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“The Right to Tell Me What to Do”

Mark 14:36
Bob DeGray
July 22, 2018

Key Sentence

God intends good for those who yield their rights.


I. Individual Autonomy
II. Absolute submission to God (Mark 14:36, Matthew 6:9-10, James 4:7)
III. Conditioned submission to others (Rom 13:1, Eph 5:22, 1Pe 2:18, Heb 13:17)


This morning I want to talk about one of the dominant perspectives in our culture: individual autonomy. Individual autonomy means each person has the right to choose for themselves. In that definition are two key concepts, the concept of rights and the concept of choices. These complimentary ideas dominate not only our foundation as a culture but our cultural conversation every day.

Let’s start with choices. I watched a few TED talks, and in one Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore says “In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle. We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as things that don’t.” Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia Business School says “America . . . has made the idea of personal autonomy such a dogma that it has almost become a religion.”

She first saw this while working on her doctorate in Japan. “On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar. After a pause, the waiter said, "One does not put sugar in green tea." "I know," I said. "I'm aware of this custom. But I really like my tea sweet." In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation. "I understand," I said, "that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I'd like to put sugar in my green tea." Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. A lengthy discussion ensued, and finally the manager came over to me and said, "I am very sorry. We do not have sugar." Well, since I couldn't have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.”

From an American perspective, when a customer makes a reasonable request based on her preferences, she has every right to have that request met. Burger King teaches us "have it your way.” Starbucks says, "happiness is in your choices." But from the Japanese perspective, it's their duty to protect those who don't know better from making the wrong choice. Iyengar says “the way I wanted my tea was inappropriate and they were doing their best to help me save face.” Amy Choi, in, says “American desire for choice has manifested in many ways: politically, in demand for a voice in governance; commercially, in demand for variety in consumer goods and services; and spiritually, in the demand to choose and create exactly the kind of individual life, and self, you believe in. In the U.S., the overriding perception is that anything you do based on tradition or social expectation is inauthentic and not you. Because the real you is the choices you make.” Iyengar says “people choose for themselves, sticking to their guns, regardless of what others want or recommend.”

But what if this obsession with choices is harming us. Barry Schwartz, whom I quoted earlier, show that an excess of choices paralyzes us and leaves us regretting what we didn’t choose. They increase opportunity cost, the perceived loss of all those other options. Choice leads to escalation of expectations: “If I choose the right one it will be perfect,” and then to self-blame: “I must not have chosen the right one.”

Why do we defend making choices? Because it’s a right. Rights and choices go hand in hand. American culture is founded on the assertion that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s good. But what if neither choices nor rights are an absolute good? What if there is often great good in releasing our choices and rights? What if pursuit of personal autonomy has led to the multiplication of rights to our harm? Twenty years ago Harvard Law School’s Mary Ann Glendon wrote a book called “rights talk,” in which she diagnosed the growing trend in American courts and culture to make rights absolute. For example, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say “Rats have Rights?” Really? What rights precisely do they have? I suppose under some circumstances a rat might have the right to life. But liberty? You want to give rats the legal right to live in your pantry and pursue happiness in your sugar cannister? Do rats have a right to privacy or a right to choose?

Glendon’s more profound example was abortion. Roe vs. Wade made the right to chose an absolute. No one can tell a woman what to do with her body. This made America one of the most liberal abortion states in the world, with more permissive abortion laws than liberal Europe. But there are victims of this absolute, tiny helpless victims of this American fetish with rights. The current focus of the transgender debate is on whether a child who expresses a feeling should be given the absolute right to choose. What if, as appears to be the case, these choices do harm, physical, psychological and relational? Could it be that rights and choices and personal autonomy should not be absolute?

But what’s the alternative? What’s a biblical alternative? Social scientists recognize two competing sets of values in cultures: autonomy and community. Extreme autonomy leads to individual selfishness that harms self and others. Extreme community leads to sinful pride that tyrannizes and abuses self and others. But God’s answer is a third option. It is absolute submission to his will: love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and it is conditional submission to others: love your neighbor as yourself. Now our culture hates the word submission, letting others tell me what to do. But for our culture, way over on the scale of autonomy, this is the word that needs to get in our face. I believe that God intends good for those who yield their rights.

