Submission to the Will of God

All Christians are called to submit to the Will of God. The Desert Mothers and Fathers, and Hermits throughout the ages, have begun and continued their lives upon the basis of submitting to the Will of God, however eccentric it may have appeared or how inconvenient and costly it may have been.
“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. [James 4:7]
“For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” [Matthew 12:50]
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” [Romans 12:2]

Christians are to submit themselves to each other (Ephesians 5:21), to government (Romans 13:1), and unto God (James 4:7). Wives are instructed to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1). The younger should submit to the elder (1 Peter 5:5), slaves should submit to their masters (Colossians 3:22-24), and citizens should submit to those secular powers having authority over them (1 Peter 2:13-14).

The concept of “submission” in Christianity is widely misunderstood. In English usage, it is commonly understood to mean (as the “Oxford English Dictionary” states) “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person”, giving at least the impression of submission as a passive and involuntary state, as a sign of defeat or a surrender that cannot be avoided. The English word derives from the Latin submissionem (nominative submissio): “a lowering, letting down; sinking”, a noun of action from the past participle stem of submittere “to let down, put down, lower, reduce, yield”.

The Greek word used in the New Testament and usually translated into English as “submission” is ὑποτάσσω [hupotassó]. The word was originally often used in a military context, and meant “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden,” or “identifying with and supporting” – see

In its active form, hupotasso might be used of a conqueror concerning the vanquished. It means “to subject to” or “to subordinate.” But St Paul did not use hupotasso in its active form to describe any person. He used hupotasso in the middle voice. This is the form hupotassomai. Since it is asking for something that must be voluntary in nature, “be subject to” is an inaccurate translation. Hupotassomai means something like “give allegiance to,” “tend to the needs of,” “be supportive of,” or “be responsive to.”

It would seem, therefore, that “submission” as commonly understood in English (deriving from the Latin) and “submission” as understood in the Greek in which the New Testament was written are significantly different. The dominant-passive, victor-vanquished, superior-inferior implications of the English (and Latin) word are not found in the Greek. Submission is not “giving in” or “surrender” but freely chosen, voluntary mutual cooperation – or synergy, another Greek word which will be considered later.

A person may submit to a robber with a gun or to the overwhelming force of fire or flood. A Christian may submit to God from fear of punishment. That is not submission as understood in the New Testament or in Christianity. A wife may submit to her husband out of fear of violence, physical or otherwise. That is not the submission to which the Apostle refers (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1).

Passive and Active Submission

It is possibly to submit passive – and, indeed, resentfully – as one might do in obeying civil laws like those requiring the payment of taxes or conformity to building regulations. This involves external submission, but not internal submission. In Christianity, submission must be freely chosen and joyfully offered both externally and internally.

Co-workers with God

We are required to submit – in the sense of actively and freely cooperate with – to God.

“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers [συνεργοί·]; you are God’s field, God’s building.” [1 Corinthians 3:8-9]
“…the fact that man is in God’s image means among other things that he possesses free will. God wanted a son, not a slave. The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon man’s freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and free will of man, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia); in Paul’s words: “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). If man is to achieve full fellowship with God, he cannot do so without God’s help, yet he must also play his own part: man as well as God must make his contribution to the common work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater importance than what man does. ‘The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will (A Monk of the Eastern Church, “Orthodox Spirituality”, p. 23). The supreme example of synergy is the Mother of God (See p. 263).” Timothy Ware, “The Orthodox Church” (Penguin UK 1993)

“We are saved through cooperation of our will with God’s–called synergy in Orthodox Christian theology–the doctrine famously expressed by Saint Athanasius the Great as “God does not save us without us.” Christ Himself promised His response to those seeking His help: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (St. Matthew 7:7-8).
On the other hand, God does not force salvation on anyone: otherwise, this would not be “salvation” but rather His re-making us into something that contradicts His Own original design of us. First He made us in His image and now He “saves” us by taking His image away from us and essentially equating us with all other living creatures? When Saint John Chrysostom was asked why not everybody is saved, he said, “Because you yourselves do not want to [be saved]. Even though the grace is indeed the grace, and it saves, it only saves those who desire it, but not those who do not want it and turn away from it.”
Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. The word “synergy” comes from the Attic Greek word συνεργία [synergia] from συνεργός [synergos], meaning “working together”. We are called to work with God, not as equals but, indeed, as grossly inadequate and unequal “co-workers”. But, nevertheless, our voluntary participation is necessary.

Discerning the Will of God

“Often, we think of God’s will as some overarching plan for our lives. We tend to focus on the big picture and forget that God’s will for us is revealed every day; it’s discerned through a daily, if not moment by moment relationship and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity through His Church. We can forget or willingly choose to forget that “Thy will be done” goes hand in hand with “give us this day our daily (super-substantial) bread,” feeding on Christ through the Sacraments. It’s necessary for those who love God, who desire salvation, to suspend their own opinions and preferences to learn God’s way, to continue to struggle, to change into the likeness of Christ. In this way, we learn to participate more and more in the Life that He is.
The word that St. Paul uses to describe this relationship of cooperation in today’s Epistle is “synergoi,” “synergy,” saying, “we are God’s fellow workers.” This is no 50/50 relationship: We aren’t equals with God. We cooperate with God’s work in us through our obedience to His teachings, to His Church, to the hierarchy, so that we can be pastored, in order that we may grow in Christ-likeness and change, conforming ourselves to God’s will. Obviously, this is a great challenge, but a necessary one if we’re to grow in Christ and be deified.”

