(What Surrender Isn’t)
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25
The older I get, the more I have learned that I am a strange mix of obedient and defiant. There is a rule-follower in me, someone who refuses to “California roll” through stop signs on principle. But there’s also a side of me that wants to join the rebel alliance, who shakes my fist at “the man,” who spent every Simon Says as a child trying to beat Simon at his own game and look for loopholes.
But this contradiction causes turmoil in my relationship with God. I obey, but often begrudgingly. And I look for loopholes because, at the end of the day, I want to be Simon. I want control of my life. I shudder at the thought of possibly having to hop on one foot for all of eternity. I don’t want to surrender control.
A month ago, I found myself at an impasse with God. Circumstances of life felt out of control, my plans for my life were threatened, I couldn’t understand what was happening or why. And I felt my fists begin tighten around what I wanted, what I thought I deserved, what I thought God owed me. I’m surrendered, I told Him. My life is Yours! But what I’ve had to wrestle with was that my view of surrender (and my view of God) was far from complete.
Following Jesus demands a surrendered life. And unless I truly understand who He is and what surrender is, I will come to God obediently but reluctantly, with hands in my pockets, afraid of what He will ask me for. So here are a few things I’ve been learning about what surrender is and isn’t.
Surrender isn’t passive.
We often have this idea of surrender being a numb peacefulness that overtakes us. No matter what happens, I’ll be okay. I don’t want anything other than what God wants for me.
But I found myself asking a friend, “Can I be surrendered and still want something? Am I allowed to ask God for what I want? Am I not surrendered if I still have desires and hopes?”
If you do not care about the outcome, then surrender becomes an act of indifference, not an act of trust in a God who hears, who knows, and who will answer according to His good and perfect will. Surrender is not a state; it is an action. Surrender isn’t a personality transplant, a holy brainwashing, or the imperius curse from Harry Potter. Surrender isn’t blind, unquestioning obedience. If it was, God would have created robots and we would have never gotten into the whole forbidden fruit debacle. Surrender is an act of love. Surrender is a choice.
Surrender is often the bloodiest of battles. It’s not a meek white flag we wave at God. It is hard-earned, often accompanied with bruises, deep wounds, wrestling, and weeping. It is not a lack of desire but where we take our fears and desires into hand-to-hand combat with our trust in God.
Just look at the Bible’s examples of surrender. Abraham was surrendered, but he probably didn’t feel indifferent at the thought of losing his beloved son (Genesis 22). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego valued their lives and put their absolute trust in God’s ability to save them, but a higher trust was placed in God’s goodness and plan for them (Daniel 3). Jesus, the ultimate example of surrender, spent the night before his crucifixion weeping and sweating blood and asking God for another way. And yet, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Desire and obedience, hope and trust, petition and peace. Surrender is all of these things hand in hand.
Surrender isn’t losing.
We associate surrender with losing. Our world sees victory as the triumph of our will, of getting our way. Surrender is what you do when you are convinced you cannot win. Our prayers of surrender sometimes become: Okay, God. If I can’t have it my way, I guess You can have it Your way. After all, I can’t win against God.
But we follow a Savior whose death and defeat was actually the biggest victory in all of eternity. Jesus was adamant about this: what the world sees as victory is not what God sees as victory. Blessed are those the world would consider losers--the downtrodden, the weak, the poor… these are the ones who will “be comforted,” “inherit the earth,” “be filled,” “be shown mercy,” “see God,” “be called children of God” (Matthew 5).
Jesus teaches that victory and blessing isn’t about the outcome. Because whether we surrender or not, the outcome may be the same. Victory is not about our circumstances, but about the experience of God in the midst of our circumstances. And the only way to attain this victory in its fullness is through the path of surrender. Through something that feels like death.
For followers of Jesus, this is the path of everything that is good. Surrender is the means by which we receive salvation--surrendering our rights and our belief that we can save ourselves. It is the means by which we are filled with the Holy Spirit--surrendering control of our lives and our own agenda. It is how we receive wisdom--through surrendering confidence in our understanding and preferences as the highest truth. How we know God’s will (Romans 12)--through surrendering our own will. Through surrender, we experience the complete reliability and faithfulness of the promises of God (although not always instantly, or in the way we might think).
Surrender isn’t partial.
More and more I find this to be true. As I have tried to give most of my life to Jesus while holding onto a small scrap--be it comfort, time, or a shred of self-preservation--the more I discover that my hands become tightly clenched around anything that remains. I think that surrender is like trying to quit smoking, accomplishable in stages, in small practices of self-denial or by substituting some things for others that make it easier over time. Not so. I believed that slow surrender, letting go bit by bit, purging here and there, slowly weaning myself off of control, would help the weight of it feel lighter, the commitment less terrifying, and my hands more accustomed to being open. But the more I give away, the tighter they become. They grasp onto anything that is left, clinging to the familiar hope of control, desperate to hold onto some semblance of old self, old life. With every piece of self I begrudgingly let go of, this old self mutters, “What else would you take from me, Lord? What more do You want? Haven’t I given enough?”
The answer is no. Only all is enough. We cannot die with Christ to sin if we are on the respirator of our old life. And if we do not die but live on, sickly, weak, miserably straddling two worlds, we shall not be able to participate in the resurrection of Christ. The new life. The new self.
Because God desires not just our parts, but our whole. Our Savior did not die for part of our sins, the ones we’d like to give up--he died for them all. He did not cling to life but gave it willingly, fully, in whole, in surrender and submission.
For we do not have a Savior who gives himself in parts. Jesus Christ is whole. The life of Christ is whole. We want to believe we can get by on fractions, splitting hairs, looking for loopholes, and bartering with God. It is not so. Surrender is all. And terrifying as it may be, it comes with a promise. When you lose your life, you will find far better than you could have ever acquired for yourself. Those who surrender all (including even our definitions and conditions of a good life) will have no regrets in this life or the one to come.
Do you believe that the God who asks for surrender is the same God who longs to bless You beyond what you can imagine? Do you believe that God can do more with a surrendered life than anything you could attain or accomplish on your own? Do you believe that God asks for open hands that He might fill them?
Jesus does not ask us to do anything that he himself has not done. The God who asks you to surrender your life is the One who surrendered his first.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” John 10:17-18
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Romans 8:32