April Exercises

Patience and Submission

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a landmark study into human behavioural psychology. Children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it, they would be given a second marshmallow. More than 600 children were tested, but fewer than 200 were able to resist the temptation. 

That experiment sums up our culture pretty well. We live in a culture of the ‘easy’ and the ‘now’. We have fast food— even instant meals. We can travel to the far side of the world in a matter of hours, communicate instantly— anywhere— and buy a staggering array of stuff at any time of the day. We can even pay for all this on credit so we can have it right now, before we can actually pay for it all. So when the delays and inconveniences of life inevitably come our way, our response can sometimes be a little out of proportion. Being stuck in traffic, stuck on hold, stuck in a queue, or stuck in ‘lock-down’, generates impatience that quickly grows into frustration, intolerance, and even into anger. 

The Christian response to all of this, though not easy to practice, is obvious: patience. The Biblical writers often encourage us to practice patience. They understand that much of life is spent waiting: for others, for a situation to change, for a set period of time to pass. We wait for food to be cooked, for rain to come, for scientific progress to mature. For Christians, our sense of waiting goes deeper. We wait for God to act; for Christ to return. Given all this, it is easy to see why Paul in his letter to the Galatians identifies patience as evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. 

Jesus Christ’s own example of living in our world was marked by true patience, and by the broader related discipline of submission. As Jesus declared to his disciples, “I do exactly what the Father has commanded me.” He was able to wait for the Father’s timing because he was submitted to the Father in all things and trusted him to act with love, goodness, wisdom, and perfect timing. Patience and submission go together as demonstration of trust in God, and in his way of doing things. 

For many of us, there seems to be an instinctive ‘recoil’ at the thought of submitting ourselves to another. Perhaps this reflex derives from the fact that this idea of ‘submission to authority’ has been much abused in churches and families. But in rightly fleeing from so many abuses, we may have become uncomfortable with something that is foundational to Christian discipleship: submission to God. This was the way of Jesus— “Father, not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42)— even in the Garden of Gethsemanie. 

As I write this, I am in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic where I am ordered by my government to isolate myself from others, staying in my own home. Most of my life outside my home has been ‘shut down’ in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Church has been closed. Public gatherings of all kinds have been banned. Even small social gatherings are forbidden: personal liberties are greatly reduced. But how long will this go on? I don’t know. No one knows. But I am called to submit my self-determination to the common good and take this opportunity to grow in patience and submission.

Richard Foster is particularly challenging on this topic of submission:

“Every Discipline has its corresponding Freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline– The Path To Spiritual Growth. (For a summary of this chapter, click here.)

Patience and submission are important disciplines because they strike right at the heart of human pride: God is God and we are his creatures— we are contingent beings, dependent upon him for all things. Our challenge is therefore to battle the instinct to always grasp for control, to demand our way and stand upon some presumed ‘rights’. Rejecting the way of pride means that we learn to wait. We learn the freedom of a willingly submitted heart. We learn to leave our marshmallows on the table— assured that God will respond in his time.