Tyndale House Publishers
Are mistaken beliefs about submission and what it means to “die to self” hindering you from walking authentically with God? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. As Christian women, when we greet each other in public or at church, we may be all smiles on the outside. But inside, each of us is a collection of various experiences that have layered our personal histories year upon year. Most of us have enjoyed at least some good times. Many have endured seasons of physical difficulty, and some have been pelted by seemingly endless emotional storms. Although our inner state of being does not affect our significance or value in God’s eyes, it greatly affects the way we view ourselves and others, the way we approach God and perceive his Word. The character of God does not change. The truths in the Bible do not change. But the experiences of our lives may cause us to perceive them differently from the way others do.
One Sunday morning during the sermon, the pastor quoted a Bible verse within the context of becoming living sacrifices for God: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3). The pastor concluded with another verse further down in the same text: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). I glanced at the faces of the women.
They were listening intently. Some were taking notes and underlining the verses in their Bibles. As I was thinking of the women listening to this practical application on how to make Jesus Lord of all, I guessed that some would be genuinely motivated by this sermon to live sacrificially. They might think, for example, Yes, I need to remember that while I’m good at planning social events, others may have good ideas too. I’ll try to be more open to their ideas.
Other women listening to the sermon would become discouraged as they recalled times when they had tried to apply these biblical principles to their lives. Their thoughts would run more along this line: I shouldn’t have said no when my neighbor asked me to babysit tomorrow. It’s true, I’m exhausted, but I should think more highly of her needs than my own. I think I’d better call her back and tell her I’ll do it. These women would respond to the sermon by becoming self-critical or self-condemning as they decide to ignore their own needs and priorities and believe this is biblical submission.
The Bible was not condemning these women. The sermon was not condemning them, and God was not condemning them. Instead, their own hearts were condemning them. These women were not thinking of themselves with sober (honest) judgment, as the apostle Paul suggested in Romans 12:3. They were not living truthfully in submission to Christ above all others. They have bought into a myth about submission.
Traditionally, a myth is a story that contains an element of truth and reveals a problem, a pattern, or a set of symptoms. For example, the mythical character Narcissus became so captivated by his own reflection in the water that he fell in love with himself. He took great pleasure in watching himself smile proudly and flex his muscles, and his preoccupation with his own image eventually caused his death. Today we call this pattern of self-love narcissism.
Unlike a myth, biblical truth not only reveals a problem, a pattern, or a set of symptoms but also tells us how we can rise above the problem and become victorious. We gain the power to do this as we ground ourselves in the truth of God’s Word and practice true biblical submission by embracing what God gives to us, offering it back to him, and passing it on to others around us under God’s direction.
You may be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about the difference between truth and myth. You may be like my friend Linda, who learned the truths of the Bible as a child and grew up in a Christian home with a fairly healthy family. She married a Christian man and had children, and their extended family spends their vacations together. Most of their relatives go to church and have similar values. They enjoy the kind of warm, loving Christian family life we’d all like to have.
If this has been your experience, your life demonstrates God’s grace and encourages others who may struggle more than you do. But even if you have not had the experiences of some women I will discuss in this book, all of us are affected to some degree by subtle misperceptions about submission and dying to self that make their way into our thinking in this fallen world. They are part of our culture—even (or perhaps, especially) our Christian culture.
My life is different from Linda’s. It took me a long time to realize that I had developed some distorted perceptions about biblical submission, and a skewed picture of what it looks like to walk authentically with God. When I finally got serious with him about facing some hard truths about issues in my life, I realized it would cost a lot to give up the myths I had been living by unaware. But I wanted to grow spiritually and serve God—and that required that I learn to distinguish his truth from myths I had been believing.
When I first began my growth journey, I had no idea of the twists and turns that lay ahead or of the gifts God would be allowing me to share today. Looking back, I must not have even known there was a difference between myth and truth because everything I was hearing sounded so “Christian.” It wasn’t—but we’ll get to that later in the book.
