No Need for Surrender

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.

Image by Kusal Darshana from Pixabay

Resisting Temptation

appleMy pastor-husband believes he witnessed our oldest son’s first sin. Teen was less than a year old, nine or ten months, and exercising his newly-gained crawling and climbing independence. Even though we had covers on all the electric outlets, we still wanted our babies to learn not to touch these at-their-level wall plates. Guy called baby Teen’s name, and Teen promptly turned to look at his dad. Guy spoke clearly, “Teen, no. Do Not Touch.” Teen looked at the wall plate, at his dad, at the wall plate, and touched.

Of course he touched! In describing this scene, Guy says he saw a look of willful disobedience flit across Teen’s little face. We’re not child development experts, so maybe that’s not even a developmental possibility. Yet we do have first-hand experience with the human heart and its inclination to do the wrong thing. Touching the wall plate sure looked like giving in to the insatiable curiosity of temptation.

We all recognize that desire can increase in direct proportion to the word, “No.” Not in every case, perhaps, but often enough that it seems to be one of life’s generally accepted truths. I bet you don’t have to ponder long to come up with an example from your own experience:

When did you grasp the suddenly irresistibly attractive forbidden fruit?

Anything from a sweet you don’t normally crave but now that you’ve determined to eat healthier you can’t stop thinking about to an off-limits relationship, no’s inconsequential and monumental cause us to reach for that which we should not take. Just like Eve and Adam in the garden, reaching up to grasp, then bite and share, that fruit over which God had pronounced a resounding, “No.”

Joseph, however, found the strength to respond with his own “No,” to not only resist but flee temptation. Genesis 39 continues the story of Joseph, the once-hated younger brother sold into slavery (Genesis 37), now the grown-up house slave of one of Egypt’s most powerful men. The stories of his youth didn’t explicitly mention the Lord, yet now that Joseph is away from God’s people, a stranger in a foreign land, the Lord makes His presence known, blessing Joseph and everything he touches so that even his Egyptian master recognizes that the God of Israel is with Joseph.

Always one to engage the drama, I feel sorry for Potiphar’s wife. Don’t get me wrong: she’s the “bad guy” in the tale, and I don’t condone her actions, but I feel for her. Her powerful husband seems to have forgotten her. He has handed the reigns to Joe and thinks only about what he’ll have to eat, without thought for his wife.

Unlike Potiphar, Joe is always on hand. He handles all the business and anything else she might need and, well, she’s decided she’s got a need this good looking guy can meet. Understand, if the gender roles had been reversed–if Potiphar had made a request of his female house slave–she would not have been free to say no (and, honestly, we don’t know that didn’t happen…). Which probably adds to Wifey’s frustration. Joe’s “No” makes him that much more desirable, and she doesn’t have the power to demand that her husband so easily wields, solely by nature of his gender.

Joe knows to whom he belongs. God is with him. Saying yes to Potiphar’s wife means saying no to God, and he’s not willing to go there. After all, God turned his brother’s dastardly deeds into a darn good situation. For a slave, at least.

Joe stays entirely out of her way until she lays a trap for him. Thrusting herself upon him, he wriggles out of her arms and out of his cloak. I’m sure she’s thinking, “If I can just lay my hot lips on his face, he’ll give in. He’s a man, after all…” She underestimated Joe’s commitment to God. She underestimated Joe’s commitment to integrity. She has his cloak. She lies.

Joe does the right thing and gets burned for it. Thrown in prison, I bet he remembersg the last time he got thrown in a pit. God turned that around, and God can do it again. Where some would give in to discouragement, Joe remains faithful to his God.

Connect
Who strikes you as a model of integrity and why?

Study
Read aloud Genesis 39.
Genesis 37 lacked explicit mention of “the Lord.” Why do you think God shows up here?
How does God’s presence with Joseph affect his situation (vv. 2-6)?
Do you think Joseph knew the risk involved with refusing Potiphar’s wife? How did he stand his ground (vv. 6-12)?
What resulted from Joseph’s determination to resist temptation (vv. 13-20)?
How do you think Joseph felt about this new turn of events?
Compare the stories in Genesis 37 and 39 (for example, in both Joseph has done nothing wrong, is betrayed by those close to him, etc). Why do you think we get two similar stories about Joseph? What does that add to our knowledge of him? Of God?

Live
Have you ever done the right thing and paid an unfair price for your action? What motivates you to do the right thing the next time?
Discuss other biblical and real life examples of integrity (for example, Daniel). What do you gain by their examples?
Temptation comes in many forms. What helps you resist temptation?
How do you hold on to the truth of God’s goodness when holy action gets you burned?
What are the benefits of living a God-honoring life?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray for awareness of God’s presence with you and the strength to resist temptation and live a God-honoring life.

