Grace through submission
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? 6But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’
“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
“Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:1-12)
Is it too cliché to start out by saying submission feels complex and jaded by past abuse and injustice? Is it too defeatist to say I wonder if healthy submission is a real option for me, our community and our friends who live on the streets? Is it too obvious to start out by saying I hardly even know where to begin? What I do know, though, is that I must start out recognizing the baggage I associate with this word before I can begin to seek to apply to my life a right and true understanding of the word “submission” and the mandate, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). I know I must remain aware of my body tensing, must remember that women being made to submit to their partners, while the world looks on and speaks nothing of abuse, is not out of reverence for Christ. I know I must remain aware, when I cringe, that children being made to submit to their poverty and to work long hours, while we speak nothing of exploitation, is not out of reverence for Christ.
So I pray for the grace of God and for the whispering of the Holy Spirit, and as I read James 4 I feel hope starting to push its way into the messy room of my thoughts on submission. I see that before James states that we should “submit [ourselves], then, to God,” he talks about our violence toward each other and our quarreling. He speaks of grace, but not just grace — more grace. Before he says anything about submission, he makes sure to state, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” I’ll be honest, “grace” is not really a word I regularly associate with submission, yet there it is all over the page. Lay down your swords! Lay down your right to be right! Look at all the grace! Embrace voluntary humility! Only then can we talk about submission.
After the grace and the submitting, James, in the same breath, encourages us to come near to God, to grieve, to resist the devil, to humble ourselves. It seems to me that he’s helping us define our submission and it’s turning out to be something quite different than the abusive and oppressive submission that often presents itself in the course of any given day. This is revolutionary submission. This is submission as a strong, decisive, conscious act of love. This submission is not taken advantage of — it gives its advantage away. This is submission that keeps the devil at bay. This submission does not enable, but rather mourns, injustice. This is the kind of submission that changes the world, and it cannot be forced or imposed on anyone. This submission can only be given and never taken, lest it lose its humble, life-saving power.
And still, it does not end there. James wants to make sure we know that in this submission there is no abuse, there is no slander of one another, and there is only one Judge and one Lawgiver. When we submit to God and to others and when others submit to us, we must live with grace-filled responsibility and always hold in our hearts James’ words: “But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (v. 12).
Submission as a word and a concept has been the false support of many abuses and injustices on street corners, in many homes and communities, and even within the beloved church. But true submission, the submission that I’m learning Christ requires of me, needs my renewed attention every morning. It begs me to choose love again and again as I turn to my community and my neighbors. It offers an abundance of grace to me and a strength beyond comprehension. It invites me to consciously submit to others and God in order to receive more of Christ.