Many women are unable to live in the freedom that Christ gives them to be what he created them to be because they have mistaken perceptions about what biblical submission looks like. Their struggles and concerns often go unaddressed because women don’t know how to talk about them. They deny their problems in the hope that they will go away. They hide their pain because they think good Christians should “get over it,” but they don’t know how. In their attempts to be submissive, they unknowingly submit to other authority figures above God himself. Their behavior is mistakenly “Christianized”—it appears biblical on the outside, but internally these women are living a false, empty version of the purpose-filled, fruitful life God has planned for them.
In writing The Myth of the Submissive Christian Woman, I want to encourage women to embrace the gifts God has given them, to find their life purpose, and to serve Christ above all others. In each chapter, I discuss subtle counterfeits of biblical submission that often lure sincere Christian women off track in their efforts to die to self. These counterfeits, or “mythical” versions, of biblical submission may seem authentic on the outside. But when we take a closer look (especially at the inner workings of women’s hearts), we discover that misperceptions about what God’s Word teaches have caused some women to numb their hearts to their own needs, to doubt themselves, and to distort their proper priorities.
Instead of living the truth that sets them free, these woman often find that their efforts to be what they mistakenly believe is submissive lead to resentment, unhealthy relationships, and disillusionment about the Christian faith—even though they may have a lot of biblical knowledge. Unaware, these women begin living a devalued, diminished version of the abundant life God has invited them to live. Many have lost their sense of self-respect and giftedness. Ironically, the sacrifices they make often seem biblically correct. But subtle distortions of the truth bind these women’s hearts and actually hold them back from serving Christ above everything and everyone else.
This is not a book about submission in marriage exclusively, although marriages are often affected by mistaken beliefs about what the Scriptures teach about submission. This is also not a “Who Am I” book, although learning to submit to God biblically will lead you to discover a lot about who you are. Instead, I want to encourage women to live truthfully and in freedom as they offer themselves to God as living sacrifices.
Each chapter begins with a “myth statement” that expresses one of the misperceptions of what it means for a woman to be submissive. You may or may not see yourself in all of these, but as you read each chapter, ask the Holy Spirit to show you if you have bought into a particular myth unaware and need to understand the truth about biblical submission.
At the end of each chapter I have included questions for reflection, discussion, and further prayer. You may use these for personal study or work through them in a small group. There is also a crystallized truth for you to take with you, to hold in your heart as you go about your days in the world. To persevere in this fallen world, you must know the truth—that Jesus Christ is your Savior and Lord of your life, that you belong to him, and that through him you are connected to your heavenly Father. These final “truths” will help you to remember that your worth is what God says it is, that it is not affected by what others say or by what happens to you, or by what you accomplish or don’t accomplish.
As we learn to submit ourselves to God and grow in grace as his women, he teaches us what he has sent us into the world to do and who we are to become. He transforms our hearts, minds, and wills and gradually gives us the strength we need to die to desires that run contrary to his will. By his grace, we focus on living for Christ as our highest aim and become increasingly self-offering and self-forgetting in our service to him and to others. We may not look any different when people see us at church on Sunday mornings. But our hearts will be growing in gratitude, in freedom, in honesty in our relationships, and in deeper intimacy with God.
The truth is, some are afraid to learn what
lies deeper within . . . for they know He
is a Sovereign power and, if once they
catch sight of Him, He will command
their full allegiance. And then their own
will—their very self—must be changed to
become one with His.
Teresa of Avila1
Have You Lost Yourself?
I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over
the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on
stone are worn down by water. —Amy Tan
THE MYTH: Biblical submission requires that I give up being “me.”
When I first saw Nicki, she was at least fifteen pounds underweight. Her face was drawn and pale, etched with lines of pain, worry, and regret. She reminded me of a wounded sparrow in search of a sheltering limb during a storm. On her background information she had written simply: “I need help.”
