply we are loved.
Submission is our response to this great gift of unsurpassable love. But here is the kicker - God doesn’t force us to submit - to lay down our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead we are given the choice to obey and submit, or to turn away. It is our choice because we have free will, also a gift from a loving God.
This version of submission is vastly different from what was preached at my friend’s wedding that day. The discipline of submission has been abused to the point where it is barely even recognizable any more, but today is our chance to reclaim it. I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought about it before, but every discipline that we have been discussing actually opens us up to freedom. The freedom that we can find in submission is the ability to no longer carry the load of having to get our own way.
Have you ever noticed how many silly things we fight about in this world, both inside and outside of the church? Have you ever wondered why we fight? Under the glassy veneer of whatever reason we give for heatedly disagreeing is the sad truth that we fight because we all feel that we need to get our way. Submission allows us to humbly give away what we think is best in order to embrace what God knows is best, even if it means that we don’t get our own specific way. Submission teaches us the grace in not having to have the absolute last word on a given matter.
Shane Stanford in one of his books told the story of consulting with a church that was about to shut its doors because the church members were divided on whether to paint the sanctuary or not. It had been years since the sanctuary had been painted, yet the church was broken into two camps - those who were pro-painting and those who were against. Those who didn’t want to see the worship space painted claimed that their father and grandfather, now deceased, had painted it by himself years ago. Shane took a deep breath and asked why their father did that, to which the family leader replied “to glorify God”. And Shane asked, “what would he want you to do now?”. There was silence before the whispered answer, “pick up a paint brush and paint the sanctuary to glorify God,” Argument over.
Oh brothers and sisters, how much time we waste drawing our lines in the sand and refusing to ask if we are submitting to God. And lest we too hastily think that this story was exaggerated, think back to a time when you were part of an argument, even as an observer, over something that could have been better resolved by bringing the perspective back to its proper place, back to God. The reality is that we don’t like to submit, especially when God is calling us outside of our comfort zone. But the more that we practice the discipline of submission, the easier it becomes, as we can remember how faithful God has been to us in the past.
Submission is also not simply about obeying - for we can obey our Lord and Savior without submitting to him. For submission is a matter of the heart. Outwardly, we may do what God has called us to, but inwardly, deep in our heart, we rebel. We begrudgingly obey. Submission is not only about picking up our cross and following Christ, but the attitude we do this with.
One final note, when we submit to Christ we also find ourselves submitting to the example of wise Christian elders who are trying to teach us. People who time and again have followed the voice of God in their own lives and have shown a firm pattern of submission. Allowing ourselves to be mentored, discipled, and guided, is a mark of submission taking root in our lives. Another word for this is teachability. Being not only trainable, but eager to learn.
At the end of the day, submission is never going to be popular in our culture. It has been too mutulated from its original intent, and has made folks like the self-denial of submission with self-hatred. But hatred is not to be found in submission, for it is a reflection of God’s loving best intentions for us. Submission asks us, are we going to follow the way of God or not? Do we want to follow God in the deepest place of our spirits? Are we committed to the way of Christ? Do we resist opening up our ears to Christ’s call because we are afraid of what we will hear? Do we act as if the Lord is our supreme and true leader? Do we trust God wants what is best for us?
I would encourage you this week to ponder these questions in your heart and pray about them. Envelop yourself in the God who loves you enough to give you the choice to submit. And then ask ‘how can I submit to God in all things, in order to put the Kingdom of God first?’ Amen.