Let’s begin with the absolute. God has the absolute right to tell you what to do. This truth is foundational to all Scripture. God is the creator and a creator has some rights over his creation. So in the Garden God had a perfect right to say “eat from any tree, but not that one. That one would not be good for you.” God’s absolute right to tell us what to do is always a reflection of his love for us and the fact that he is working for our good. But Satan saw an opening and convinced our first parents that they knew better, that God didn’t really have their good in mind in requiring that obedience. And Adam and Eve fell for it.

Scripture then records the constant tension between God’s absolute right to tell people what to do, and the resistance of now fallen and sinful people. Through the Law and then through the prophets, God gave restrictions and corrections to do people good, to show his love. But in every case people insisted by their behavior that God could not tell them what to do. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, could not and would not escape from choosing blatant sin.

Until Jesus came. One of the most crucial events in the Incarnation also occurred in a garden. Jesus had celebrated Passover with his disciples, and instituted the Lord’s Supper. But his heart was troubled and he went to a garden. Mark 14:32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Jesus, God the Son, cries out in distress to God the Father, whom he calls by the very personal name “Abba.” And he begs him to “take this cup,” that is the task he has received, to bear our sin and God’s wrath, to pay the price that we might be free. This burden of becoming sin for us was overwhelming to him. In his flesh he did not want to follow this plan. But he then gives what may be the greatest example to us out of his whole life. “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Not what I will but what you will. Not what I will but what you will. Jesus gave the Father permission to tell him what to do.

That’s the whole point. If Jesus could obey in such distress, in the face of such suffering, who are we to say “No, you can’t tell me what to do?” Who are we to assert personal autonomy, our rights, our choice and thus shake our fists in the face of our creator and our redeemer? The American idol of autonomy, rights and choices is put to shame by the humility and obedience of our Savior.

The implication is that we, God’s created, redeemed children, are expected to submit to his will. When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, his prayer started “Our father in heaven, may your name be revered as holy.” But then “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, let me, let us, do your will. Let us submit to you. What Jesus prayed in the garden we are to pray every day, “not my will but yours.” Not my personal autonomy but your personal sovereignty, let that be the focus of my life.

And this has inestimable benefit to us. Following our own will, being our own boss often leads to sin, pain and physical, mental or emotional poverty. But doing things God’s way leads to health. The famous verse in Jeremiah reinforces this. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Though specifically addressed to the exiles in Babylon, the principal that God’s plan is good for us is true. So when we submit to his will, we are acting in our own best interest. When we buy the lie of personal autonomy we are buying self-harm.

That truth is reinforced by James who says very plainly. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. James has been pleading with his readers to avoid friendship with the world that makes one an enemy of God. Our insistence that “you can’t tell me what to do” makes us a friend of our culture but at odds with God. James says “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” If you want God’s grace, humble yourself and submit to him. Tell him “not my will but your will.” Tell him he has the right to tell you what to do. Then the devil will flee from you. Submission and humility are good for you, freeing you from Satan’s lies and his temptations.

But, you ask, how do I know God’s will? I want to do his will, but I can’t figure it out. Yes, you can. On the level of day to day attitudes and behaviors, God’s will is clear. I’d like to suggest a simple exercise. Try to embrace God’s will as revealed in the plain ethical teachings of the New Testament. You might not want to start with the Sermon on the Mount. It’s kinda tough. But try Romans 12, Colossians 3 or Ephesians 4. You might start with one verse, Colossians 3:12 “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” That’s God’s will for the coming week. The hard part isn’t figuring it out. So don’t get caught up looking for some dramatic word from the Lord or spiritual experience of guidance while you’re still mostly failing at Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4 and Matthew 5 and Romans 12 and 1st Corinthians 13. For believers these are the most important places to learn and submit to his will. God has an absolute right to tell you what to do, and he has told you. The good news is that everything he tells you to do is for your good and for his glory.