Releasing Our Guilt: Confession

Imagine the scene: a little girl, about four years old, wispy white-blond curls hanging to her shoulders, plays in her mother’s room while Mom takes a shower. She wanders over to the nightstand and gently slides open the drawer. Inside she spies her mother’s jewelry. Entranced, she picks up an earring, gold inset with a pearl. But in her clumsy fingers, and to her dismay, the stone falls out of its setting. What can she do with this now-broken treasure? She quickly shuts the drawer and tucks the earring and pearl under the edge of the long white curtains hanging just behind the nightstand. With the evidence out of site, Mom will never know that the child had anything to do with the earring.

Except… The guilty child returns to check on the broken bit of beauty. She tucks back the curtain, and a large black spider lurks in the earring’s place. Horrified, the girl drops the curtain, certain that the spider is a magical omen of judgment for her wrongdoing…

house-spiders-13

Interesting which childhood memories linger into adulthood, isn’t it? I can still feel the gasp in my throat, the thudding of my heart, the terror shaking my limbs. And yet I don’t remember what came next. I think I must have confessed to my mom, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to bear that guilt interminably.

Not long ago, Tween asked if we could talk about something, his tone making it clear that he had something serious on his mind. His friend had entrusted him with a secret, yet while he was working on a school project with another friend, he accidentally blurted out the secret. Tween felt terrible, sure that his friend would feel betrayed and unable to trust him ever again. He asked what he should do.

What should we do when we’ve hurt someone, even if they don’t know about it (yet)? Confess.

What do we want to do about it? Hide the evidence until we’re caught, and then blame someone else. At least make excuses.

Confession is hard. It’s so much nicer to avoid those deep, dark explorations of our hearts and minds, to pretend we’ve got it all together, to deny any and all wrongdoing.

Tween took the high road. He confessed that he had not kept the secret. And fortunately, his friend forgave him. In the end, both boys came out winners: Tween released his guilt and will be more careful in the future not to betray confidence; but their friendship itself is stronger as they trusted each other with truth and grace. They now understand their friendship as a safe place, where neither has to be perfect and both can be forgiven.

Confessing our sins before God is hard enough, but confessing to another human being is a different story altogether. We risk rejection and condemnation. Why even bother when the Bible is crystal clear that God forgives us when we confess (1 John 1:9)?

A dear friend taught me the value of confession. She had participated in an intensive discipleship training program where they took seriously traditions of the church that many in Protestant circles have ignored. One evening as she had dinner with Guy and I she suddenly blurted out: “Can I confess something to you both?”

I don’t think I had ever heard those words spoken aloud before. And certainly not about something that had nothing whatsoever to do with us. She hadn’t done anything to offend us, no lie or broken trust. Rather, she had already confessed to God but still needed to hear the words of absolution spoken aloud: “God has heard your confession and you are forgiven.” Just like sometimes we need to feel human arms embracing us in order to experienced God’s love, she needed trustworthy people to play a priestly role.

You know what? While I remember that she confessed, I don’t remember the details of her confession. It reminds me of this beautiful passage from Psalm 103:

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
nor remain angry forever.
10 He does not punish us for all our sins;
he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
12 He has removed our sins as far from us
as the east is from the west.

With confession comes freedom. And a bonus: her confession changed the quality of our friendship as I never have to fear that she will withhold forgiveness. In fact, I trust her like few other people in my life. Those who recognize their own need for grace are far more likely to extend grace to others.

No one is perfect. We all blow it and need forgiveness. We are sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Through the cross of Christ, God stands ready to forgive our confessed sins. May we also be a people who freely give the grace to which He has called us.

Connect
Reflect on a childhood experience when you did something wrong. How did you feel before and after you either got caught or told someone what you did?

Study
Read aloud James 5:14-20.
How do you understand the connection in this passage between sickness and sin?Explain the roles of the sinner, God, other believers, and prayer in the discipline of confession.
Read James 4:7-10, a picture of repentance.
How is repentance related to confession?
Sometimes we want to excuse sin rather than confess it. What steps of confession do you see in this passage?

Live
Reflect on this quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy… He who is alone with his sins is utterly alone.”
How can confession help you see differently yourself and God’s work of salvation through Christ?
What stands in the way of more Christians practicing confession?
How might a discipline of confession affect your future behavior?
When have you practiced confession? Describe the experience.
What can you do to foster a grace-filled community in which people feel safe to confess their sins to one another?
Which Faith Training Exercises have you tried recently? Share joys and struggles.
Which exercises might God call you to this week, and why?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will help you freely live the reality of Christ’s forgiveness for your sins.