The Christian Disciplines: Submission

I’ve been a little . . . ill disciplined in continuing this series (sorry, Melody), but the next one seems very appropriate. 

Of all the Spiritual Disciplines, none has been more abused than the Discipline of submission (Richard Foster).

The recent LDS General Conference has served another reminder that Mormons greatly value submission to God through his prophets, which submission is admitted to sometimes be difficult but always right. As the Lectures on Faith suggest, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

One does not need to look far, however, to see the evils to which religious submission can be bent. Foster is probably right: “Nothing can be put people into bondage like religion, and nothing in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Let us be careful.

Foster usefully casts submission as an action rendered by humans for the mutual benefit of other humans (for submission to God is always a human boon). This is not about submission to things or institutions, but a willingness to value other people: “Their dreams and plans become important to us.” Self-denial is for the benefit of others not a miserable submitting for no-one’s glory: “submission reaches the end of its tether when it becomes destructive.” Jesus submitted to the will of the Father and thereby redeemed his people from the crushing demands of institutional law. Submission is freedom.

Foster invites us to submit to the Church, what he calls “the believing community, the body of Christ.” The “cross-life” can be found in the “jobs” to be done in the Church, but we must examine them first to see if they are “God’s invitation” to serve and not the grind of sacred busy-ness. I have found it helpful to approach my church service in a similar way: attending early morning bishopric meetings is a minor submission of sorts (of my body, which would prefer a Sunday lie-in) but I can see how useful they are to the bishop (a human being) in organising his own difficult work in the ward.

Finally, we come to our “first responsibility” which is to submit to the “broken and despised,” to be among them in their suffering. To that end, we once again commend Elder Holland’s call to help the poor.

A question:

Is there a limit to submission?


  1. Ronan: I’ll admit to having wondered whether you’d resume this series, and I’m glad for its return.

    To your question of whether there is a limit to submission, I’ll say that it lies at the point where submission threatens the individual existence of the one submitting. The concept itself presumes two distinct entities, and submission becomes no longer possible once they begin to collapse into one thing.

    In simpler terms, submission becomes meaningless the moment it threatens human dignity. Submission is a positive action that can only be undertaken by a fully capacitated, willing human being. Once submission requires incapacitation or unwillingness, in any degree, it slips from being a positive action to the negative one of oppression.

    I’m sorry for the cryptic quality of this reply. I blame it on having spent the past hour reading Lacan.

  2. There is no limit to submission to God’s will. The trick, of course, is identifying what is precisely God’s will and what is silly honor codes about pant length. And, conversely, not letting our own human/failed preferences set the scope of what is proper submission; that is God’s purview. So, yeah.

  3. “the grind of sacred busy-ness” — perfectly said. thank you.

  4. “Is there a limit to submission?”

    I’ve often been struck by Moroni’s statement that “All things must fail” … except for charity. Faith has an end in knowledge. Hope too. There are times when honesty, peacefulness and all other virtues are eclipsed. So too with submission. Only the pure love of Christ endureth forever. Or as the Relief Society Theme states (in Spanish): “La Caridad Nunca Deja De Ser.”

  5. Good comments, all.

    I wonder whether, in our rhetoric of “becoming Christlike,” we perhaps make things more difficult for ourselves that they need to be, a kind of heroism of impossibility. So, we see Christ’s submission to the Father as absolute (Jason, would *he* have been willing to threaten his own existence if necessary — if that were even possible?), but are our called-for submissions necessarily at that level? That is why I ask the question.

  6. Yes, there is a limit to submission to anyone or anything other than God – but I have no clue how to set that limit properly for myself, much less for anyone else, other than to fall back on worshiping God (and all that entails) according to the dictates of my own conscience and allowing all (wo)men everywhere the same privilege.

    Even that gets messy in a hurry, but I’ve come to accept and be grateful for messiness (unclear sight) in life.

  7. Ronan, I think JSJ would argue that we must do as we have seen Jesus do, who did what he saw the father do.

  8. Steve, he would indeed, but I wonder whether it’s akin to “hieing to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye” — a kind of poetic trope that has little value unless you figure out how a frail human is supposed to do it in the real world.

  9. Yep, you’re right. It’s the sort of statement which, if taken seriously and sincerely, will drive one batty.

  10. I don’t think that Jesus’ submission can be meaningful if there ceases to be a Jesus. This is all part of my little rebellion against the Augustinian idea that a human nothing is the necessary corollary to God’s everything.

