Building Block #1: Submission

BuildingBlocks
{Note: I’m kind of bemoaning the fact that I made this the first building block. I do heartily believe it’s of utmost importance, but this is a loaded word even in Christian circles, and I’m a little bit afraid to post my thoughts out where everyone can see them. I’m pressing “publish” with prayers that you’ll read with an open mind – and if you disagree, please share your heart. Tell me where you see it differently.}

So. This came as a bit of a shock to me, but: apparently, I’m more of a traditionalist than I thought.

I didn’t start out that way! I was 21 when I got married, and even though I could probably have given a well-thought-out speech defining submission within the context of Christian marriage, the truth is that I wasn’t living it out. It took me years – close to ten YEARS – to see where my error lay.

My old pattern was to talk (and talk and talk and talk) my way into convincing my husband that what WE wanted to do was what I wanted to do. If we had a big decision to make, I could debate and argue until I was blue in the face. My strong verbal skills coupled with my innate stubbornness created a monster. His typically-male need for more time to mentally gear up for an argument coupled with his laid-back personality created a conflict-avoidant tendency to agree with whatever I was arguing for simply to end the conversation. And so I gave myself the comforting delusion that the way I approached him WAS a valid expression of submission.

I’m entitled to express my opinion! I told myself. He gets to make the final decision. The buck stops with him. I’m not going around spending money or making time commitments behind his back. It’s just that I’m usually on the “right side” of the decision…  so once I present my case, he just can’t help but see the light and agree with my brilliant insight into the situation. I’m not only a great example of ‘submission,’ but DUDE, I’m the help-meet-iest wife ever!

When I finally looked at my habit with clear eyes and an open heart, I saw that I was manipulating many situations. I was exactly the opposite of submissive – I was being controlling, and what’s worse, I was being passive-aggressive about it.

We had to learn a better way to communicate so that we could put God’s plan for relationships into effect. For my side, I had to learn to share my opinion {just} once. And then I have to stop talking. That part is REALLY, really hard for me! But it’s crucial. My husband is the kind of guy who prefers to gather all his information (which is usually my opinion, some research or data pertinent to the decision at hand, possibly the opinion of others involved like our kids, and sometimes a “gut check” with a man he respects) and he needs a little time to let that all marinate. At some point, it clicks into place for him and he’s ready to talk about it again.

On his side of things, he had to un-learn his habits of “go along to get along.” Instead of suffering in silence if I talk to much, he now says {something like}, “Okay, babe. Give me a minute.” He has started speaking up when he disagrees with me – sometimes on the first pass, and sometimes at the end of his process when he has looked at a decision from many angles. This was the hard part for him, because I had spent so many years reacting VERY poorly when he disagreed with me.

If you have fewer married-lady years under your belt, I hope you’ll take my story as an encouragement to identify your own patterns now, in your early days. Sometimes, it takes the help of a third party to clearly see the messages you may have picked up in your childhood or the way your two personalities are intersecting in good (or not-so-good) ways. We’ve been in short-term therapy several times during our married life, and it has been worth every minute and every penny we invested.

Okay, then, Michelle, so what does “submission” look like at your house now that you’ve got it all figured out?

Ha! Haha ha! Hang on a second while I chortle and chuckle and perhaps emit a ladylike snort.

I told you from the beginning that I really, really DON’T have it all figured out. I’ve just made progress through the years. But, tell you what, I’ll share a couple of stories of what it looks like for me to submit lovingly to my husband of going-on-13-years.

In 2010, my bright young surgery resident was faced with a choice: pick a fellowship or become a board-certified general surgeon. From the outset, this was clearly HIS decision to make; my role was never going to be to tell him “what to be when he grew up.” He did ask me, once or twice, what I thought about it, and I told him (I was really feeling tired of residency life and ready to settle down in a practice, but I knew that if fellowship was the right thing for him that I could make it work for me and the kids).  He decided that general surgery was the best fit for him, and signed up with recruiters.

Physician recruiters, similar to headhunters and recruiters in other fields, have this crazy job: they have lists of openings and they have lists of people. They try to match everyone up like some sort of professional eHarmony. As the calls and emails began to flood Chris’ inbox, I felt a very strong conviction that I could NOT let myself fall into my old habits of talking him in to something I thought I wanted. Chris asked for my input in building his “profile” with the recruiters – together we decided that we’d rather not relocate out west, but anywhere in the South would be preferable. I didn’t veto any major metro area or suggest any state-by-state limits. I was involved in a great ladies’ Bible study group, and I asked my friends there to pray for me to be level-headed and have peace during the job hunt. It was a period of incredible growth for my spirit – and when certain job opportunities came by, it was clear to me that God had been teaching me this principle for “such a time as this.”

One opportunity was for a tiny town in south Georgia. Most people might have glossed right over it. But it wasn’t just any town – it was my paternal grandmother’s town. (If you didn’t know, Thomasville is the closest thing to Heaven on Earth. My Grandmama’s garden is basically Eden, her voice is like an angel, and I’ve never felt more at “home” anywhere I’ve ever lived or traveled. She and my Granddaddy Leo were “home base” when I was a kid – no matter where the Army sent us, I could wing my way back to them.) I was intruiged and hopeful about that job, to say the least. It would have put us 4 hours west of my parents and 5 hours south of his parents. I could imagine raising my kids in the same spots I had spent so much time as a child, myself. But there were aspects of the deal that didn’t appeal to Chris, and so it wasn’t to be.

Another opportunity came along from a small town in western Kentucky. A place we had no ties, no family or history. As Chris gathered information about the job, he expressed excitement – but he was worried that I wouldn’t like the idea. Thank God for the work He has done! I was able to honestly tell the man I love that I would follow him to the end of the earth if that’s what he needed from me. “I can make a home and make a life anywhere,” I told him. “If you are sure it’s the place we need to be, if it’s a practice you can be happy working in for a lifetime, then I’m behind you 100%.” We went to visit, and it was actually a charming place. (You know the end of this story: Chris accepted the job offer, we moved to Owensboro in July 2011, and we’re still living here happily ever after.)

