By Beth Clayton Luthye
Let yourself go and learn the art of submission
The first thing I ever said was “mine.” I have a twin sister who uttered the same first word. I’m not sure what we were negotiating ownership of, but I do know that we both wanted our way. I’d like to think that I’ve grown up and turned into a selfless person, but if I’m honest I have to admit that deep down I still like things to go my way.
From time to time, when I have to deal with customer service phone calls, I’m reminded of my I-want-it-my-way-and-now nature. My cell phone provider, for example, has terrible customer service. But they’re not the real problem. That would be me. I’m so used to getting things my way that a couple of hours’ worth of anything else turns me into some kind of Dr. Jekyll version of myself. Based on what I see around me, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
We live in a me-centric culture. We’re used to getting what we want, when we want it, how we want it. And somehow we’ve bought into a messed-up, consumerized version of Christianity where God is on call to work according to our needs and agendas. Only, God has His own — much bigger — plan, and He wants us to submit to Him.
Submission. Even as I type it I can feel my muscles tensing. It can be a hard word to swallow. But maybe that’s because we’ve seen bad examples of it played out. Maybe we don’t understand what submission really means.
The image I’ve been able to wrap my mind around is that of an open hand (something I borrowed from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline). Sometimes I find myself walking through life clinching my fists, clinging to my rights. Yet what God asks is that I loosen my grip.
Jesus’ words were clear: “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
I still have a choice: Follow God or don’t follow God. Since I pick option one, I’m left trying to figure out what it means to deny myself.
To start with, I’ve learned it has nothing to do with rejecting my individual identity. I get to follow Jesus as myself — personality, quirks, desires, and all. God doesn’t ask for a bunch of cookie-cutter followers. What He does ask is that I let go of my need to be in control, opening myself to God and allowing Him to change me.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But according to Foster, the beautiful part of letting go is that it ultimately brings freedom. The freedom that corresponds to open-handed living is, he writes, “the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. … Only in submission are we enabled to bring this spirit to a place where it no longer controls us.”
Sometimes I find myself walking through life clinching my fists, clinging to my rights. Yet what God asks is that I loosen my grip.
Submission is active. It’s not a passive resignation but a purposeful OK. It means we no longer live for ourselves alone. Theologian John Stott put it this way: “Only if we serve will we find freedom. Only if we lose ourselves in loving, will we find ourselves. Only if we die to our own self-centeredness will we begin to live.”
That means we not only submit to God, but we live out “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Paul explains it like this in Philippians 2:3-5: “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not [only] for his own interests but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus.”
OK, hold up. I can learn to submit to God because, well, He’s God. But other people too? Yep. Even when my family is driving me crazy? Uh-huh. When I’m confident I know better than my boss? Absolutely. When I’m sure the argument was not my fault? Yes, even then. What about when I’m tired and the last thing I want to do is serve? Especially then.
Mutual submission is part of what it means to live as a Christian. It’s difficult to get a handle on, though, because it’s not something we see much of in our culture or — if we’re honest — even in the church. We live in an I’ll-serve-you-if-you-serve-me kind of world.
The good news for us is that submitting to others comes as a natural result of submitting to God. It’s part of being “filled with the Spirit.” But it’s also something we can be intentional about. Submission is less about forced behavior and more about how we navigate our daily relationships. Recognizing that each person we meet has been created in the image of God, and as such, they hold value. Acknowledging that value goes a long way toward submission. In this sense, submission becomes less of a “because I said so” and more a result of a trust-filled relationship.
Beth Clayton Luthye lives in San Diego, Ca and works with Plant with Purpose, a Christian, non-profit organization that transforms lives in rural areas worldwide where poverty is caused by deforestation.