A common, but often quiet difficulty in the Christian life is discerning how to have an appropriate response when faced with difficult circumstances or afflictions. When we read Scripture, we may sometimes get the sense that submitting to God’s will in light of persecution came easy to apostles like Paul. But is this true? We need to recover a healthy understanding of what Scripture is calling us to in an attitude of submission. To do that, it will be helpful to see what submission is not.
Recently, I finished Joel Beeke’s Portraits of Faith: What Five Biblical Characters Teach Us About Our Life with God. In it, Beeke spends some time unpacking this idea and helps us with some guidelines as we think through this issue. I’d like to take some of his bullet points and expound on them a bit.
Submission is not Stoicism.
The Stoics are known for their attitude of “grin and bear it.” They resort to a near-Deism in that they believe there’s nothing to be done about the bad in the world, and all that can be controlled is from within. As it relates to the idea of submission, the Stoic would likely seem cold or detached from the reality of some affliction in their life. When faced with tough circumstances or some sort of an affliction, the Stoic would say to be submissive is to not let it bother you.
This is not the Christian way. Grief, anger, and raw honesty are not only healthy reminders that we are human, but that we can come before Christ with a genuine and authentic heart. To submit to God’s will or God’s ways in your life does not mean you act unfazed and unemotional in all of your circumstances, or to say that your trials do not bother you are your way of submitting your trials to God. Rather, to submit to your affliction is to feel the weight of it, and to know that the Lord’s way is good, and to rejoice in Him knowing what He is doing (1 Pt. 4:12-13).
Submission is not refusing to ask why.
As said above, raw honesty is a good practice. Often when trials come our way, we take submission to mean silence before God. We cut the communication between us and God, often because we’re mad at Him but feel too scandalous to make that known (as if He doesn’t know our conscience and the darkest corners of our hearts).
One excellent way to learn to submit to God in hard times is to pray, but especially doing so authentically. A great example of this is David, who spends many Psalms simply asking the Lord, “Why?” (e.g. Ps. 22, 44). In the heat of affliction, the Father would much rather have our messy, uncensored, honest prayers of “Why?” than fake, tidy graces.
Submission is not fatalism.
We’ve all done it. We step into that moment to pray, and we say:
“Lord, here is this situation, something I’m really hoping for a certain outcome in. Just let your will be done on this one. Only your will, whatever that means, my arms are folded and I could care less about the result. Amen.”
That prayer is pure rubbish when it comes to job promotions, dying family members, and the like. Submission to God’s will in the face of difficulty absolutely should be a trust in His sovereignty and His will to be right and God-glorifying, but this does not mean we simply pray broadly and vaguely. We should pray for what we feel like is right. If I feel this job promotion is going to help me glorify God better and be good for my family, how could I not pray for that? Like Jacob, we wrestle for our blessing, not because it’s our way or the highway, but because we know we have an Intercessor in Jesus Christ who is able (and willing!) to hear our prayers. Sometimes, God is waiting for us to make our requests known to Him before He acts in a particular way.
What is true submission?
True submission is knowing our place, knowing God’s will is good, and knowing God is able. But it is more. It is a disposition of reverence, but also raw realness before God. It is an attitude of trust, but also a display of passion. It is okay with walking through the stages of grief, because it trusts the Redeemer to heal the wounds and break the chains. It is content with God’s will, but prays for its God-centered desires.
A challenge for you is to go read Lamentations 3. It is a long prayer about a man who is having to face the reality of his suffering. The most helpful thing about it is that this is a prime example of true, biblical, submissive prayer. This is the blueprint for how we submit to the will of God.