What Does Submission Look Like?

by Doy Moyer

"Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7).

Imagine a person whose normal mode is to run red lights (maybe we don't have to imagine so much). He runs this light and the next one, but then comes upon a red light and sees a police officer sitting there at the corner. He stops because he doesn't want the ticket. Is this person a true law-abiding citizen? Is he really submitting himself to the law? Or is he just picking and choosing when to stop for the sake of his own convenience? After all, getting stopped and being issued a ticket would be highly inconvenient and costly, but if the police officer were not sitting there, he would have run the light. His goal is not to be obedient, but to act out of selfishness and personal convenience.

Peter wrote, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men" (I Peter 2:13-15).

Likewise, Paul wrote, "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves" (Romans 13:1-2).

These instructions are not based on our agreement with the governing authorities, but upon God's will. When we just happen to agree with a law and therefore do it because it aligns with our own will or is simply convenient to do so, that is not real submission. When we do what the the law says just because it is convenient at that moment, we are not really being law-abiding citizens. We are acting selfishly. Our intent isn't to obey the law, but to do whatever is most advantageous to us in that moment. We abide by the rules we like, but when the rules run counter to what we like, we feel free to do our own thing. Much of modern culture seems to thrive on this mentality. It is wrong.

Might we be treating God in the same way? We may do what God says when we like it, but find ways to circumvent the Lord's teachings when don't like them. Are we being true disciples if we act this way?

True submission is seen, not just when a law or expressed will aligns with our desires or when we can conveniently do it, but even when we don't agree and we find it inconvenient. This is true of a wife's submission to her husband, who is to love her as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Even more, this is true of our service to God, who loves us in spite of ourselves. Submitting to God isn't about finding the commands that we like and agree with; it's about doing what God says because He loves us, we love Him, and we recognize His absolute authority over us. We don't need God to rationalize Himself in order to satisfy our curiosities. We just need to be doers of the word, not merely hearers filled with self-delusions (James 1:22).

Submission, though, is more than just obeying someone's will whether we agree or disagree; it can involve acting in another's best interests, especially when serving others. Jesus, in accordance with the Father's will, gave Himself over to His own creation to be put to death, not because He was under human authority, but because He loves us and wanted to save us. This was a voluntary action on His part as He emptied and humbled Himself "by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8). This attitude, or mind, of Christ is well stated by Paul:

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…" (Philippians 2:3-4).

The issue here is not so much about being forced to submit, but rather freely giving ourselves over to the service of others. Being "subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (Ephesians 5:21) is to be done voluntarily and out of love. It is to benefit others, intentionally putting the interests of others over our own. Such cannot be done out of selfish desire or convenience. The Hebrews writer made the point:

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17).

Christianity necessitates submission. When we choose Christ, we are choosing the Lord and others over our own desires.