I once stayed at a Catholic convent full of strict, wrinkled nuns in Hyderabad, India. One night, my American friends and I decided to go out for some fun, food and drinks, but as we approached the compound’s main gate, we ran into the Mother Superior. As the oldest, coldest, most intimidating of the nuns, she gave us strict orders: “Be back by 9 p.m. or we will lock the gates and release the guard dogs before you return.”
Of course, this only made us eager to defy her authority. We scoffed at her orders and ran off to eat spicy tandoori without a care in the world. We naturally returned past curfew and assumed we were in the right because the nun had encroached on our right to do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to do it. But although the guard dogs turned out to be 10-pound puppies, we strained our relationship with the convent, and our actions called our missions organization into question in their eyes.
More than a random incident of youthful rebellion, I see this as a reflection of a wider ideology that pervades American culture. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave, a nation founded on revolution and individual autonomy. These are beautiful things, of course, but they also come with a side effect.
The most offensive word to Americans is a simple, two-syllable word that insults our beliefs and violates our value system: submit.
We inherently believe no one has the right to tell us how to live, where to go or what to do. We are our own masters. I’ve heard it said that a culture can be understood through its celebrities, and as Americans, we love the ego of musicians like Kanye West, the image of revolutionaries like Che Guevara and the entertainment of TV stars such as Honey Boo Boo. All of these figures represent individualist rebellion against the authorities that be. They refuse to submit—and we love them for it.
Although most of us do not rebel on the same level as the eccentrics mentioned above, we often defy authority in subtle ways. We fly down the freeway at 90 miles per hour, then feel violated when police officers obstruct our daily routines by giving us speeding tickets. How dare they tell us we’re wrong, right?
The problem is that this hostility to submission often leaves us raring for selfish gain without considering how our actions affect others. More importantly, it hardens our hearts to the will of God.
We don’t always acknowledge it, but many of us subconsciously believe God gives us commandments to force us into a stiff, single-file line. This lie makes God seem like an angry referee obsessed with rigid rules and regulations, as if He bitterly paces back and forth in heaven, waving a red flag and trying to control our every word and step. Who would want to obey to a god like that?
The reality is that God is much more like a loving father trying to keep his children from running into traffic. The more we learn to submit to His commandments, the more we see they are not burdensome rules but rather signposts pointing toward the path of true joy, life and peace. For instance, I always thought King David sounded a bit crazy in Psalm 19 when he said the rules of God are “sweeter than the drippings of the honey comb,” but when I compare the peace of submission to the emptiness of sin, I know he was right.
We may think independence is what we want, but it comes with a hidden cost.
Speaking to an atheist who asked about the difference between heaven and hell, renowned author and pastor Tim Keller once said, “Nobody ever goes to hell unless they want to. People go to hell because they want to be away from a god who will tell them what to do. People in hell would say, ‘It’s pretty miserable here, but I would never want to be in heaven with God, where He is telling people what to do.’”
Our culture tells us true freedom comes in following our desires wherever they lead us. While this sounds nice and provides the plot for most romantic comedies, reality reveals why this is false. For example, I have a number of friends who have overcome extreme substance abuse. When one of my friends recounted his past addiction to pain killers to me, he said, “I had become a complete slave to pills. My desires were killing me.” In many ways, unrestrained pride, lust, greed, fear, control, jealousy and anger have the same effect.
Defiance of God’s commandments may give us a fleeting sense of power and independence, but this actually reveals our weakness and constant need for grace. We have to have the humility to acknowledge our own faults and the trust to follow God’s commands, even when they run contrary to our personal desires. Because something better is on the other side. God offers us abundant life, the fullness of freedom and more love than our minds have the capacity to comprehend.
If we ever hope to experience these things, we have to do the most countercultural, rebellious thing imaginable within America: submit to a truth deeper than ourselves.