“What kind of help do you think you need?” I asked.
After a long pause, Nicki shrugged and said, “I’m not sure. I just know that my life is not working.”
As we began to talk, I learned that Nicki had taken disability leave from her job in an insurance company, where stress had been mounting for several years. Throughout the ten years she had worked at the company, she had received regular promotions, but recently the need to cope with her teenage son’s rebellion, her husband’s lack of emotional involvement in their family life and his frequent business trips, and her own responsibilities at home and work had driven her to the edge of an emotional cliff.
“I feel so guilty,” Nicki said. “I’ve been a Christian most of my life, yet I’ve become incompetent in my job, and I’m failing as a wife and mother. I hate myself!” At that point the intensity of Nicki’s emotions reached a peak, and she began to cry softly. Over the next few weeks, Nicki gradually gave me a glimpse of her world and, more important, the empty state of her inner self, from which she viewed it. Like a shell-shocked Christian soldier peeking out from a foxhole to view the surrounding devastation, Nicki was beginning to suspect that she may have misread her marching orders.
Nicki’s lifelong tendency to avoid conflict with her coworkers, her husband, and her friends had become stronger over the years as she tried to consider others more important than herself and develop “a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4). As Nicki grew increasingly concerned that she might appear selfish, she often repressed her honest emotions and denied her own needs and limitations. When her boss became anxious about the company’s future and demanded extra hours of her expertise so that the business could remain solvent, Nicki frequently worked overtime. In the meantime her husband was out of town traveling at least two days each week, which left their son with unmet needs for supervision and companionship. When her husband was at home, he was often uptight or depressed.
Hoping to add a little excitement to the humdrum rhythm of their lives, he persuaded Nicki that they could rekindle their waning love life by watching triple-X-rated films together. Having a desire to please her husband—and thereby please God—Nicki agreed to do this. Later, even when she felt used and betrayed, she tried to think only good and pure and right things about her husband. She kept quiet about her emotional pain because she mistakenly believed the Scriptures taught that a married woman had no control over her own body.
Because Nicki was living according to a patchwork of Scripture verses that she had pieced together over the years, her behavior looked so Christian, so right—at least from her perspective. She had always wanted to be a woman who was generous, kind, and self-sacrificing—all good traits. But she was confused and frustrated about what that would really mean for her and how to go about becoming that kind of woman. With sincere intentions of “dying to self,” Nicki subtly veered off course, and her miscalculation eventually led down a dark path to self-abandonment. In the process she became a weakened, milquetoast Christian who ignored her legitimate needs for respect, accountability, and mutuality in her relationships and made it easy for unhealthy behaviors to prevail. In her well-intentioned efforts to obey what she mistakenly believed the Scriptures teach, she rejected herself and abandoned the gifts God had given her.
Nicki had unwittingly bought into the myth that in order to submit to God, she must give up being herself. Other misconceptions had also skewed her interpretation of the Scriptures, and woven together, they perpetuated a myth about the Christian life—that “dying to self” means that a woman must be weakwilled and compliant at all costs, that she must ultimately reject who she is or somehow die on the inside in order to please God.
This mistakenly “Christianized” justification for devaluing what God has created may appear biblical at a surface glance. But when we take a deeper look, we discover that it is not at all what the Scriptures really say or what Christ intended for us as Christians: to live in freedom and truth. It is quite the opposite of the biblical submission we see in the life of the apostle Paul. Paul was strong-willed for the sake of Christ and “weak” only in that he did not get his own way in the world.
Although culture has changed over time, the truth principle we see in Paul’s life has remained the same for both men and women: Following hard after Christ makes us stronger internally and defines our purpose in life, but it will not always win us accolades with others. It was this kind of submission—a fierce yieldedness to God—that prompted Mary, the young virgin who became Jesus’ mother, to reply, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true,” when the angel told her that she would give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1:38, NLT). She would have to do some serious explaining to Joseph, her betrothed, and she would face disapproval and judgment from her peers. Accepting and submitting to God’s will for her would take strength—not weakness.
