The Case for Christian Surrender
by Nancy Carol Willis
What distinguishes Joan Sabbato from many other Christians is her unabashed enthusiasm and total joy for God. She admits it wasn’t always so. As a child, Joan was raised in the church, learned all the Bible stories, and sought answers to faith-related questions. But as an adult her “brain took over and faith walked out the back door.” Joan says she happily avoided church for 15 years before a coworker convinced her to attend a Bible study group. The experience opened Joan’s eyes and, more importantly, her heart to God. She got into her car one Sunday morning and said, “Okay, God. I don’t know where I’m going, so you’ll have to lead me.” God led Joan to New Covenant Church in Middletown, Delaware, where she surrendered her life to God. “I just stopped fighting,” she states. “I learned to accept God’s direction for my life with grace.”
As Christians we believe that God loves us so much that he sacrificed his son, Jesus Christ, so that we can receive eternal life as an unmerited gift of grace. In response we attend church, sing in the choir, serve meals at the local soup kitchen, collect canned goods for the food bank, read our Bibles, and pray for those in need. Beyond that, many of us shrink shyly when asked to read Scriptures in church, pray aloud, or say grace at a gathering. And fewer still dare to join a men’s prayer group, lead a Bible study, visit members in the hospital, or share a personal faith story. Why are we so timid?
Surrendering one’s life to God is a theme Beth Thomas, retired pastor of two small churches in central Delaware, preached on almost every week. “Let go and let God!” she states emphatically. “But people don’t seem to get it.” Beth can’t understand why Christians would not want the wisest, most creative, most loving being running their lives. Why not indeed?
To make the case for Christian surrender, let’s first define God’s intended relationship with us, and then explore the main barriers to and benefits of that relationship. In Genesis, Chapter 1, God created Adam and Eve in his own image and placed them in a sanctuary called Eden. God blessed them and provided everything they needed to flourish, including face-to-face communion with their creator. God commanded only one restriction: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17, ESV). Of course, Satan successfully tempted Adam and Eve with pride, the desire to be like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5, ESV), thereby alienating them, and humanity, from God.
From Adam and Eve we learn that God grants us the free will to choose to love him, but that he also demands our obedience. Obedience requires surrendering our will to God’s. However, our culture promotes winning, succeeding, rugged individualism, entrepreneurial spirit, and doing it “my way.” Let’s face it, nobody wants to lose, submit, give up, or cave in. In his June 4, 1940 address to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill sums up this collective attitude: “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
By contrast, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, states that surrender is the heart of worship (Warren, 2002, p. 77). He defines true worship as bringing God pleasure, which only happens when we offer ourselves completely to God (Warren, 2002, p. 78). In Romans 12:1 (TEV), the Apostle Paul likewise exhorts the new Christian church in Rome: “because of God’s great mercy to us…offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer.” The word “mercy” refers to God’s saving grace given to us in love. For God so loved the world, the Bible states in John 3:16, that he sacrificed his only son to atone for our sins, thereby restoring our perfect relationship with God.
Obstacles of our own making prevent us from surrendering our lives to God: confusion about the process, distrust, and pride.
Further evidence of God’s love us may be found throughout the Bible: “The Lord is gracious. He is kind and tender. He is slow to get angry. He is full of love. The Lord is good to all. He shows deep concern for everything he has made” (Ps. 145:8-9, NlrV). Jesus adds proof that God loves us individually: “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing it. He even counts every hair on your head! So don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31, NlrV). In response to God’s unconditional love, Jesus directs us to love God “with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves” (Luke 10:27, ESV).
So why don’t we? Obstacles of our own making prevent us from surrendering our lives to God: confusion about the process, distrust, and, as with Adam and Eve, pride. Surely, if given half a chance, God will make us go to some (pardon the expression) God-forsaken third world country and start an orphanage, or equally impossible task. The process of surrender, explains Stephen Sizer, vicar of Christ Church in Virginia Water, England, is not one of passive resignation, fatalism, or laziness. Neither does surrender require giving up rational thinking or repressing one’s personality (2003 Palm Sunday sermon: Surrender). C. S. Lewis describes the process as follows: “Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. Your real, new self…will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.190).
Permitting God to reveal our real, new selves requires trust. According to Rick Warren, we can’t trust God until we know him better. The more we understand and accept God’s love for us, the easier surrender becomes (Warren, 2002, p. 78). Our capacity to accept God’s love and our ability to love others are the keys to surrender. The Apostle John writes: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8, ESV).
We certainly love our children and, on a good day, our spouses. But what about the repairman who cheated us, or the boss that fired us? If surrendering our lives to God means we must love the pervert who raped our daughter, or the drunk driver that killed our best friend, then forget it! If God loves us unconditionally, why are we divorced, depressed, diseased, lonely, jobless, or broke?