But Scripture does not limit submission just to God. We are called in Scripture to submit to one another in various roles and relationships. And that’s harder, because people do not always have our good in mind. They intentionally oppress us or neglectfully ignore us. Yet God calls us to submission, to letting others tell me what to do, and though this is conditional, it’s not optional. I want to walk through a few of the New Testament commands to submit to others, giving up our rights and turning from our choices. I want to strengthen our sense that submitting is right and personal autonomy, counter-productive.

Let’s start with one of the classic calls to submission, Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Each of us is to submit to the governing authorities. In Paul’s day that meant the Roman Empire which, while stable, was far from benevolent. It violently put down popular uprisings and perfected the art of crucifixion. Yet Paul says submit to these authorities. Let them tell you what to do. Do not cling to your rights or demand your choices. Instead, Paul says, do good and the authorities won’t have any reason to be on your case. So if the authorities say “Pay this additional tax,” you pay it. If the authorities say “don’t fly your drone in a state park,” you don’t. If the authorities say “you can’t rebuild your house after the flood,” you don’t. If the authorities say “you can’t preach or speak about Jesus . . .”

Oh, wait a second. This is where any authority other than God’s becomes conditional, if it violates God’s clear commands. In Acts 4, the Jewish leaders told Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20for we cannot help speaking of what we have seen and heard.” Later Peter says “We must obey God rather than men.” There is a place where God's law and God's way supersedes the state. Say the authorities told you to go out and kill a certain kind of people simply because of who they were, like the Jews in Nazi Europe. You have every right to refuse to obey that command, because God has clearly said that we must not murder, and the principle of human worth is found throughout Scripture. But if they give you a ticket and you refuse because you have the right to choose a safe speed for the circumstances, you’re just wrong. You submit to authority unless doing so would violate a clear Biblical principal.

But what about Masterpiece Cake Shop? Jack Phillips, a committed believer, refused to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual marriage, though he would and did provide any other baked goods to anyone. He was sued, and defended himself by saying that the creative process in decorating a wedding cake was a form of protected speech under the first amendment of the Constitution.

Colorado ruled against him time after time, but Phillips fought those rulings, within the system, all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled in his favor. Now some might not agree with Phillip’s stand, saying he should have served the couple to gain a witness, as Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. But if his conviction is from Scripture and his conscience is sure, he has to obey God and not man. We do submit. That’s what Romans 13:1 says. But where that submission comes up against God’s clear teaching, we must obey God.

God has the absolute right to tell me what to do, and he has the right to tell me what to do through others, subject only to the morality of their demands. 1 Peter 1:18 applies this to my behavior as an employee. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. I extend this to the employee/employer relationship because that’s the closest parallel in our culture to the servant/master relationship in the ancient world. It’s not a perfect parallel, but its enough to affirm that your employer has the right to tell you what to do. If you get hired to analyze pressure vessels but get asked to update specification documents, that’s your employer’s right. You may not like it but you’re obliged to do it, diligently. On the other hand, you can quit over it. You don’t have to have a moral issue to leave a job. If they do tell you to violate a moral principle, like jeopardizing safety or cooking the books, you can legitimately refuse. But the idea that rights and personal autonomy should play hard into your behavior as an employee is more Western than Biblical. Your employer has the right to tell you what to do.

So now we come to the hardest one. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” That’s Ephesians 5:22 and of course the context is important. Paul does command submission here, and respect, but at the same time he commands husbands to love their wives as Christ love the church, sacrificially and having their best interests in mind. So while I do believe a wife has the obligation to accept a husband’s decisions even when they are not what she would have chosen, I also think a husband has the obligation to take into account the needs and desires of his wife and his family in all decisions. This command is not an excuse for tyranny or for selfishness, as far too many have made it.

But God says that one of the ways the husband wife relationship benefits the couple is in loving leadership by the husband and loving submission by the wife. Our culture is appalled at that, that anyone would consider letting another person make choices that impact them, that infringe on their autonomy. But God’s design has both practical and relational benefits. When I do pre-marital counseling I advise husbands and wives to make most big decisions by mutual agreement, and that most decisions can wait until that agreement is reached. But sometimes it can’t.