Yet Mary submitted to God’s will first and then found the courage to give an answer to people around her. This is the freedom the apostle Paul expresses in Galatians 2:20: “My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me” (The Message).
Like many women, Nicki missed the truth of that passage. Her ego was still central. She was still preoccupied with impressing God and “appearing righteous” to other people. If we are honest, I suspect that many of us struggle with that same preoccupation, at least to some extent. The great Christian theologian A. W. Tozer recognized this. In The Pursuit of God he writes of a veil in the hearts of Christians, woven of “the fine threads of the self-life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit. They are not something we do, they are something we are, and therein lies both their subtlety and their power.”2
Nicki lacked this discernment. Her naive efforts to “die to self” did not lead to self-denial as described in the Bible. Instead, they led to an underdeveloped, fragile sense of self that was sheltered and weakened by choices to avoid conflict or confrontation. Her efforts to die to self created other stubborn problems that left her feeling empty, with a shallow identity built exclusively on her roles, not on who she was as a person, despite her attempts to spiritualize that emptiness away.
I have been in Nicki’s shoes. When I became a Christian in my midtwenties, after five years of marriage and the births of two sons, I felt clean and pure, as if I was getting a fresh start. I wanted to serve Christ with all my heart. I began reading the Bible, going to church, and praying every day. The Bible taught different kinds of lessons, lessons I hadn’t known about, such as in giving you receive, in dying you find life, and to lead others, you serve them.
My husband must have wondered where I had disappeared to on the inside once I became a Christian. He must have wondered what had happened to my spunk and individuality as I began to abandon the characteristics of my personality in the name of biblical submission. It must have puzzled him when I stopped holding up my end of our argumentative tugs-of-war as I had done in the past. These were my fledgling attempts to “die to self.”
With a sincere desire to do what I thought the Bible taught, I started trying to turn away my husband’s wrath with a gentle answer, to win him without a word. But then I didn’t know what to do with my anger, so I just pushed it down inside me. Once in a while it spewed out unexpectedly, which confused me and made me feel guilty. Sometimes my safety instincts clamored loudly, as if to tell me that something was not right, but I told them to quiet down. Soon I became resentful, but I didn’t want to talk about any of this because I thought good Christians shouldn’t feel angry, confused, or resentful. Now my husband and I didn’t know how to talk about our conflicts at all because they were hidden, just like my feelings.
Although my husband and I no longer shared the same lifestyle goals after I came to know Christ, I still thought that my becoming a Christian would strengthen our marriage. I believe we loved each other as best we knew how at the time. But we didn’t know how to honestly face and talk about our problems, work out our differences, or accept each other. Later I found out that my husband had looked elsewhere for an intimate companion he could feel close to, and eventually he left home and filed for divorce. I was heartbroken because although I knew I had made mistakes, my deepest desire had always been to be a good Christian wife and mother.
I had tried really hard to learn and obey the Scriptures, to practice them in my marriage, to teach them to my two sons, and to serve the Lord in my church and community. The descriptions of godly relationships I read about in the Bible appeared to work for some couples I knew—the men looked like strong Christian leaders, and their wives appeared to feel secure and protected. The churches I had attended taught women to rely on their husbands for making decisions, especially final ones. I overgeneralized this teaching and assumed it meant that women should also look to their husbands for safety and protection when they needed it. I had tried to be obedient, but I needed to mature in my understanding of the Scriptures.
After my divorce I tried to discuss my confusion and spiritual disillusionment with Christian friends. Some of them stared blankly at me and said things like, “Just trust in the Lord, Brenda; everything is going to turn out fine.” I got the impression that since I was a Christian, there shouldn’t be a problem. But there was a problem. Have you ever experienced this kind of confusion, when your life may have looked like others’ lives on the outside and yet you knew something different must be going on inside you? I remember wishing I could somehow peer underneath the skin and bones of other women to see if any of their souls were being plowed—as mine was—with doubts, fears, and questions about what it means to be submissive as a Christian woman.
