I’m approaching the time of life at which I’m starting to think that before long I am likely to have to start wearing glasses, especially if I want to be able to keep reading without holding everything at arms length. I wonder how I’m going to feel about that. For those of you who have always worn glasses or contact lenses, I wonder how you feel about it? Are you grateful for the freedom that comes from having access to that technology, without which you would not be able to see nearly so well, and perhaps not do many of the things you do, or do you resent it a bit, find it a bind, a restriction – or is it a bit of both?
This morning we’re continuing our series on Spiritual Disciplines, and we’re going to be exploring the discipline of submission. This could be quite interesting, because if we take it seriously, it is one that can really challenge us. The whole of this series has been based on Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline”, but this morning, his wisdom on this is so well expressed that I’m going to be weaving some quite lengthy quotes from his chapter on this into what I say. If you want to find out exactly which bits are me, and which Foster, you’ll have to look online later when I post up the text on the website.
I’m going to start our exploration by suggesting that the discipline of submission is one that releases us into freedom. If our eyes don’t work properly, we can often be released to see better by submitting to wearing glasses, or contact lens, or having surgery. In a similar way,
“The discipline of submission gives us the freedom to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way that we want them to is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Our lives will not come to an end if this or that does not happen.
For example, many fallings out in families, in friendships, even in churches happen because people do not have the freedom to give in to each other. We insist that a critical issue is at stake; we are fighting for a sacred principle. Perhaps this is the case. Usually it is not. 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.
The biblical teaching on submission focuses primarily on the spirit with which we view other people.”
I wonder if you felt uncomfortable when that section from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus was read for us a little while ago? I’m uncomfortable when I read it. The thing is, this is nothing new. It would have been very uncomfortable for those who first received this letter. It is a cultural revolution. At that time, it was expected that wives should submit to their husbands, that children should obey their parents, and that slaves should obey their masters. Paul wants to encourage these folk to submit with a good heart rather than grudgingly, but to all intents and purposes this is pretty uncontroversial. Although, by even addressing them Paul credits them with a moral agency, the right to make decisions about this, that other writers of the age wouldn’t have done – they wouldn’t even have addressed them.
On the other hand, there are three times as many verses detailing the way in which husbands should submit to their wives – to the extent that the husband is to follow the example of Christ and give up his whole self for his wife. This is mind blowing for the time. Paul continues to heap it on – fathers aren’t to exasperate their children – masters are to “treat their slaves in the same way” – that is, as if they were Christ. Now we might wish that he’d gone further and decried slavery altogether, but this is a radical rebalancing. In all three areas of life Paul works out the implications of the first verse in this section. “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ”. He looks at a culture in which wives were expected to submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters, and insists that in each case the submission must be mutual. Husbands to wives, parents to children, and masters to slaves.
So that deals with normal family and work relationships. But what about relationships that have already gone bad, where there is bad feeling or enmity?
More uncomfortable words, this time from Jesus. Turn the other cheek, give to the one who asks you, love and pray for your enemies. These aren’t just uncomfortable, they’re also hard to put into practice, but not impossible. It is possible to turn the world’s commercial, competitive, dog-eat-dog culture upside down. It is possible to choose to be taken advantage of than to assert your rights. Not to get the best deal, to resist the instinct to defend yourself when falsely accused, to take the pain someone else deserved. It is possible to pray for our enemies, and it does make a difference. To pray for the people who oppose your husband’s ideas, bully your children, make work hell for your wife. All of this is possible, because of Jesus.
He didn’t just lay out this teaching, he lived and died by it. Jesus was God in heaven, and came down to earth and submitted to parents, to religious leaders, to politicians, to false accusation, even to death on a cross. He didn’t have to do any of that, but he did, so that we could see and be free to follow his example, with the strength of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, there are limits to submission – it is an attitude of heart, a discipline of spirit, which releases into a deeper freedom. When it becomes calcified in law, it can lead to greater damage than the freedom it offers.
“Sometimes the limits are easy to determine. A wife is asked to punish her child unreasonably. A child is asked to aid an adult in an unlawful practice. A citizen is asked to violate the dictates of Scripture and conscience for the sake of the State. In each case the disciple refuses, not arrogantly, but in a spirit of meekness and submission.
Often the limits of submission are extremely hard to define. What about the marriage partner who feels stifled and kept from personal fulfilment because of the spouse’s professional career? What about the teacher who unjustly grades a student? What about the employer who promotes employees on the basis of favouritism? These are questions that do not yield simplistic answers. There is no such thing as a law of submission that will cover every situation, and so we are catapulted into a deep dependence on the Holy Spirit, a dependence which is nourished by some of the other disciplines we are exploring.”
I’ve talked quite a lot about submission to each other, but there are two other aspects of submission that I would like to explore briefly.
The first is one that has kind of been assumed, and that is submission to the Scripture, to the word of God. The question is, when we come to the Bible, do we approach it, and especially challenging passages like today’s, with an attitude of judgement or submission? Do we read it, like any other book, thinking that we can take the bits we agree with, or like, or comfort us, and lay aside the rest, or do we determine to allow ourselves to be shaped by it. Do we sit over it in judgement, or under it in submission? This is not to say that we should not use our critical faculties, intellect, and imagination to engage with Scripture in order to understand it as fully as we can. These are gifts from God which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, open the Word to us. It is about our attitude of heart, about our inclination of mind and thought.
And what about the most important submission, the surrender that makes all other surrender possible? What about our submission to God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Are we willing to follow Christ’s example and command, and die to ourselves in order to live in and for him. Are all our thoughts, feelings, intentions, decisions, submitted to God?
To finish off I’d like to share with you part of another book, due to be published in November.
“In the spring of 1820 a tiny baby girl lost her sight due to poor
medical treatment for an eye infection. That baby grew up with a
determination to create poetry and write stories, and eventually wrote
more than 8,000 songs and hymns. That blind baby became the famous hymn
writer Fanny Crosby.
So many of her songs were loved and featured in hymn books that Fanny
had to write under several different pen names, so the volumes didn’t
seem taken over by her. Many people were amazed that as someone who had
never been able to see, she was able to write so much, and even more
amazed by her consistent attitude of happiness and courage. A preacher
once told her that he thought it was a great pity that God didn’t give
her sight, but she responded that if she had been able to petition God
before she was born, she would still have asked to be blind. ‘When I get
to heaven,’ she said, ‘the first face that shall ever gladden my sight
will be that of my Saviour.’
Fanny talked much of her contentment in loving and worshipping her Lord,
and had discovered what it meant to be satisfied in God – particularly
in submitting herself to God’s sovereign will:
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Saviour am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.
These powerful words express a sense of being in a place of complete
rest in God’s love. It is evident that to Fanny Crosby, being satisfied
in God was a natural result of deciding to place God first. The refrain
summed up her outlook on the life she was called to live: ‘This is my
story, this is my song; praising my Saviour all the day long.’ It’s
clear that she practised spiritual disciplines and caught hold of a holy kind of satisfaction.
But her story could have been so different; it could so easily have been
one woven with bitterness and despair, shot through with disappointment
that God had left her with no sight. But she turned any bitterness
around in the act of submission: in laying herself down, how she was