When Bobby and Johnny’s mom was nearing death, she asked me if Gail and I could take in the boys and care for them. This came as a complete shock to Gail, and there wasn’t time to work through it. But she had a godly response. She said “If you think this is right, I’ll trust God with your decision and with the strength to do my part.” God has blessed that submission. On a smaller scale, after hurricane Ike, Gail and the kids had evacuated to Dallas, but I stayed. A few days later she asked if they should come back. And I said “do not come back unless you bring a generator. Which she did. That’s practical submission.

But notice that in both of those cases no moral issue was involved. I believe firmly that if a wife is asked to submit to the perpetuation of sin by the husband or in the family, abuse or whatever it might be, then she must obey God rather than man, refusing to enable another person’s sin. She should seek help, not limited to but certainly including calling the police, calling the church, and seeking safety outside the home. Once again, our submission to God is absolute, our submission to others is expected and often beneficial, but conditional.

This applies to children and parents. Colossians 3:20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Paul uses the word obey rather than submit, probably because it is just a little bit stronger. Because of their lack of development, life experience and maturity, children are even more strongly encouraged to let someone tell them what to do. Now the usual condition applies. If an evil parent tells a child to do drug deals or submit to sexual abuse, the child must seek safety and justice. Because they are children that’s hard for them to do, which is why others need to be concerned for their safety.

But apart from these tragic cases, obedience to parents is supposed to be the norm. Now I’ve mostly missed pop-culture since, about 1976. I mean not entirely. I think I watched an episode of The Office once. But I never watched a show called Malcom in the Middle. Apparently the theme song was responsible for the sudden appearance of the phrase I talked about in Children’s Corner: “you’re not the boss of me.” I have the right to make my choices, whether they are good for me or not. I can do whatever I want. More and more you hear kids “you’re not the boss of me.” not just to babysitters or to peers, but to their parents. And to say back, “well, actually, I am the boss of you,” is to yourself violate the cultural norm. Yet God calls for this submission and we know intuitively that within broad bounds it’s much better for a child to obey their parent than not. Yes, there are exceptions. No they are not the norm.

So what have we seen? In a world full of rights, followers of Jesus, imitators of Jesus will consciously yield theirs. In a world full of choices, believers will allow someone else to make decisions for them, to tell them what to do.

God intends good for those who will thus yield their rights.

I want to close with one more verse and its application. Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. This verse uses both obey and submit, so its strong. And the context is church. These are your spiritual leaders, the ones who should be keeping watch over your souls. People in a church are supposed to submit to and even obey their spiritual leaders, the elders of the church. The elders of the church are supposed to be able to tell the rest of us what to do. Now it’s probably way more like a marriage than it is like slavery, with a huge component of elders loving the church and the church respecting the elders. But still, the church is to be a place where personal autonomy and rights and choices are yielded in faith that God, through the elders, is going to accomplish what is best for those who yield.

The same conditions apply of course. We don’t follow leaders into violation of God’s laws or God’s love. But apart from that, submission and obedience to your church is Biblically expected. This is entirely anti-American. American Christians change churches as a matter of choice. They have to do what they perceive to be best for them, or for their families. We almost can’t wrap our minds around the fact that this might not be the best answer. That God has something better in mind for those who are willing to stick it out and let their church leaders tell them what to do, even if at times it doesn’t feel right.

For almost two months now we’ve been talking during the Sunday School hour about rebuilding Trinity. And it’s apparent that in order to do that we’re going to have to make some hard choices, stop doing some things we’ve done and do other things differently. Some of those changes may be exactly what you have in mind. Some of them won’t. Most of them won’t be exactly what I have in mind. But when the elders, having gone through a careful process and solicited a range of options and opinions, communicate what these changes will be I ask you to lean more toward yielding rights and choices than the cultural vision of exercising personal autonomy. When you hear yourself saying “that’s fine but it doesn’t work for me,” I pray that there will be a check your spirit, and mine, a counter-cultural conviction that God intends good for those who yield their rights. We can enthusiastically expect him to work good when we do things his way, with absolute submission to him, and conditional but real submission to others.

Jesus is our model. “Not what I will but what you will.”