Drifting. I drifted away from Roman Catholicism. As a child and teen I attended St. Stephen Parish in the hills of western Pennsylvania, 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. I remember dutifully kneeling, confessing my sins to the Priest - God seemed angry, dark, disappointed. I remember staring at ornate stained glass representations of the apostles and statues depicting the Stations of the Cross - God seemed historic. I remember goose-bumps on my forearms as the men’s choir sang Gregorian Chants - God seemed majestic, mysteriously illusive. I remember the Mass always spoken in Latin – God seemed foreign. And I remember the Sunday when my parents handed me the car keys saying, “You drive yourself to church – we’re not going anymore.” No explanation- they had simply given-up but wanted me to continue... attending.
During my college years I attended St. Thomas More University Parish in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Now spoken in English, the language of the Mass still seemed foreign. My heart yearned for a sense of belonging, acceptance and loving relationship but these were either not communicated when I attended or I was not attending to what was being communicated.
So I drifted away, tried my hand at atheism, did graduate schooling in Illinois and eventually wandered to the Pacific Northwest. Drawn into the mid-70’s Jesus movement, I found myself in a house-church, no longer just attending but actually participating in worship. Psalm 34:8 describes what happened: O taste and see that the Lord is good – I did and He is, so I took refuge in Him. Hope was kindled in my heart and I gave myself to Jesus. Yes, this was a surrender. Yet I had only minimal understanding that my decision to follow Christ was just the first of many necessary surrenders to God. It would be years before I adequately understood surrender as a vital spiritual practice - a key for on-going spiritual formation.
Wrestling With Surrender. It was the writing of a wise Roman Catholic priest which helped awaken me to a deeper, more pervasive experience of Christian surrender. As I desperately searched to experience more of Father God’s loving heart, Henri Nouwen challenged me to “…hide absolutely nothing from God and to surrender ourselves unconditionally to his mercy” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1981). Nouwen’s words somehow revealed the deep well of self-protectiveness from which I often drank and the lingering pain of heart-level wounds which I typically hid and denied. This brought the struggle of surrender to the fore-front of my life. Hesitantly, awkwardly I began learning to surrender my shadowy self and receive God’s way of mercy. Shane and Shane’s lyrics which evoke images of Jacob’s night-long struggle with God continue to infuse my surrender prayers: “O God who makes the mountains melt, come wrestle [me] and win” (Lord of Hosts, Psalms II).
Whatever, However, Whenever. We naturally resist surrender because our false self – the ‘self’ we fabricate – operates with a fervent independence and an ardent self-determination. Surrender, then, seems negative; an unappealing concept. Growth by surrender sounds contradictory at best. Mistakenly we think spiritual formation must require strong self-direction, ambition and hard-nosed striving to make something more of ourselves. But here’s the truth: restoration of soul and development of our true self occurs when we surrender and allow God to do whatever He wants, however He wants, whenever He wants.
“…at the core of life in Christ is not a formula for success but a faithfulness in brokenness. …life is not about making something of ourselves but about allowing God to do whatever he wants with us. …the DNA-like blueprint for spiritual growth is not the will to perform but the discipline of surrender” (Douglas Webster, The Discipline of Surrender, IVP, 2001).
A Willing Relational Strategy. Apostle Paul celebrated Jesus’ life of flawless human surrender, from incarnation to crucifixion:
“Christ Jesus …made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. He humbled himself, …obedient to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:4-8).
Jesus’ own words of costly surrender to the Father echo in our hearts: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Pastor/author John Ortberg explains:
“Jesus understood that if you want to experience victory, you must start in surrender. You receive power through the act of surrender that you cannot obtain any other way; you receive freedom through submission that you will otherwise never know” (The Me I Want to Be, Zondervan, 2010).
When we trust that God is completely good and is restoring each of us to be what He intends us to be, when we allow our wills to be softened by His love, we can then surrender to Him out of desire rather than duty - willing surrender because we desire Him and His good restoration. This is surrender from the inside out, the best possible relational strategy with God.