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Spiritual practices for the year: Submission

Spiritual practices for the year: Submission

by Marion Van Driel


One of the first words children learn is ‘no’. Early on we clearly convey what it is we want and don’t want. Inherent to our human nature is the emotional – if not physical – defiant stamp of the foot, protruding bottom lip, collapse and wail – whatever it takes to get our way. Conversely, it takes discipline to relinquish our will, because we equate parameters and the act of surrender with confinement. 

In his best-selling book Celebration of Discipline, theologian Richard Foster says our aim is freedom – that the disciplines are “merely the means.” He claims each discipline has a corresponding freedom. The corresponding freedom to the discipline of submission, he writes, is “the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.” 

If we grow up to be adults who constantly demand things go our own way, we make life difficult not only for those around us, but for ourselves. Foster reasons that often, church splits happen because “people don’t have the freedom to give in to each other.” People fuss and fume – often to the point of ill health – believing that a sacred principle is at stake. “Perhaps this is the case. Usually it is not,” states Foster. “Often we cannot stand to give in simply because it means that we will not get our own way. Only in submission are we enabled to bring this spirit to a place where it no longer controls us. Only submission can free us sufficiently to enable us to distinguish between genuine issues and stubborn self-will.” 

Fear of Letting Go

In her South Delta practice, clinical counsellor Linda Saucy has observed the inability of people to let go of their own way comes from a place of fear. “It’s not a greedy fear, necessarily, that ‘I have to be right’; it’s a fear that if I let go, my whole world will spin out of control.” She says a by-product of control is anxiety, and from the anxiety comes the need to control; it’s a vicious cycle. “It’s almost as if they’ll lose themselves if they lose control.” She calls it a paradox. “It’s in letting go that we find our true selves. But that doesn’t sell very easily.” 

Saucy adds that emotional intelligence is required for us to grow in submission. We cooperate at home, at school, at work; we know that relationships are a two-way street and we’ve learned that vulnerability is required for authentic and deep relationships.

A Biblical Perspective 

Rather than set forth a hierarchical structure, scriptures focus on our attitude towards others – how we view them. Jesus spoke of the commands regarding murder and adultery in a new way – not as a matter of the physical, but the mind and heart. How we view people determines how we act. Peter commanded slaves to live in submission to their masters. It was a given that slaves would submit outwardly; the command suggests that to live in submission was a matter of respect and consideration. Foster says this submission frees us up to love others unconditionally.

We draw back from Jesus’ expectation of His followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). We are much more amenable to the concept of self-fulfillment than self-denial, which we associate with loss of our individuality, and self-loathing. But Jesus himself modelled self-denial as a route to understanding that we don’t need to have our own way, and that our joy is not dependent on getting it. Instead of losing their identity, Foster says that Jesus, Peter and Paul – who all practiced submission – actually “found their identity in the act of self-denial.” Jesus not only submitted to death on the cross, He also lived the life of a suffering servant for the sake of all humankind. 

An Abused Discipline

Foster contends that the discipline of submission is the most abused and misunderstood. Regardless of gender or station in life, all Christians are called to be submissive to one another – husbands as well as wives, masters as well as slaves, fathers as well as children. Wives, slaves and children didn’t need to change to obey Paul’s exhortation, according to Foster. They were already in a position of subordination. “If anything, the sting of the teaching falls upon the dominant partner,” he says. After commanding slaves to serve their masters whole-heartedly as if they were serving the Lord, Paul continues, And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him” (Ephesians 6:9). In Paul’s day and culture, it was unheard of for masters to treat slaves as anything other than chattels. Paul also tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. He warns fathers not to exasperate their children, but to train them in God’s ways. No matter our position, we are called to submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ”, considering others better than ourselves and always seeking the good of others.

Saucy bristles at the very word ‘submission’ because of her own experience with very legalistic educators for whom submission was synonymous with strict demands in the ‘name of God’, with no allowance for individual thought or reasoning. “Everything in me rebelled against that. To me,” says Saucy, “we shouldn’t call that submission; it needs a different name when subservience is forced upon you; when you’re the doormat, the obedient automaton, which is what you turn into, eventually, when you’re in an abusive situation.” Submission is always a voluntary act. Saucy adds, and it’s up to us to navigate how we respond to God’s invitation to submit.


Submission is not a simple one-way discipline. Foster writes, “submission reaches the end of its tether when it becomes destructive. It then becomes a denial of the law of love as taught by Jesus and is an affront to genuine biblical submission” to love God above all and our neighbours as ourselves. 

Foster admits that often the limits of submission are difficult to define, and we must depend on the Holy Spirit’s leading in these questions. There are circumstances – traffic safety for young children, for instance, that require swift, unquestionable obedience. But as time passes, we offer explanations for their understanding of our guidance. And so it is with other relationships, and we are dependent on the Spirit for wisdom. “After all, if we had a book of rules to cover every circumstance in life, we would not need dependence. (The Holy Spirit) will be to us a present Teacher and prophet, instructing us in what to do in every situation.”

Join Marion Van Driel for further discussion on the topic of spiritual disciplines. Go to

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