Our family has been in a time of difficult transition lately. For various reasons (that I won’t go into here), I’ve stepped down from my most recent ministry position. We are currently staying with family and sorting through the things God is teaching us and growing in us as we look ahead to what is next, that murky picture of what ‘next’ is. And as I mull over and pray over the things that didn’t go well and the ways that dreams and visions didn’t pan out, the word that God has continually brought to mind is the word surrender.
Surrender is not a popular word in our world, especially in our ‘boot-strap’ individualistic American culture. In military terms surrendering means that you’ve lost. You raise the white flag. You admit that your opposition is stronger or more capable than you are. So, as an absolute last resort, for the sake of your own life and the lives of the people remaining with you, the white flag of surrender is raised. This is not typically a proud moment, rather this is a humbling, shameful act. Surrendering is also an undesirable last resort on the battle fields of our lives. We’ve been doing something one way our entire lives, when we learn that there’s a better way, that what we were doing is actually harmful. Do we surrender? Do we admit that there could be better information than what we have with us? What about someone who may oppose some key part of our lives? Do we work against them? We don’t want to give in. In fact, our world loves those who don’t give in and those who never surrender.
But we know that Jesus’ teachings and parables reveal to us that the priorities and values of God’s Kingdom are not the priorities and values of the world. Perhaps there is no more striking distinction between these worlds than when it comes to the notion and nature of surrendering. Now, there is certainly value in fighting on in many circumstances, in fact God calls His people to stand firm against the strong currents of this world and hold fast to the truth and to not surrender to the forces of evil. But the surrendering we’re talking about here is surrendering to God. This is what we must first of all understand and more significantly, must do.
As a lover of music, I often find strength and inspiration through song. The nature of surrendering to God has been brought out in music in such examples as the title track of Passion’s 2012 release, White Flag, as well as the classic hymn written by Van DeVenter and Weeden, I Surrender All. God has always called His people to surrender to Him. But, being one who isn’t satisfied with short, trite answers, I understand that a statement like “God wants us to surrender to Him” begs the simple question, why? In our lives, we usually have some sense of why we do the things that we do. So, why would we surrender to God? The beginning of the answer is that the way to the Kingdom is through surrender. There is simply no other way. To see this we have to understand one of the most fundamental issues we humans have.
In our sinful state, in our willful thoughts and actions against our Holy God, we live as enemies of Him. We, as sinners, as sinful humans, are in opposition to God. Yes, it’s true. We live in opposition to God. And lest any of us think this certainly doesn’t apply to me for I’m OK because I believe in God, I know a few good “Christiany” answers to things, and I have above-average church attendance, a quick look through the Old and New Testaments will remind us that God’s people, the people He chose and established to be a shining light to all the world of what it means to follow and honor God, failed miserably. Some of the terms that were used about the Hebrew people throughout the Biblical record are such terms as “stiff-necked,” “hearts as hard as flint,” and having a “heart of stone.” These are strong indictments of the spiritual state of the people. These are all designations that show spiritual hardness and firm posture opposing God. And again, this is the people to whom God’s word and law was revealed. It is these people who, more so than any others in the world, should have known what it means to faithfully follow God, yet they often lived in hardness and opposition to God. You see, it’s very troubling that those of us who claim to follow God can, in fact, live our lives – even our good religious-looking lives – in opposition to God and remain in hardness towards Him.
We all have to admit that in our nature we are fighting against God. The very first word of preaching from Jesus that is recorded in the New Testament (Matthew 4:17) is a word of surrender, a word of admitting our failure, a word of acknowledging God’s high and worthy position, the word is “Repent.” Friends, if we don’t think we’re wrong, if we don’t think we need help in our lives, if we don’t really need God, if we don’t really need a Savior, if we think ultimately this is up to me being a “good enough” person or doing more good things than bad things, then there is no need to repent. There is no need to surrender to God. But there is then no relationship with God. And we are then on a dangerous and deadly path that we were never intended to go on. The very nature of the Christian life is one of surrender. We must surrender to Him because there is no other hope. We cannot accomplish the saving of our soul or any other soul by means of our own working and striving. In God’s Kingdom, life, true life, begins when we wave the white flag and bow our knee to the God of all creation.
That, I trust begins to answer the ‘why‘ we surrender question, but we are not yet seeing the fuller picture. The next question is: what does it mean to surrender to Him? Really, what does surrendering to God look like? While the specific answers to this question are as varied as there are people asking the question, the heart of the answer lies in Jesus’ challenging words in Luke 9. Speaking to His disciples, (disciple, that’s a designation that I want to be worthy of bearing in my life) He says in verse 23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” A quick point here first. These words were spoken before Jesus died on the cross. In the hearers minds the image of dying on a cross was utterly shameful and humiliating – it was not something that was in any way desirable or glorified. Only terrible and shameful criminals died on crosses. So Jesus words to spiritually die on a cross each day (words echoed by Paul in Romans 12 about being a ‘living sacrifice’) were not easy words to take in, and even today in light of the cross’s significance in our lives, this is not something to treat lightly or flippantly. Surrendering to God means dying to the things that are in opposition to God in us. The depths of our sin and hardness and selfish pride are the depths to which our kneeling and surrendering must be.
Another image that comes to mind in thinking about the nature of surrendering is one of bending towards God. We’re in the depths of winter around us right now, but before we know it, the first spring flowers will be popping up. A flower bends towards the sun because it knows that’s where the life source is. For the disciple of Christ, our lives are bent towards God. Our spiritual posture is one of openness and bending in towards the life source. It is a humbling realization that there truly is no other life, that is truly life, apart from Him. The branch cannot grow apart from the vine of life.
Now, briefly getting back to my story. God is using this time of transition and uncertainty to challenge in me the ways that I am not surrendered to Him. He is probing the areas of my heart, mind, and life where pride has a strong root. (It’s more areas than I’d like to admit!) Like a metal refiner burning away the impurities, it is a sometimes painful and humbling process, God is calling me to let go of every piece within me that is not bent towards Him, that is not bowed before Him in surrender. This is a daily process. Each morning I must admit that I still have parts of my life that are not surrendered to Him and lay down my life as a sacrifice before Him. This act of faith (as feeble as my faith is many days) trusts in the grace and goodness of God. This continual surrender puts life in the correct positions, God on the throne and I kneeling before Him. He alone is worthy to sit on the Throne. He alone is the King. He alone is to be glorified in all that I can ever say or do that meaningfully touches someone’s life.