There are more stories – times when Chris’ feeling on a matter differed from mine. Choosing a home when we moved to Owensboro is a biggie (we visited 10; I loved one and he loved another; we bought his favorite. Turns out he was right – if we had bought my preference, in six months I’d have been lamenting how far I was from my new friends. The place he preferred is right around the corner and over the way from my closest girlfriends in town.)

Choosing our next home is an example, too (that story is all laid out here. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but at this point I have faith that when I follow my husband’s lead, things really do unfold and work out in ways I could not have foreseen).

It isn’t always easy. Sometimes, I need to submit even when I really don’t understand his point of view. Want a recent example? Back in the spring, I bought an electric keyboard. It’s been over 20 years since I took piano lessons, and I have dreams of reviving my musical abilities (such as they were). I started working my way through a book for adult beginners, happily plunking out “Happy Birthday” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” While I’m goofily making my version of ‘music,’  our church’s worship band is on-stage every Sunday truly rocking the house. The keyboardist is a sweet young lady who is heading off to college, and our worship leader saw my post on Facebook the day I bought my keys. He suggested that I could brush up on my chords and join the band! At first I thought he was kidding, but he was serious. When Mary started playing with the band, she had never played that style of music before either, and he figured he could teach me enough basics to get up there and play with the band. When I relayed the idea to Chris, his first reaction was to laugh it off. But a few weeks later, when our worship leader asked again, Chris got serious. He laid out a list of reasons that he didn’t think it was a good idea for me to join the worship team.

I’ll be honest: some of his reasons hurt my feelings.  Some of his reasons made me feel defensive. Some of his reasons made me grumpy. But none of those feelings of mine made his reasons wrong.

This is a pretty simple scenario, actually. There’s a commitment available and I’d like to consider it. My husband prefers that I not take on this commitment. What’s a modern married lady to do?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

~Ephesians 5:22-33

I’ll tell you what I did. The next time the worship leader asked if I was ready to fill in on keyboard, I told him that I wouldn’t be able to join the band because my husband had asked me to say no. “Not a fan?” the leader joked. “It’s not that,” I explained, “he loves the music you lead! But he has his reasons he’d rather I not get up there with y’all.” Now I confess: I hate to tell people no, and I felt terrible saying no to such an opportunity. I worried that the guy would think Chris was an ogre for “making me” turn it down, and I let myself fret about it for two or three whole minutes until I remembered: I know the truth of this principle. This house is my Ebenezer. I know that I can follow my husband, I can submit to his leadership, even if I’m not sure why I have to – in that moment.

The peace I found in that moment of remembering? THAT is the reason submission is Building Block #1. A submitted heart is able to be at peace with her circumstances, even if she doesn’t like them or love them or understand them – when she is sitting beside that big old Ebenezer rock, she knows that she can trust her husband and her Lord.  YES – I had a little while feeling discontent (I told you: I was hurt and sad and grumpy! I didn’t want to hear a “no.”) but having a history of submission and the blessing that follows when I’m where I’m supposed to be yielded PEACE and CONTENTMENT once more.

If you’re reading this post and you’re still not sure the dots really connect from submission in marriage to a heart of contentment, trust me. Come back tomorrow for the next piece of the puzzle. I promise it all goes together, and it actually creates a work of beauty.

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MICHELLE NEBEL

I write uplifting women’s fiction woven with threads of faith, grace, and Southern hospitality. My blog is where I share a glimpse of my life, and I hope you’ll find the thoughts here encouraging!

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6 thoughts on “Building Block #1: Submission”

    • Really, John? I’m interested to hear how you think that reframes the context. If anything, I’d say that it ADDS to the context.

      My understanding of the passage is that Ephesians 5 verses 21-33 function together as a whole. Paul’s style of writing is very logical throughout his letters, and in this section he is speaking to married Christ-followers. It seems very sensible to me that he would begin with an instruction for both spouses: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and then would give more detailed instructions to each spouse particularly.

      Personally, one of the reasons I’ve grown to love this teaching about submission –other than the way I’ve seen it change my life, as I talked about in the blog post– is because it seems like such a reasonable rule to live by when one considers the outlines for both spouses side-by-side. It is no simple calling, this need to submit to a husband; but then this calling to love a wife sacrifically and redemptively is no small calling either.

      The circular nature of the relationship Paul describes is what makes it possible to live out in a real world, in my opinion. If I were told to submit to some guy with nothing in return (or to submit to every man on the planet, as some patriarchial churches or sects teach), I would not be able to manage that. Ephesians 5:21 is the starting point that enables the whole interaction to work. For me, anyway – I know that when I choose (because it’s always a choice, thank God for autonomy!) to submit to Chris’ decision making, I’m not submitting to a faceless demigod or an angry autocrat. Following Chris’ lead means that I’m deciding to walk with a person who is committed to loving me. (He’s not perfect on that score, and we have weathered any number of mistakes from both sides. But I know he’s committed to working on it, working on himself, working on his past, and that gives me confidence that I can follow him.) When a wife can trust her husband’s heart, she can choose to submit to his leadership. When a husband knows his wife trusts his leadership, (I think) he can ask her advice and opinion and may even concede that she was ‘right’ and the decision at hand should go ‘her way.’

      Or, long story short, if you just skimmed all that (ha!): I think Ephesians 5:21 fits perfectly with the context I used, but I would really LOVE to hear your perspective, whether you agree with me or disagree. Thanks for reading & taking the time to comment.

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“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

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