  11. Your thoughts remind me of something John Temple Bristow points out:

    In Ephesians 5
    vs 21, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” Greek word for “submit”: hupotassomai

    Hupotassomai doesn’t have a direct English equivalent but means something along the lines of “give allegiance to”, or “tend to the needs of ” or “be supportive of” or “be responsive to”. In military contexts it is used to describe taking a position in a phalanx of soldiers; to be united with the group in effort and support. The German Bible translates it as “to place oneself at the disposition of”. This is what members of the church are asked to do in this verse. Its meaning relates very much to the admonition in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens”. Very importantly, Greek not only has active and passive forms of verbs, but also a middle form, which is used when the subject of the sentence neither acts on another nor is acted upon, but rather volunteers willingly to a state of being or to a course of action that is self-directed, not imposed. Hupotassomai, in these verses is in the middle form. Paul uses it to invite a purely voluntary action, not as a command.

    Hupotassomai is the verb used in verse 22 as well.

  12. MB: I love that the Greek verb is in the middle voice, which often also signals reflexivity. I’d take that as grammatical support for my claim that submission can’t be done without a self to be both the agent and the object, with God in the accusative or dative (whichever case that verb takes–I don’t have my Liddell and Scott to hand).

  13. I have a feeling that the limit of a person’s ability to submit is truly known only to Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. Joseph Smith’s Liberty Jail experience resulted in the revelation that, as difficult as those trials were, it was not the limit of what God could expect a person to endure (using Job as an imperfect example, and Christ as the perfect example). As we gain a hold of the Atonement, we will find that we are able to submit ourselves to God’s will more than we ever thought possible. So, I guess I would say that the Atonement expands our individual abilities to submit to God’s will (so the limit would change on individual circumstances).

    As for submitting to church service, I like the idea of submission as self-denial for the benefit of others. It reminds me a lot of parenthood — submitting our own personal desires to whatever is most beneficial for the family unit. Significantly, though, we are most valuable in our own family units and in our church service when we don’t take an extreme view of submission as complete suppression of our own will, but in retaining and nurturing our own unique identity and talents.

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    Pretty much everything we are asked to do is skirted by the limits of our ability and understanding. We can’t sin against light we have not received. We can’t submit to a request that we cannot hear.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    First, thanks for another in this series. They’ve been good to think on.

    On the limits of submission, a teaching to wonder about is John 12:24, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Disintegration of identity is a scary idea, but remaining as I am is as well.

  16. melodynew says:

    And WE’RE BACK! Thank you, RJH, truly. I’m re-reading this chapter tonight because of this post. At my first audio read and the second hard-back read I fell in love with the phrase “the cross life.” I took that phrase in and felt it. I felt the weight of it and the utter goodness of it.

    As for submission, I’m with Jason, “submission becomes meaningless the moment it threatens human dignity.” We could call it “dysfunction” or corruption of a pure principle that is intended to ultimately elevate us to our Brother’s height. (Notwithstanding, we’re nowhere near it.) I would say it is impossible to submit “too much” to God’s will if the thing is clearly God’s will to our mind and heart. And I tend to think that when one’s heart is right, one is able to submit to heavier and heavier crosses, seemingly crushing weight, yet maintain one’s dignity and even sanctify that human dignity. We go low to be raised up. Divine irony is among my favorite works of God.

    I’m so delighted to be back at this. I’ve been slacking too. I need this. All the comments are wonderful. Thanks again.

  17. I would say that nothing would desecrate my human dignity more than killing my own children, thus should one conclude that Abraham was wrong to submit to God and bind Isaac?

  18. Amen, RJH.

    Fwiw, I really like alternate interpretations of that story, especially since I’m not married to the belief that Biblical stories (and the views of those who recorded them) are inerrant. My favorite is that God tested Abraham to see if he had forsaken the child/human sacrifice of his upbringing, that Abraham failed that test and that God taught him a new form of sacrifice (animal) to replace human sacrifice (and that how it transpired was the only way to teach that lesson powerfully enough for it to start a new sacrificial practice that would last for centuries).

    I like the cautionary nature of that lesson much more than, “It’s okay to kill your kid (or someone else) if you believe God commanded it.” We say that, essentially, while condemning the people who fly planes into buildings in the name of God – and hypocrisy is hypocrisy even if its not recognized.

  19. melodynew says:

    RJH – I may be really stepping into it here, but I agree with Ray, alternative interpretations leave room for speculation — in my case, about who the real test was for. I have heard it suggested by religious scholars that Isaac was not a child, but a young man, or perhaps even in his thirties at the time of the event. Read this way, the test of submission was not for Abraham to sacrifice his young child, but for Isaac, a grown man, to offer up his life in accordance with God’s will. Either way the story is a bit macabre, but placing Isaac in adulthood makes this event a more intimate “type” for the atonement of Christ. This is not to say it would not be a test for Abraham, but it changes the meaning of the story considerably. This interpretation rings truer for me.

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