The answer, in a word, is pride. Rick Warren concedes we can accept our human limitations intellectually, but not emotionally (Warren, 2002, p. 79). We expect and deserve more money, a bigger house, a perfect body, a new car, power, respect, admiration – the list is endless. The constant effort exerted to control every aspect of our lives causes worry, anger, resentment, jealousy, and self-pity and contributes to immorality, lawlessness, and self-destruction.
Low self-esteem kept Beth Thomas from surrendering to God’s calling for over a decade. “I sent away for brochures on various seminaries,” she recalls, “but was so embarrassed, I hid them from my husband.” Besides, Beth reasoned, she would have to keep her job at the university because the family could not otherwise afford their sons’ education. In the end, both boys attended other schools with funding assistance. “God provided for us,” Beth states, as if he were saying, “See, you could have gone to seminary years ago. I had this covered.”
For me, Ms. Control Freak, the epiphany occurred when I lost control over the events in my life. For the last three months of my husband Larry’s life, I remained by his bedside, administering prescribed medications in a failed attempt to control his pain. As Larry lay in semi-consciousness, his family, encamped in the kitchen, drank copious amounts of wine and whiskey, and pressured me daily with conflicting opinions on Larry’s care and treatment. Members of Larry’s church dropped in unannounced to lay on hands, speak in tongues, and cast out demons from the house and its inhabitants, including my dog. Larry clung stubbornly to the belief that God would heal him, refusing to let go until he had no choice. After Larry died, his family, in a torrent of anger and grief, booted me out of the clan and even challenged his will. Physically exhausted and emotionally numb, I found myself in the backyard one bright spring morning. “God,” I said, “this is more than I can handle; I’m giving it all to you.” Since that day, I’ve surrendered bits and pieces of my life to God’s plan and enjoyed his blessings along the journey.
The Bible recounts numerous stories of God using surrendered people to carry out his plans. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had found favor with God. When the Angel Gabriel told Mary she was to give birth to “…the Son of the Most High…and of his kingdom there will be no end,” she replied, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:31-33, 38, ESV). Other examples abound, including the stories of Moses, David, Gideon, and Ruth.
Jesus, however, represents the ultimate example of total obedience and surrender. God’s plan required his uniquely human son to be falsely accused, beaten, shamed, and convicted to the most excruciating death imaginable – death on a cross. In the process, Jesus took upon his own body the sins of every person for all time. Full surrender to God’s plan didn’t assuage the suffering associated with it, even for the Son of God. On the night before Jesus was crucified, he “…fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39, ESV).
Perhaps the examples of Jesus and others is what we fear most about surrendering our lives to God. Surrender means death, we believe, or at least great risk and peril. Not according to God’s own words: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jer. 29: 11-13, NIV). God is not a tyrant, or a bully, but a savior and a friend.
Rick Warren identifies three blessings, or benefits, to a surrendered life: peace, freedom, and power (Warren, 2002, p. 82). I would add one more: the fruit of the Spirit.
My step-daughter, Emily, exemplifies the blessings of God’s peace. Emily answered God’s calling as a teenager, studied at Moody Bible College in Chicago, and served as a missionary and teacher in the Muslim community in southeast Chicago following graduation. For the past 10 years she has worked as an independent missionary in Muslim countries. Emily writes, “Peace and contentment continually abide in my heart. I’m so thankful to be in a land the Lord has given me a deep love for. ‘Be still, for this is where I want you,’ He whispers through the core of my being.” Although we may agree Emily’s calling involves risk, God spent many years preparing her knowledge and skills and giving her a longing to go.
Scott Burkley, retired pastor of a church in Middletown, Delaware, enjoys the blessings of God’s freedom. With over 20 years serving as pastor of large, established churches, Scott answered God’s calling to return home and head up a new church development. Scott recalls that the denomination hadn’t planted a new church in 40 years; so it provided little guidance and minimal funding. “It was a real struggle to survive,” states Scott. “We earned a reputation as the “Just-in-Time” church because God delivered what was needed each time we faced closing for good.” Scott admits that the denomination leaders view him as a failure. “But because I’m following God’s plan,” he says, “I’m free from worrying about what others think.”
I also learned to release control from micro-managing every aspect of my life. However, surrender to God’s plan was much more than a single moment. Trusting God to “prosper me and not harm me” (Jer. 29:11, NIV) required daily commitment and practice, and keeping my “antennae” open to receiving God’s guidance. The more I surrendered, the greater the blessings I received. About five years after Larry’s death I told God how much I longed for a companion and husband. I remember telling God that if a husband were part of his plan for my life, he would have to beam the guy into my den, because I wasn’t about to waste time looking for him.
