Thriving through Submission

In the context of discussing Thomas Aquinas’s view of the incarnation, Gerald O’Collins writes that “the incarnation should also be recognized as the highest conceivable development for humanity” (2002, p. 17). If so, we may profitably wonder what features or properties of the incarnation contribute to or constitute “the highest conceivable development for humanity” such that we may strive to approach them and, hence, thrive. I will not attempt a full exploration of Christ’s human characteristics that collectively epitomize thriving. Here I only argue that Philippians chapter 2 suggests one characteristic of human thriving that appears to be underappreciated in the psychological literature on thriving and in contemporary American culture: humble submission.

When considering what it is about Jesus Christ that made him the “highest conceivable development for humanity,” it is tempting to think in terms of extraordinary capacities or some genius that he possessed. Was it his wisdom as evinced in his teachings? His power over nature as when he calmed the sea, healed the sick, or raised the dead? Or perhaps his authority over evil spirits? Without necessarily denying those traits as part of our full human potential, Paul’s letter to the Philippians encourages us, when trying to conform to Jesus’ model, to look to an orientation rather than a capacity.

Paul explicitly teaches that we should imitate Christ’s mind:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. (Phil 2:5–7 NKJV)

The aspect of mind in question, however, is not his excellent analytical skills or empathetic abilities, but rather his mental attitude of humble submission before the Father. He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NRSV) or held in possession, but rather, lowered himself in relation to the Father.

It seems that humbling or submitting before others is what Paul exhorts his readers to do as imitators of Christ. But to whom should they submit? The easy answer is God, and surely we should esteem ourselves as less than God and we should assume a humble posture before God. But such an answer is almost too easy—too easy because a simple, fair-minded appraisal of ourselves and of God will lead us to believe God is greater than we are. To appropriate James 2:19, even the demons believe that God is greater than they are—and tremble.

In addition to humble submission before God, we are called to humble submission toward each other. In support of this claim, I offer theological and biblical considerations. First, as my Fuller colleague Oliver Crisp observed (June 2013, personal communication), Christ’s submission of himself to the Father was not a lesser being submitting to a greater being, but one divine person subordinating himself to another divine person. The Father and the Son share the same ontology. To maintain appropriate parallels, being likeminded with Christ is for us to humble ourselves before others of our own ontology: other humans.

Indeed, the initial verses of Philippians chapter 2 support this interpretation: that we are to humbly submit our own desires and priorities to those of other human beings. In this rich passage from Paul’s epistle, Paul exhorts the Philippians to avoid selfishness, “esteem others better” than oneself (v. 3 NKJV), and look out “for the interests of others” (v. 4) and not just one’s own interests. In this chapter, Christlike humble submission appears as a key to unity in the church. But in addition to its happy consequence of unifying, submitting to others of one’s own sort of being appears to be a marker of thriving as modeled by Jesus Christ.

Aquinas illustration by D. Klitsie


In the context of discussing Thomas Aquinas’s view of the incarnation, Gerald O’Collins writes that “the incarnation should also be recognized as the highest conceivable development for humanity” (2002, p. 17).


Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was an Italian Dominican friar and priest, and the foremost medieval scholastic. He was a proponent of naturalism and the father of Thomism. Among his writings were the masterpieces the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles.

Assuming we are called to submit to one another, much could be said about what exactly this submission constitutes. To whom exactly should we submit, when should we exercise humility of this sort, and what precisely is the attitude to which we are called in these relationships? These questions are the subject of ongoing philosophical and psychological theological inquiry, and I dare not attempt to anticipate any broad conclusions here. What appears evident from biblical evidence is that there are times, places, and ways in which we should submit to parents (Exodus 20), spouses (Ephesians 5), political leaders (Hebrews 13), and each other in the church (Philippians 2).

It seems that the prominent theme of humble submission to others (in addition to God), though widely recurrent in Scripture, is relatively absent in popular or psychological discussions of thriving. For instance, evolutionary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has famously argued that across cultures, moral reasoning is anchored by emotional-cognitive complexes called “moral foundations” that have evolved because of their adaptive utility in regulating social living (Haidt and Graham, 2007). These foundations generate intuitions about what is right or wrong that may or may not be culturally elaborated or codified. There are five primary moral foundations, according to Haidt’s research:

  • Harm/Care: It is generally wrong to harm others and good to care for others, particularly of one’s primary social group.
  • Fairness/Reciprocity: Social exchange is governed by certain expectations of reciprocation that should not be violated. Equal contributors deserve equal benefit.
  • Purity/Sanctity: Some objects, places, and actions can contaminate (positively or negatively) and must be specially treated or regulated. This foundation has particular importance in regulating sexual contact and the handling of sacred objects.
  • In-group/Loyalty: One should be loyal to one’s primary social group and not act against its best interests, particularly betraying those interests to an out-group.
  • Authority/Respect: One should honor and respect those in authority positions including parents, elders, and leaders. To betray or disobey them is qualitatively different than betraying or disobeying just any other.