I searched for answers, but when I didn’t find any, I thought something must be wrong with me since there seemed to be such a gap between my faith and what I felt inside. I had always thought that this reality would change if I prayed hard enough and had strong enough faith, but that hadn’t worked for me. No matter how much I prayed, although my life had the appearance of godliness—teaching a children’s class at church, attending Bible study, praying regularly, and tithing faithfully—inside, I felt hollow and empty, as if nobody was at home anymore.
I was aware that God had given me specific gifts—being a good listener, writing poems, making crafts, and caring deeply for people, especially those who are hurting. I wanted to offer my gifts to God, my husband, the church, and the people around me. I naively thought everyone would be glad when I used my gifts, the way God delights in seeing his children use gifts he has given to them. But when others didn’t respond well to my use of my gifts, I didn’t know what to do. I had not yet developed discernment about whether they were mistaken or I was. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I pushed my feelings away and hoped my friends were right, that somehow everything would turn out fine.
A few years passed, and I met a man at church named Frank Waggoner, who was a solid Christian and a kindhearted, outdoorsy man. We started doing things together with our kids, and before long, we fell in love. After a year of having lots of fun together and seeking God’s will for our lives, we came to believe it was his plan for us to marry. So we did. And from that point on, we lived happily ever after, right?
Well, it’s true that Frank and I grew very close in heart, but after about seven years of the good life together (we’ve now been married twenty years), the trials started up again. This was a Christian marriage, yet it was still facing challenges. The tension between the two of us peaked while we were attending a small, legalistic church and I got into a dicey situation as the pastor’s secretary. I will talk more about this slice of my life in chapter 4, but for now I’ll just say that I needed to say some hard things, both to Frank and to the pastor, and I didn’t know how. I lacked maturity, but even more than that, I was so afraid of rejection that I refused to confront issues that needed to be confronted. Instead, I remained bound by the same misunderstanding that Nicki was entangled in—that in order to submit biblically, I would have to give up being “me.”
I was unaware that I had begun living as a devalued, diminished version of the person God created me to be. I failed to measure up, not only to my own perception of what a Christian woman should be, but also to what I perceived the Christian community believed I should be. I was confused because even though I was a Christian, I didn’t know how to make wise choices or face hard realities or set appropriate limits—or speak the truth—especially with Christian friends. I don’t mean that I spoke dishonestly or told lies. Rather, because I didn’t know what to do when people questioned my use of my gifts or had a personal agenda for the use of my gifts, I failed to speak at all. I was devastated to find out that there was mean-spiritedness not only out in the world but also among the people in my church and in me.
Later, when I went to graduate school, I found it ironic that the ones who would talk honestly with me about life’s complexities were people at a secular university. Along the way I also met some Christians who would let me talk out my confusion and ask questions. They knew that we may not have answers but it is okay to ask the questions. I began to realize that through all these trials, God was trying to teach me the same lesson I’d been stuck on for a long time: the need to live authentically and speak truthfully.
He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . . that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, . . . but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. EPHESIANS 4:14-15, NKJV
Many years later, when I began working as a counselor, I discovered that I had not been alone in this dilemma—that other Christian women had also lost the innate awareness all of us have as children of how to live with integrity, to be who we are. This loss of integrity—living our lives as a truthful reflection of who we are—affects our relationships with friends, coworkers, people in our churches, and in our communities and our marriages. More important, it affects our relationship with God. Once I realized this, I wanted to help others as I had been helped, to show compassion as others had shown compassion to me.
