July Growth Exercises

Week 1: 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. 

Week 1 Exercise: Slow down to observe and enjoy

Patience involves learning to order our lives, habits and expectations well, in a universe where time is a dimension, as well as space. This month, try to slow down. Begin to view people and places differently. Here’s some things to try:

When you sit down to eat, eat slowly. Don’t rush, or try to get through the meal in order to get on with the next thing. Think about the food, engage in conversation, and enjoy the moment. Ask questions of your meal partner(s), and follow up with further questions. When you have finished eating your food, keep on talking. 

When you need to get somewhere local, try not to use the car. Make time to walk instead of driving. Walking will change the way you see your neighbourhood. It will create time and conversation. 

Week 2 Exercise: Take time to memorise

This month, memorise a chunk of Scripture: perhaps a Psalm or a favourite chapter of a New Testament epistle. This kind of engagement with the Bible is not easy, nor does it give instant results, but it’s very worthwhile. Next time you’re stuck in a waiting room, or bored, instead of playing with your phone, begin to recite your memorised passage, mulling over it and meditating on the text. This simple activity turns ‘waiting’ into patience, submitting yourself to the limitations of dependency.

Week 3 Exercise: The Power of Submission– Choosing to Submit.

Somehow we have concluded that submission is weakness, that it is somehow a sign of inferiority and incapacity. Perhaps this stems from childhood visions of surrendering to the local bully. We’d better submit to him or he’ll hurt us.

The willingness of Jesus to submit himself to his Heavenly Father subverts this distorted view. In the Garden of Gethsemanie, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:41-43). Jesus the Son submits to his Heavenly Father, and yet he remains equally a member of the Trinity, fully God, worthy of all praise. He chooses to submit but that does not mean he is without power. Indeed he says elsewhere in the Garden on that same night, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Mt 26:52-54). In other words, he has the capacity to remove himself from the Garden but he chooses to submit himself to the carriage of the Father’s will.

We see, therefore, that submission chooses to set aside one’s own will and power, in order that another’s may prevail. It need not imply powerlessness, but rather it requires that we have control over our power (rather than it over us) in order that we may set it aside. Our culture sells us the notion of ‘freedom’ as essential right, instead of willing submission to the authority of another– and yet such freedom ultimately enslaves us to our own whims. J.I. Packer explores this topic in depth in this linked article.

Look for opportunities this week to choose submission. Willingly decide to give heed to another person’s wishes or desires. You will need to exercise both wisdom and grace as you do so. Consider how you might bless that person in the very act of your submission. As you do, recognise that you are following in the footsteps of Jesus. Record your experiences of submission in your journal.

Week 4 Exercise: The power of an apology

“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 society today” ~ Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 2008.

Foster’s observation that always getting our own way is a “terrible burden” takes some time to grasp. For most of us, the terrible burden is when we don’t! Yet, as we pause and consider the upside-down nature of the Christian life, we reluctantly realise that he may very well be right. The self-serving life is never satisfied: our own stubbornness and impatience can so quickly enslave us. In seeking to serve ourselves we are never satisfied. Instead, we become a dog chasing its own tail.

Take some time this week to prayerfully reflect on your own responses to those situations when you haven’t got your way, when another person’s will has prevailed over yours. Has your impatience or intolerance introduced strain into that relationship? Might an apology be in order? Do so is an exercise in submitting yourself to the other person, as you rely upon their their gracious response to your request for forgiveness. 

If your impatience or anger tends to manifest in other ways (like, while driving!) you might need to address your apology to God. You might even want to take more time in prayer to ask him to reveal the reasons why you find those situations so frustrating.