Submit vs. Control

by Will Peycke


Well, how long did you make it?


We are less than two weeks into the New Year. Perhaps you are still going strong on your New Year’s resolutions, or maybe you’ve already hit a snag… or haven’t started yet… or like me, maybe you didn’t even attempt any resolutions this year.


Resolutions or not, it didn’t take long for unexpected challenges to upend my plans for the New Year. Our family made it about a day and a half into 2022 before getting hit with a Covid quarantine. (Only one family member has shown any symptoms so far, and we are thankful those have been quite mild.) Based on the spiking case numbers in the news, it sounds like we aren’t the only ones who got Covid from their extended family for Christmas this year.


Whether it’s an unexpected quarantine, a flat tire, a canceled flight, or a demanding child, we all know what it’s like to have our plans interrupted without warning. As much as we may dislike it, I’ve been reminded this week that it’s actually good for me. I need to be reminded that my job is to submit, not to control.


“Submission” is not a popular word in today’s world. What does it mean to “submit” to someone? At the very least, it means I don’t demand my own way but allow someone else to have their way instead. I place my desires under their desires, my will under their will.


In this culture where my desires are idolized as the path to happiness and self-fulfillment, that’s about as opposite to the spirit of our age as you can get.


What does it mean to “submit” to God?


Psalm 81 connects submission to God with listening to him and walking in his ways instead of stubbornly following our own desires or what we think is best:


"But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!" (Psalm 81:11-13, ESV)


Similarly, Paul in the book of Romans twice contrasts submitting to God’s law and righteousness with seeking to be a law unto ourselves (Romans 8:7; 10:3).


It is easy to read these passages and mentally apply them to non-Christians who live in clear rebellion against God, rejecting biblical morality and calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20-21).


But recently, I’ve been thinking about how much of a struggle it can be for me, a Christian, to submit to God in other, “smaller” ways. Like when I don’t get what I want, or life doesn’t go the way I planned or expected.


When that happens, how do I react? Does my response indicate a submission to God and his plans, expressed in acceptance of what he has allowed into my life, believing it is for my good?


James talks about humbly submitting to God and then, in the same context, rebukes us for arrogantly planning as if we are the ones in control:


But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:6-8, ESV)


Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, ESV)


It isn’t wrong to make plans… or to be disappointed when they don’t work out. It isn’t wrong to make resolutions—or to seek to follow through on them. It isn’t wrong to have desires or to pursue them.


But it is wrong to think I can control the outcome of my plans and resolutions. It is wrong to think I deserve to have what I want, when I want it.


Submitting to God means more than acknowledging that he is in control. It means that I stop acting like I am in control (or like I should be) and, instead, humbly accept what God allows into my life.


Thinking about submission in this way reminds me of this variation of the serenity prayer written especially for parents:


God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
the courage to change the one I can,
and the wisdom to know it’s me.


Maybe that ought to be my New Year’s resolution.