For the sake of the Lord submit yourselves to every human authority: to the Emperor, who is the supreme authority, and to the governors, who have been appointed by him to punish the evildoers and to praise those who do good. For God wants you to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people by the good things you do. Live as free people; do not, however, use your freedom to cover up any evil, but live as God’s slaves. Respect everyone, love other believers, honor God, and respect the Emperor. (Good News Translation)
Submission is a word a lot of people would like to do without. And that’s understandable. We’ve all likely had the experience of being under the authority of someone who either didn’t know what they were doing, or who gaslighted us, took advantage of us, and maybe was even downright mean and nasty toward us. What’s more, it’s hard to obey someone or some institution who we aren’t quite sure has our best interests at mind.
And then there’s an association with the word “submission” as being forced to do something you don’t want to do. That sort of understanding of submission is actually slavery and oppression, not submission.
Simply put, to submit is the informed and willing choice to place oneself under the authority of another. If it isn’t a willing and informed choice, then it’s either manipulation or coercion by another.
The Apostle Peter was referring to submitting to human authority by a volitional choice of our will. And what he was encouraging believers to do was no small thing.
The Roman Empire was an ancient behemoth. At the time of Peter’s writing, the Romans were firmly in charge of Palestine – Gentile rule in a Jewish land – and they did not take kindly to any ideas of rebellion. The Jews wanted their own autonomy and rule. To be subject to the Romans was, for many, humiliating and unacceptable.
So, why in the world should anyone willingly choose to submit to an empire that doesn’t align with their values, aspirations, and goals in life?
Peter made it clear why: Submission helps clear away the obstacles to freedom (both personal and corporate) and doesn’t give the persons in authority a reason to speak or act foolishly.
It’s hard to submit; it’s not an easy thing to do. Yet, if we will continually connect submission with why we are doing it, this helps us persevere, especially under leadership which is less than stellar.
The real issue is how we deal with unwanted circumstances in our lives. Although we didn’t ask for many of the unfortunate situations in life, our response to them is critical, and makes all the difference.
“Evil is changed into good when it is received in patience through the love of God; while good is changed into evil when we become attached to it through the love of self. True good lies only in detachment, and abandonment to God. You are now in the trial; put yourself confidently and without reserve into his hand.”François Fénelon, Let Go: To Get Peace and Real Joy
Admittedly, it is maddening when an injustice is done to us, or we observe someone else experiencing something they don’t deserve. Unjust actions and words perpetrated against us are out of our control. What is, however, within our control is our response. We can choose how to react in each and every situation we face.
We, indeed, have a range of responses we may choose from: We can react in passive-aggressive anger, become sullen and morose, stuff all our emotions down and ignore them, lash out and verbally attack; or we can choose to accept the situation for what it is (and not what we want it to be) and submit ourselves to God.
All of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another; for the scripture says, “God resists the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own good time. 7 Leave all your worries with him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5-7, GNT)
Submission to God often comes in the form of submitting to the human authorities in our lives – even when those persons and institutions over us are imperfect. Systemic evil isn’t changed by our response of perpetrating even more evil back upon them. Rather, unjust structures are transformed through godly persons choosing to work within the system to do good, not harm, and to love, not hate.
Christian freedom is never a matter of simply doing whatever the heck you want to do, regardless of how it impacts anyone else. Our freedom is in the ability to make choices about what sort of attitude we are going to have in all the circumstances of life we encounter.
Don’t do anything from selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble toward one another, always considering others better than yourselves. And look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own. The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:
He always had the nature of God,
but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God.
Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had,
and took the nature of a servant.
He became like a human being
and appeared in human likeness.
He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—
his death on the cross. (Philippians 2:3-8, GNT)
Therefore, what we’re left with is the willing choice to alter our own life, instead of continually trying to make everyone else change. It comes down to showing respect for all humanity, honoring God with our attitudes, and loving our sisters and brothers in the faith who face the same sorts of challenges we do.
Be safe. Be strong. Be spiritual. We are all in this life together.