For my purposes here, of interest is the fact that the final two foundations involve submission to other humans. At its core, the loyalty foundation generates the intuition that one should “esteem others [as a collective group] better” than oneself. That is, one’s own interests or ambitions should never trump one’s in-group loyalty; one should never betray one’s people for selfish ambition. Similarly, the authority foundation generates the intuition that submission to legitimate authorities is not just a convenience or useful thing to do, but is a moral imperative.

So, assuming Haidt is correct about these foundations, humans have psychological systems that encourage us to submit to others in humility. Of course, these intuitions or impulses are not always strong enough for us to override selfish ambitions and act in accordance with them, and our sociocultural environment may be an enemy of humble submission, too. Indeed, much of Haidt’s recent fame comes from his analysis of how Americans, particularly politically “liberal” or “progressive” Americans, deviate from much of the world in terms of moral reasoning. Haidt has argued that large swaths of American society have neglected the development of moral reasoning around the three foundations of purity, loyalty, and authority. Purity is a quaint, irrational sentiment to protect old-fashioned mores and customs. Authority is not to be respected but challenged. Loyalty is regarded as a cover for racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and out-group abuse. Of the three actively and passively neglected moral foundations, two concern humble submission. For these reasons, those of us raised in much of America feel an immediate discomfort with the idea of submission to others. To God? Okay. To other people? No thanks.

Given this anti-submission milieu, it comes as little surprise that psychological research concerning the development of human thriving does not feature submission in any prominent way. One of the most prominent models of thriving, healthy development in young people is the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets. Of these 40 assets, which include 20 external features of a young person’s environment and 20 internal features including values, competencies, and identity traits, none include submission to parents, teachers, or other authority figures, and no form of loyalty is clearly articulated. Under this model, it is possible for a young person to be regarded as “thriving” but not honoring one’s parents or teachers beyond simply following the rules of living at home or going to school. Similarly, leading developmental psychologist Richard Lerner’s “6 Cs” of thriving (competence, connection, character, caring, confidence, and contribution) does not explicitly list loyalty or submission to authority among the traits of a thriving individual. The 40 Assets and the 6 Cs are both rich models that include a number of important character strengths, virtues, values, and commitments, and both have theoretical space into which submission to others could be inserted. Particularly, both recognize the importance of social connections and that thriving takes place within systems of familial and community relationships, but neither develops the language of humility or submission.

The letter to the Philippians, then, provides impetus for reconsidering what constitutes human thriving in light of Jesus’ example. As Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of human development, one way to approach thriving is to conform to Jesus’ example. Presumably it was not his bipedalism (too broad) or situation as a first-century Jewish Palestinian male (too inaccessible) that we should aspire to imitate. The exact properties likely are numerous, and some may still require discovery. Nevertheless, Philippians chapter 2 presents one property we should hold, one way in which we should have the mind of Christ: an attitude and orientation of humble submission toward others. We are to submit to God, yes, but also to other individuals and others as a community. And, if evolutionary psychology is on the right track, humans naturally have intuitions that can be cultivated to support and encourage spirits of appropriate submission.

In contemporary psychological literature, “thriving” is regarded as a developmental concept: a trajectory or a becoming rather than a destination. Previously I have suggested that thriving can be thought of as the state of growing toward the being we are intended to be (Barrett, 2013), and sought some guidance for unpacking what “we are intended to be” from our status as created in God’s image. Christian theology provides additional resources for specifying the direction of the thriving trajectory, however, including a Christological approach to the question. If Jesus’ life embodied the fullness of humanness in some critical respects, identifying those respects provides a key to thriving. In light of Philippians, this reasoning leads to a surprising conclusion for much of American culture. Thriving includes appropriate exercise of self-humbling before others: other individuals and sometimes one’s community. To thrive—to grow toward what we are intended to be and all of the fruit that comes with that growth trajectory—requires humility and submission. It appears we must thrive through submission.

Barrett, J. L. (2013). “Dare to Thrive,” Thrive Chair Installation Address, October 2012. Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, pp. 40–41.
O’Collins, G. (2002). “The Incarnation: The Critical Issues.” In Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (eds.), The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Oxford University Press.
Haidt, J., and Graham, J. (2007). “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals May Not Recognize.” Social Justice Research, 20, 98–116. doi: 10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”