I talked with other Christian women who, like me, had tried to die to self before they had an awareness of and appreciation for who God had made them to be. When these women became Christians, God accepted them just as they were and brought them into relationship with him. But when it came to growing in that relationship, they mistakenly believed that they needed to give up being the unique individuals God had made them. In their minds, that is what dying to self meant. Their lack of awareness about what Christ had to say about their value created a lot of confusion about the difference between dying to self and selfabandonment.
Like me, other women didn’t understand how unreasonable it was to expect themselves to authentically submit to God without the inner strength that comes from knowing you belong to someone, that you are loved, and that there is a meaningful connection in that relationship. Those who had this awareness about their relationship with God didn’t understand what was missing in those who didn’t have it. Nobody knew what to call this conviction, but I later learned that it was a solid sense of one’s true self— the person God knows we are.
If these women had somehow been able to look deep inside, to see a visible representation of their true selves, it would have been clear to them that the person God created each of them to be was someone to be honored, not rejected. Valued, not shamed. Sacrificially offered, not ignored. They would have known that God had created them to be connected to him, nurtured and empowered by him, and filled with him.
They would have known that denying yourself has nothing to do with belittling, shaming, abandoning, or hiding yourself. On the contrary, it has everything to do with accepting yourself the way God accepts you—flaws and all. It has everything to do with being responsible, making choices and decisions, submitting all that you are to God as a living sacrifice. It leads to serving others through your connection to him, in a way that transcends your self. Most of all, it has to do with telling the truth in love, as children of God, the way we did when we were small.
This is a very freeing way to live—to follow this daily path of “putting on” Christ. Soon we begin to leave behind the old self, with all its constantly emerging tendencies toward sin, judgment, and self-righteousness. —Julian of Norwich3
When I was five or six years old, my sister, Jan, and I got Ginny dolls for Christmas. Although we opened all our other presents on Christmas Eve, there was always one special gift under the tree on Christmas morning. When I opened up my doll case and saw the brown-eyed Ginny dressed in her yellow-and-brown pineapple dress trimmed with tiny green rickrack, I was so happy. I thought she was perfect—until I saw that my sister’s Ginny had blue eyes.
As Jan began playing with her doll, I felt sad and mad at the same time because I thought her blue-eyed doll was prettier than mine. When I felt hot tears spilling onto my cheeks, I ran to my bedroom. I knew that my dad had taken great care in picking out those special “Santa” gifts for my sister and me, and I did not want him to see my disappointment or my tears.
After I had flung my small body across the bed and cried for a few minutes, my dad came into my bedroom. Reluctantly, I looked up at him and saw the sadness in his face. When he saw my tears, he sat down on the bed and picked up the browneyed Ginny, which I’d thrown onto the floor. Looking at the doll and then at me, he asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t you like your doll?”
“I wanted the blue-eyed Ginny, Daddy, because she’s prettier,” I blurted out. He reached over and gave me a hug as I sobbed uncontrollably. Soon my tears subsided, and I looked up into my dad’s face. He looked puzzled as he stared at my doll.
“But she’s beautiful,” he said. “She has brown eyes—like you.”
I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. What I do recall is that my brown-eyed Ginny became my favorite doll. I remember the joy in my dad’s hazel eyes as he watched me play with her, rolling her hair on the tiny pink curlers that came in the case, dressing her in her white flannel robe with tiny blue flowers or in her yellow-and-brown pineapple dress. Just as my dad took joy in seeing me play with the doll he had picked out especially for me, our heavenly Father takes delight when we embrace the gifts he has given us. And how it must sadden him when we reject our talents and throw them away because they are not the ones we want or we appreciate someone else’s more than our own. Biblical dying to self does not mean that we die on the inside, give up being ourselves, or abandon the gifts God has given us. It means that we embrace our gifts and talents, offer them back to God, and then at his prompting, use them in serving others for his glory.
We see the most poignant portrait of this truth in the life of Christ, who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus embraced his life, accepted the charge his Father had given to him, spoke truth to his disciples, and shared the Good News from a boat or a hillside as the crowds listened. Then, after having clearly shown himself to be the Son of God, he sacrificed his life and became the ultimate offering for sinners like you and me.
