Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
As I write this I am finding myself sucked in, day by day, to the Summer Olympics of 2012. If I’m not careful, I find myself watching sports I have never cared about (or even heard of!), simply because I LOVE the heat of competition. Don’t we all? How many times have we been with students and jumped right in as they create bloodsport out of seemingly harmless games like Slug Bug or Foursquare? The human propensity for competition at all costs is evident in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel (further immortalized by Steinbeck in his magnum opus East of Eden), seen in classic films like Gladiator, and glorified in countless other myths, fables and stories.
My morning devotions often include some time reading through Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, written by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Shane Claiborne, and Enuma Okoro. A recent reading touches on a remarkable example of competition:
Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was born to a noble Spanish family. As a young man, he joined the military, but a war injury ended his military career. While recuperating, Ignatius became bored and asked for novels about knights and battles. But all that could be found in the castle where he stayed were books on the life of Christ and the saints of the church. Legend has it that Ignatius read these stories in a competitive manner, imagining how he could beat the various saints at practicing the spiritual disciplines. He soon found that his thoughts on the saints left him with more peaceful and satisfied feelings than his daydreams about the noble life he had known before his injury. After his illness, Ignatius began practicing his competitive notions of rivaling the saints, and wrote about his experiences of Christian disciplines. His scribblings became the spiritual classic The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, used by Christians for centuries in the practice of discernment.
I smiled as I tried to picture competing with the ancient saints in the practice of spiritual disciplines, imagining what a strenuous and crazy endeavor that would be! Nevertheless, as I write this ninth in a series of twelve articles on spiritual disciplines for youthworkers, I want to use this opportunity to remind you (and myself) that the pursuit of spiritual disciplines is not yet another burden to add to the pile of so many other “to-dos” in your life. Spiritual disciplines are not something to “excel” or compete in, but instead are great gifts learned from the faithful throughout church history as ways to grow in our eternal intimacy with Christ. As Richard Foster reminds us in The Celebration of Discipline,
The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm… We must not be led to believe that the Discipline are only for spiritual giants and hence beyond our reach… far from it. God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings.
I bring up competition because I find myself most confronted in my tendency to jockey for position in this month’s spiritual discipline, that of submission. While every single one of the disciplines provides its own challenges, Foster tells us “of all the Spiritual Disciplines none has been more abused than the Discipline of submission. Somehow the human species has an extraordinary knack for taking the best teaching and turning it to the worst ends.” He goes on to point out that we can err in making a discipline an end in and of itself, rather than understanding that it is simply a tool to gain more freedom in Christ: “They are not the answer; they only lead us to the Answer.”
Submission is such a great challenge because it addresses my deep need to get my own way, because for me, getting my own way means that I “win.” Yet I am continually humbled by the realization that most of life is not about “success” or “winning” or “being the best.” In Christ, we are called to something entirely different:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
Don’t forget that self-denial does not permit loss of identity, self-contempt, or abuse, and that is where Foster has some harsh words for “a mutilated form of biblical submission.” Instead, he reminds us that in God’s gracious economy, self-denial actually leads to self-fulfillment, as described in the next verse of Mark 8:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:35)
This is where I believe the gospel has the most impact, in addressing head-on the American notions of greatness and power. Foster states it succinctly: counter-intuitively, as followers of Jesus Christ, “Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all.” This has been the greatest challenge for me, yet also the deepest joy, in being a youthworker. We can only persevere in this calling as we learn to delight in the success of others. That requires ongoing pursuit of the spiritual discipline of submission.
In my early years I got “hooked” on youth ministry by seeing how much fun it was to directly touch the lives of students, be the “star” up front as I spoke at a camp, and lead singing in front of a crowd. Such ego builders! Thankfully, a mentor named Stan Beard transformed my life when he taught me that true joy actually comes when I get to the point of investing in volunteers and younger staff, then feeling the satisfaction of seeing them excel. In fact, he said I should physically feel it in my gut as my soul wells up in love and spirit-filled pride to witness their development.
Unfortunately, I soon learned that my flesh would fight against this. Sure, as the years went on I pushed for my interns to take the reins of various projects and programs, but found myself inwardly envying the attention they received. Rather than want the success of others to exceed our own, I discovered I would still rather have the limelight. It is only in pursuing Jesus and his calling to mutual submission that I started to be set free to pour into others most fully.
Two Scripture passages have challenged me most in this regard:
Be like Jesus. As it says in Philippians 2:5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” who knew that being God himself was not a privilege he could cling to. Instead, he knew that he needed to leave the comfort of his world and enter the world of others. As we are told in the verses immediately preceding, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (verses 3-4) What I love most about these words are their authenticity; we are not to utterly ignore our own needs, but rather “take an interest in others, too.” In other words, don’t be a selfish pig! The Holy Spirit will teach us how to put others first and actually enjoy it. This is utterly crucial to our own spiritual formation as the years go on.
Seek after submission in every relationship. I find the most comprehensive description of submission to be in Ephesians 5, where Paul gives this thesis statement: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (vs. 21),” then going on to describe the implications of this mutual submission for wives, husbands, parents, children, employers and employees. In my own journey, once I started submitting to the needs of my volunteer leaders and the parents of my students, I was humbled to realize that I still fought for my own way with my family, my colleagues, and even my friends! Yikes. In the last few years I have also grown in understanding the importance of submission to the poor and oppressed. Instead of feeling sorry for the homeless and the panhandler, I pray to have the eyes of Christ and see them as he does. Like me, they are created in the imago dei, the image of God, and they are my neighbors. I cannot be selective in whom I submit to, only deferring to or serving those I respect and like. Invite the Spirit to open your eyes to opportunities to submit in ways that will continue to bring you to the knees of the Lord.
One last thought: the act of submission becomes tricky in understanding its limits. Foster does a great job expanding on this, and I recommend you to his book for a fuller explanation. I will only mention that when it comes to situations where authority is abusive or destructive, we must act with wisdom and discernment. Our highest calling is to submit to the authority of God; beyond that, we must be prayerful and seek wise counsel in how and to whom we submit.
Like all spiritual disciplines, that of submission is the practice of a lifetime. None of us will ever master it. As it says in Hebrews 10:24, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…” Surround yourself with others who desire to take up the cross of Christ and live a submissive life, and enjoy the incredible fruits of intimacy with Christ in new ways.
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.
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