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When Is Submission Good and When Is It Dangerous?

Submission has a bad reputation. As Elder Jeffery R. Holland has said, “You can be certain that with some in this world, it is not fashionable nor flattering to speak of submitting—to anybody or anything . . . It sounds wrong on the face of it. It sounds feeble and wimpish.”  

Yet, choosing to be submissive plays a significant role in our ability to progress and reach our potential. It is a behavior that is encouraged in the Book of Mormon by Alma, who said, “I would that ye should be submissive,” and also by King Benjamin, who admonished us to “Become as a child, submissive . . . willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."

But not all acts of submission are noble, virtuous, and morally courageous. Some submissive acts are dangerous, and being able to distinguish the difference between destructive submission and virtuous submission can be difficult. Here are a few tips from an expert on how to tell which is which. 

Destructive Submission

“We often hail submission (or unquestioning obedience) as a virtue in religious thought, but when misunderstood, it is a dangerous ideal,” says Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a licensed therapist who specializes in working with couples on sexuality and relationship issues.

“Yielding isn’t inherently virtuous; the goodness of any choice, in my view, is determined by whom you are yielding to, why you are yielding, and what that submission creates,”  explains Dr. Finalyson-Fife. “Those that instinctively or routinely defer to others are often looking for a kind of protection in submitting to another’s perspective—someone whom they can submit to—and in so doing not take full responsibility for their lives.  People often don’t want the risk or exposure of making choices, of asserting their agency.’” 

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Dr. Finlayson-Fife explains that submitting in this way is simply, “Using another person, so you don't have to become an adult—so you don't have to take responsibility for your choices.” And it undermines our moral development.

Virtuous Submission

So what does submission look like when it is virtuous and an act of strength? Dr. Finlayson-Fife points out, “When submission is a virtue, it's an active choice to yield to something because you think it will create the greater good. It has to be out of a genuine desire to do good and your clearest judgment that it will yield good. It's not driven by fear; it's driven by moral courage.

“Virtuous submission is about yielding to the greater good. But the only way you know it's the greater good is because you've thought about it and you recognize there is an alternative that you think is less good. It's an act of agency and personal will to submit, and it’s channeling your agency towards what you think will create more goodness.”

It’s one thing to choose to submit to God, but submitting to our local leaders or others can be challenging because, as Dr. Finlayson-Fife points out, “There is a certain amount of risk in trusting.” 

To be able to submit in a manner that is virtuous, you have to have trust and confidence in an individual and their motive, whether it is God, a church leader, or a teacher. Giving your trust to another individual is an act of agency, which means you have the responsibility to make wise decisions and judgments about who you trust. It is not virtuous to flippantly hand out your trust to anyone just because of a title, nor is it an act of strength to withhold your trust simply to satisfy your ego. 

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Dr. Finlayson-Fife offers an example of this idea: “If a bishop were to say, ‘We've decided to split the ward.  We think it would be better for you to go to the other ward where there's not enough leadership”.  Even though this is inconvenient for you, you may submit to the request, not because you want blessings per se, but because you know that it will achieve the greater good.  The leadership in this case understands this reality better than you do. They're saying you’re needed, and you can offer the help. And the way to create the greater good is to submit to that, even though it will cost more to the individual than those who are not being asked to do that.’ I think that's a virtuous submission if it's done in that frame, which is that they have more ability to make that call, and I trust their judgment, and am willing to submit to it because I can truly offer [whatever they are asking]. And so it is a submission of self for the greater good. It's not groundless, it's grounded submission, when looking at the larger picture.”

I recently faced a very difficult decision that was going to have a major impact on me and my family. I had given it a lot of thought and counseled with others about it and was ready to make a choice. I took it to the Lord and asked Him what I should do.  I had two options, there was one that I favored and one that I didn’t. I told God that I was willing to make the unfavorable choice if it was His will. I was more than willing to trust His counsel and His decision on the matter, and I was feeling crushed by the weight of the decision and was happy to turn to God so that He could tell me what to do.

I don’t really get those word for word kind of answers, but basically, the answer that came to me was, “I’m not going to tell you to want to do and I’m not going to make this decision for you. When you make this choice, I want you to choose it because it’s what you want and because it’s what you honestly believe is the most right decision for you in this situation. I don’t want you to just let me do all the thinking for you. It is good that you have a willing heart to obey, but you also need to develop the capacity discern right and wrong for yourself.  Keep working at it, I’ll offer guidance as you continue to think about it, but I’m not going to tell you what to do.”

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Submitting is about a willingness to be tutored in the Lord’s ways, but it’s also about developing your ability to discern between right and wrong. It’s not just about doing whatever is asked of you, it’s also about wrestling to know if what you are submitting to is a wise choice.  

Dale G. Renlund, Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught this important truth about God: “Our Heavenly Father’s goal in parenting is not to have His children do what is right; it is to have His children choose to do what is right and ultimately become like Him. If He simply wanted us to be obedient, He would use immediate rewards and punishments to influence our behaviors. But God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient 'pets' who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business.”

For more on this topic, check out more of the interview with Dr. Finalayson-Fife on thechristiandoormat.com

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