Christ’s pattern is clear: Accept our charge, speak the truth, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices for God’s glory. Yet how difficult it is for us as Christian women to follow Christ’s pattern. It is so easy to get sidetracked and settle for living in a way that we mistakenly believe is biblical. There comes a time when we have to decide whether we will live according to a myth or live out the truth.
By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. ROMANS 7:6 (emphasis added)
As Nicki and I continued to meet, she began to see that she had really been living according to a myth about submission, quite unlike the biblical truths she had hoped to live. Nicki discovered ways she had mixed up dying to self with abandoning self. She had lost her ability to speak truthfully as a Christian woman. She had rejected the gifts God had given her when God wanted her to delight in those gifts and use them with joy. She began to understand that over time, she had allowed what was feminine in her to be damaged, her true self to be diminished, and contrary to what Nicki mistakenly believed, this did not please God. The sin Nicki most needed to turn away from was self-abandonment—not “selfishness.”
Nicki needed to learn to submit to Christ and be strengthened by him in her inner woman, her true self, the way the apostle Paul describes: “We do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, NKJV). Nicki had a choice: She could continue on in weakness, denying her true self, or she could forge ahead as Christ strengthened and renewed her. Paul’s encouraging words are precisely what Nicki needed to penetrate her fearful heart so that she could grow and live free of myths that bound her.
This choice is not easy. It involves taking responsibility—facing up to low self-esteem and the sins it has led to—and learning to think truthful thoughts. For Nicki, it involved learning to identify and express her needs and to say difficult things to her husband, statements that involved the risk of rejection, such as, “I need you, and our son needs you at home.” “I am unwilling to participate in this vicarious sexual affair through pornography, and I’m hurt that you want to. I must ask that you give up this deceptive form of unfaithfulness and be accountable to a spiritual mentor so that our marriage bed can again be what God intended it to be.”
Nicki would have to learn how to do uncomfortable things that she had never done before. It would require integrity—being willing to confront her husband when she felt unsafe, violated, or betrayed, instead of remaining trapped in the fear of rejection and cloaking the truth in niceness. As Nicki and I worked together, I recalled how terrified I was when I began to risk such unfamiliar behaviors as valuing my own opinions and priorities, developing my strengths, and sharing the gifts God had given me.
At first, doing those things felt wrong, as if I were behaving selfishly, unbiblically, even unsubmissively. But as I took more responsibility for living for Christ, my trust began to grow larger than my fear. I started giving myself the same respect and care I would give to a friend. The same spiritual disciplines I had once practiced in an attempt to impress God and get my prayers answered in a certain way, I now entered into for a different reason: to know God and learn to serve him by offering the gifts he had given to me.
As Nicki grew stronger on the inside, she began to discover the joy of pleasing God, and her trust in him grew greater than her fear of rejection by others. On the outside her life didn’t look all that different from before. But inside, Nicki was changing. It felt terrifying and uncertain. She didn’t know whether or not her marriage would survive. She knew that she was willing to fight for it, but also she knew that her husband had some choices to make as well. He felt threatened by her inner growth and her truth telling because he had never seen Nicki honestly express her own thoughts and feelings before. Nicki loved and reassured her husband in ways she could truthfully do so. But ultimately, the best she could do was trust Christ and leave the results in his hands as she practiced new ways of thinking and behaving.
[Jesus said,] “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” MATTHEW 5:13, NKJV
When I first began thinking about this book, I knew it would lack authenticity unless it included my husband’s insights as well as my own. Frank walked with me as I struggled to recognize ways I kept getting lost in a mythic maze that led me away from an authentic life with God. He has seen some of the predicaments inherent in Christian women and puzzled over some of the problems such confusion causes for their husbands and families. Together, we discovered that not only does the myth about submission not work for women, it doesn’t work for the men who love them either.