Discerning the will of God is discovering a vocation. The word “vocation” is too often identified with an exclusively Church-based calling – to be a Priest or Monastic. But every Christian is called upon to find her or his vocation. The English word vocation comes from the Latin vocātiō, meaning “a call, summons”: as the Apostle writes: “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called”[1 Corinthians 7:20].
In discerning a vocation or “calling”, we must exercise prayer, care, patience and conscious reflection. We can benefit from advice but must be cautious not to be unduly influenced by the advice of those who may have their own personal motivations for the advice, and those who may feel obliged to reflect back to us what they think that we want to hear. We need to be given honest, if sometimes discomforting, realistic advice.

It may sound strange, but some secular tools to assist in career (that is, vocational) planning can be equally helpful in helping in the discernment of a spiritual vocation: for example, compiling tables of strengths and weaknesses, interest and disinterests. We can list those gifts (or competencies to use the secular term) that we possess. We may find drawing up what is known as a “life line” helpful: that is, a linear chronological outline of our experiences, occupations, activities, successes and failures. This may assist in helping to discern where our life experience may be leading us.

In traditional Christianity, a “religious vocation” (which is mistakenly assumed to mean a vocation to the formal religious life of Priest, Monk or Nun) has usually been assumed to be discerned on the basis of:

• The individual’s own sense of “calling” [Beware! that may in fact be self-delusion or self-interest!];

• The “call” of the People of God in the Christian community to which the individual belongs [Beware! the community only sees the “outward and visible” person and may be influenced by irrelevant factors];

• The “call” of the Church through the Bishop [Beware! the Bishop only sees the “outward and visible” person and may be influenced by irrelevant factors].

To which might be added:

• The “call” of “life” – that is, that vocation to which the individual’s talents, personal aptitude and experience of life seem to be directing him or her.

Discernment is somewhat like making use of a compass to identify the direction in which the journey of life should proceed: “In what direction am I called to travel?”

Each Christian is called to three distinct vocations:

• The general vocation of all Christians to follow the teachings of the Lord and to cultivate the gifts of the Spirit wherever he or she may be and whatever and in what circumstances he may be living.

• The personal vocation is to cultivate those gifts (talents) with which he or she has been blessed; his obligation is represented in the Parable of the Talents [Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27].

• The specific vocation is that to which a man or a woman is called at a specific time, place and life circumstance; thus, all people with a gift of music are called upon to make good use of that talent (the personal vocation) but where and when that talent is to be exercised (the specific vocation) will depend upon the calling of the individual, and may vary over time.

Changing vocations

An individual’s vocation is rarely static, and seeking to discern the Will of God at different times of life, different vocations may be discovered: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8] This is seen at its most obvious in changes throughout different stages of life. A young person may have a vocation as a student, and then as a worker in a trade or profession, and then as a husband or wife, and then as a parent. Some vocations will overlap (for example, professional, spouse, parent). Some will be superseded. For example, a person whose primary vocation is that of parent may, when all family responsibilities have been fulfilled, find a calling to a vocation as a monk or nun.

The idea of such stages is made explicit in some Oriental religions. In Hinduism, it is taught that a man should pass through four Ashramas: The First Ashrama – “Brahmacharya” or the Student Stage; The Second Ashrama – “Grihastha” or the Householder Stage; The Third Ashrama – “Vanaprastha” or the Hermit Stage; and The Fourth Ashrama – “Sannyasa” or the Wandering Ascetic Stage. In Thai Buddhism it is common for young men to be ordained as sāmaṇera or novitiate monks for a single season or sometimes one to three years, and then to return to lay life, marrying and having a family and a career.
Discerning a Vocation

We need to approach the discernment of a vocation cautiously:

• Avoiding being directed (as distinct to being guided) by others;
• Avoiding being driven by a desire for reward (earthly or heavenly – including the praise of others, status, recognition);
• Avoiding being driven by a desire to avoid punishment (earthly or heavenly – including the approbation or criticism of others);
• Avoiding distorting “God’s Will” into “My will”;
• Avoiding being driven by a desire to escape a present situation.

A vocation must be carefully discerned and freely accepted. Likewise, the obligations of the vocation must be carefully discerned and freely accepted. A vocation to be a physician is entirely insufficient: the commitment and effort and resources to study and complete a medical degree is necessary.

A vocation cannot be a pseudo-spiritual justification to abandon responsibilities that have been previously accepted. For example, a person who has accepted responsibilities to a family, or entered into a contract with an employer, or incurred debts to others, cannot legitimately claim a right to abandon those obligations to fulfil a new vocation. Traditionally, most religious orders in the West required, and still require, that a person cannot enter a life within the order until he or she is free of all debts, including non-financial obligations.

The discernment and acceptance of the vocation, and a desire to submit to the Will of God is but the beginning. Just as a direction determined by a compass is not the process of travelling in that direction, and a map is not the journey, to the acceptance of the vocation and the submission to the Will of God requires action, ongoing and (usually) life-long action.


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