As a child in church I sang, “I surrender all … all to Jesus, I surrender.” A current Hillsong chorus intones, “I surrender…”, giving God all of who we are and ever hope to be. It’s such familiar Christian-ese that it must be biblical. Right?
I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection lately, always informed by my faith. As such, I had been leaning into an awareness that surrendering my life to God doesn’t mean giving up who I am. God made me. God loves me, has plans for me, is delighted to be with me right here, right now. I am not broken in need of fixing, but a beloved human being. Learning, growing, following the lead of the Spirit in this moment, this season. Becoming.
If I’m convinced that God is God and I am absolutely not God, it makes spiritual sense that I should give up my pride. I should throw over my belief that I am in control, a lesson this pandemic year has made abundantly clear. I should confess and repent of my sins. But I had a gut reaction to any suggestion that I surrender myself. It stopped me short.
Curious, I looked up surrendering to God in the Bible and … it’s not there (I checked several respectable translations though clearly not every translation). Where the Bible includes the word surrender, it consistently appears in a military context and never in reference to God. Nowhere in scripture does it demand that we surrender ourselves to God. I was stunned.
From the Bible I turned to the dictionary. Surrender came into English in the mid-15th century from Old French, meaning “to give up, deliver over,” though by 1580, it was primarily used as a reflexive verb: “to give oneself up,” specifically as a prisoner. As a noun, surrender means “a giving up,” as in property or land grant. And the Oxford Languages definition of the verb “to surrender” is to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.
Read that last sentence again. I’ll wait.
The idea that we surrender our lives to God, all of who we are and hope to be, pictures God as an enemy or opponent. It makes God the bad guy. It imagines God in a military uniform, wielding a bloody sword, righteously intent on wiping out his foes. Maybe this time Goliath beats David?
We must be careful about the words we use.
God is love (1Jn 4:8). That three-word sentence is God’s self-definition. Love. That’s it, astounding good news.
I am not property, land to be annexed to God’s Kingdom; I am God’s beloved daughter. Further, casting God in the role of either prison warden or military enemy couldn’t be further from what we see in Jesus. The Son of God, God Incarnate, humbled himself to serve us in ways we could never serve ourselves. He sacrificed himself to make peace.
Paul talks in several places (Rom 6, Gal 2 and 5) about “dying to self,” a whole different matter. Dying to self in order to take up the life of Jesus is self-sacrifice, a choice made for love rather than a battlefield demand. Also, dying to self is not about cutting off pieces of my personality and the identifying traits that make me me; it has nothing to do with how we understand self through the lens of modern psychology. Instead it’s about giving up my strong-headed insistence to choose sinful patterns rather than living freely in God’s grace.
In her book of Lenten meditations, Where the Eye Alights, Marilyn McEntyre reminds me that “…God’s way is to invite, not compel.” Think of a time when someone tried to compel you to action. How did that go? I had a recent encounter with someone who entered the room with an agenda so loud he couldn’t listen, nor could I hear myself think. A posture of humility, a hand extended with grace, a gentle invitation, that I might have chosen to receive. A crowbar of weighted words moves me, sadly, in the opposite direction. I guess he hasn’t learned that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, although I’d like to imagine myself more butterfly than fly.
God does not compel. He graciously invites.
God does not wait to arrest us and slam shut the iron bars. He longs to free us from the prisons we’ve built for ourselves.
God does not force our surrender. Instead, Jesus modeled humility.
God does not want me to give up myself. It bears repeating: God made me, loves me, and delights in me.
God wants us to give up sin. God wants to redeem the bad and bring forth beauty.
God wants me to live this one precious life he’s given me with purpose. With joy and creative imaginings. With love, in love, for love.
For God so loves the world.