We discovered truths we never would have suspected. A man can feel emasculated or rejected when his wife tries to fit him into a stereotypical role as a Christian husband. He may long for something deeper—acceptance and respect. It was painful for me to realize this must have been part of what my first husband longed for. He made the poor choice of infidelity, but I made the poor choice of avoiding reality, of hoping and praying that things would get better and mistakenly thinking that’s what it meant to be submissive.
A man may feel that he is losing control if his wife embraces her gifts and becomes stronger in her inner woman. But that same situation may also, sometimes for the first time, provide an opportunity for a man to trust Christ in new ways, to grow and become more responsible and submissive to Christ himself. A secure man will be content to submit himself and his wife to God’s care. I’m very grateful that together Frank and I are learning to live more honestly and responsibly, to submit our lives to God before we submit to anyone else. With God’s help, we are both growing stronger.
I know that becoming responsible as women, embracing the gifts God has given to us, and learning to live and speak truthfully can be terrifying. Accepting the challenge of authentic submission requires that we face reality and call the subtle sins in our lives by their real names. But when we reject ourselves, belittle or abandon our God-given gifts, or make anyone else’s personal agenda a higher priority than our service and submission to Christ, we are guilty of idolatry and pride.
This may be a hard truth to hear. But Christ himself supplies the courage to live for him. He invites us to grow. And he, living inside us, is our hope of glory. When we genuinely offer ourselves to him, he sets us free. Only when we are wrapped in his priceless gift of freedom can we begin to biblically die to self.
As we grow in grace, we need to spend time quietly thinking about the truths of God and cultivating a meaningful relationship with him. When we do this, our outer behavior will begin to demonstrate that we give our love and allegiance to Christ above all others because of his lavish love for us.
The following questions and exercises are intended to help you prayerfully reflect on what you have read. You might want to use a notebook or journal for writing down your thoughts, feelings, and prayers as you go along.
1. Begin with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to teach you what he wants you to know and do as a biblically submissive Christian woman.
2. Read Galatians 2:20.
3. Think about the verse you have just read: Christ living in me. What an exciting thought! Yet many Christians devalue what God has created within them. Because they do not have a basic understanding of how God has designed them, they mistakenly believe that it’s selfish to develop their gifts or consider their own needs. What do you think about this?
4. Picture yourself standing in a long line of women. Some you know and admire; others you have never seen. But whether you know them or not, you are aware that each woman in that line is so valuable and precious to God that he sent his Son to die for her. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” As you picture yourself in that line, you realize that you, too, are valuable and precious to God—no more and no less precious than each of the others. Is it harder for you to believe that you are no more precious than the others or to believe that you are no less precious than they are? Romans 12:3 says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” How highly ought you to think of yourself? Leviticus 19:18 tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. This means that we are to love and respect others and ourselves in the same way. Thinking rightly about ourselves and others helps us live in submission to Christ without getting bogged down in spiritual pride and idolatry.
5. Read 1 John 3:18-20. Although God does not condemn those who are in Christ, sometimes our own hearts condemn us. When has this happened to you? It is impossible to die to self as the Bible describes if we are preoccupied with self: self-rejection, self-abandonment, self-pity, self-doubt. You may have bought into these spiritual-sounding myths unaware, but they are burdensome, and they distract you from living out God’s purposes for your life. Recognizing this self-centeredness as sin will help you to grow and thrive instead of merely survive. What spiritual myths do you need to stop believing? Confess them to God and seek his forgiveness. God will help you to stop condemning yourself in your heart, leave those myths behind, and live in freedom.
6. Close with prayer, ending with this prayer of submission: “Lord, thank you for loving and accepting me. I turn over to you my heart, mind, body, and soul. All that I am belongs to you, through Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. Amen.”
Biblical submission requires that I become stronger inwardly so that my trust in Christ is greater than my fear of rejection.