God proved his faithfulness through a friend, who arrived in church aflutter after meeting “a really great man I’m sure you would like” during a fundraising evening at her daughter’s Christian school. “Right!” I thought, completely skeptical. I told her to give the man my website address, certain I’d never hear from him. I did, and we’ve enjoyed over 13 years of marriage. If God can deliver a wonderfully loving, mature Christian man to a 55-year-old widow who wasn’t even looking for a husband, what can he do for the rest of us?
My husband, Paul Willbanks, has his own surrender story to tell. At one point in his life, new owners of the company he helped create forced him to resign, and his wife of 30 years informed him she no longer loved him, kicked him out of their home, and filed for divorce. Paul describes the experience as follows: “I was returning from visiting my daughter in college and heading out to deliver a Sunday service in a nursing home when I found myself in some nondescript motel. Everything I thought I had control over – my job, my marriage – was gone.” Paul remembers falling to his knees and pledging his life to God. “I figured,” he says, “if I surrendered my life without caring where I ended up, everything else would be easy!”
Paul’s experience illustrates the power associated with a surrendered life. Our circumstances no longer control our behavior. Paul says that living and working within God’s plan releases more power than any plan he could devise.
It also releases the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide and direct us continually in God’s truth. Before his death, Jesus assured his disciples they would never be alone. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:26-27, ESV). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23, ESV). Who among us does not want to be filled with and guided by these blessings?
Just prior to his ascension into heaven, the risen Christ commissioned his disciples, saying “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth! Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world (Matt. 28:18-20, CEV).
Where are all the people of all the nations? Certainly some live in the Middle East, where Emily Willbanks patiently and joyfully serves God’s purpose. Others reside in central Delaware, where Scott Burkley and Beth Thomas served small churches. But most of the people God commissions us to touch with his love live in our neighborhoods, work for our businesses, shop in our grocery stores, and share bleachers at our children’s soccer matches.
“Why would Christians not want the wisest, most creative, most loving being running their lives?” reminds Beth Thomas. We can trust God with our lives because he has groomed us from birth. Every bit of knowledge or experience, good and bad, has prepared us for his plan. “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone” (Eph. 1:11-12, MSG).
As Christians we are assured an eternal life with God. But how often do we pause to imagine the experience of one day meeting God face-to-face? Will he slap us on our backs, shouting with joy as in the Parable of the Talents, “Wonderful!” his master replied. “You are a good and faithful servant. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more. Come and share in my happiness!” (Matt. 25:21, CEV).
Or instead will God place his comforting arm around our shoulders, saying sadly, “Ah, my timid Christians, I have always loved you unconditionally. I had such plans to prosper you! What an adventure we could have enjoyed together. If you had only trusted and delighted in me, I would have given you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4 ESV).
How shall we answer God’s calling for our lives? Like Joan Sabbato, can we just stop fighting God and accept his direction with grace? Let’s open our hearts and look for opportunities to serve boldly. Offer to teach Sunday School. Pray with a friend in the hospital. Join a mission trip. Lead a Bible study. Share our faith story with our children and grandchildren. Let’s enjoy the peace, freedom, and power that flow from a surrendered life. Let’s share in the happiness of the Lord.
CEV (1995) The Bible: Contemporary English Version. New York: American Bible Society.
ESV (2008) The Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Msg (1993) The Bible: The Message. Colorado Springs: Navpress.
NIV (1984) The Bible: New International Version. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society.
NIrV (1998) The Bible: New International Reader’s Version. Colorado: Biblica.
TEV (1992) The Bible: Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society.
Warren, Rick (2002). The Purpose Driven Life: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Lewis, C. S. (1960). Mere Christianity. New York: McMillan & Company.
Sizer, Stephen (2003). Surrender. Retrieved from http://www.stephensizer.com/2010/03/surrender-to-christ-palm-Sunday-luke-1937-44/
More Jesus Journeys
I thought I could stop when I wanted too, but that is the lie I believed without knowing I really had no willpower strong enough to overcome behaviors that were now addictions.
I didn’t want a baby at that point in my life. The father of the child said he could not afford the Child Support payments.
Church ministry is like racing: full of history and tradition, and like racing it is also changing, and not all of it is because of the pandemic. The changes affecting the church are coming from the changing society and culture around us.
These families have hope that their loved one will be relieved of pain and suffering. Hope that their loved one will have everlasting life with Jesus. Hope that they will join their loved one someday. They have hope because for them death is not the end.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything; tell God your needs, and don’t forget to thank him for his answers. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will keep your thoughts and your hearts quiet and at rest as you trust in Christ Jesus.
One of the things that will help this worthy ministry catch on is if we share with individuals and churches everything we know and give them the tools to share with others.