I've been reading a lot by David Benner recently. But when I opened his book Desiring God’s Will and began to read, it felt quite honestly like a set-up. My eyes were still puffy from the previous night’s cry-fest: were we now going to be thinking about surrender, really?
This came during a season I have likened to wilderness, and it was. It was dry, it was lonely, it seemed never-ending. But more than that, it was a season of choosing to surrender to the wilderness: not trying to save myself from it, create ways out of it, self-medicate so as not to feel it. Tom Wright prayed, “Give us the grace to be your wilderness people, that we may one day rejoice in the Promised Land". And this has been my prayer too.
Sitting one day in the quiet of a rural Spanish farmhouse, I took time to contemplate the nature of surrender; to think back on my own journey towards surrender and to ask myself where I was on that journey. I saw that on my personal journey, my concept of surrender and attitude towards it have passed by three different metaphors, as though by milestones of my own state of heart.
Surrender as the roll-over of submission
This is surrender in the way one dog might roll over to demonstrate submission to another dog, one further up the pack’s pecking order. In many ways, particularly as I heard my mother speak of surrender and as I observed her marriage to my father, this is how I first understood (or misunderstood) surrender. I thought it had more to do with determined denial of what one desires than it has to do with desiring God. How could what I perceived to be an almost complete denial of one person’s desires and selfhood be God’s will? I failed to appreciate at the time that her surrender was an inner surrender to God and his commitment to her, not a surrender - a giving up - to my father, his preferences and his dysfunction.
This model of surrender overlooks the intrinsic value of the one who is surrendering. It fails to see surrender as the way for her to become more fully who she is, and sees it instead as robbing her of herself. This kind of surrender focuses on the superior status or value of the one to whom one is surrendering, not on his or her goodness. Surrender of this kind might just as well lead to having one’s throat ripped out as to a soft nuzzle of affection. ‘Keep your wits about you!’ it says, for the results of this surrender are unpredictable.
This is where I started in my journey of surrender. Surrender was really unwise but sometimes necessary, a process during which one should remain poised for action; to fight or to flee.
Surrender as waving the white flag
The classic image of surrender, this signifies the end of a battle. The conceding side has given all they have to give, and yet it is not enough for them to vanquish the opposing side. When I think of this image, what comes to mind is not whether the victors are the rightful winners, or whether those waving the white flag of surrender deserve to lose. No, the focus for me is that ultimately one side was - rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly - stronger than the other.
I know at times I have approached God in this way: ‘Okay, you win!’ I have tried things my way and have come to the end of my own strength. He is the winner but I kind of wish he wasn’t; I still wish things had gone my way. This is a physical surrender, but not a surrender of the heart. This is the child who says, ‘I am sitting down because you tell me to, but in my heart I am still standing up.’
This kind of surrender is the source of insurrection. The posture of the heart is not dealt with, it has merely been pushed underground until an opportune time. This is the sort of giving up of rights that later leads to indignant and self-righteous rebellion. This kind of surrender looks like the end of a war, but it might just be setting the scene for the next battle.
Surrender as a child with her parent
My mind turns towards my daughter, to those times when she has lost sight of herself for a moment. Out of fear that we will not take care of her in the way she feels she needs, she gives way to anxious grasping. A feeling of insecurity incites a panic of childish control, a rush of noise and tantrum. In that moment she has forgotten who she is - beloved child - and she has forgotten who we are - trustworthy parents. Her lack of clear vision causes her to lose her mind.
What she needs at such times is help to remember. To remember who she is and who I am. Not a lecture about the wrongness of her thinking, but an expression of love that dispels the fear and causes her to come to her senses. Invariably, emotionally spent and physically exhausted, such an episode ends finally with her curled in my arms. As I embrace her - whispering into her still-damp cheek assurances of my love, reminding her that she does not need to meet her own needs, that she is not alone - she comes to a place of peaceful surrender. Her body relaxes, her expression is one of rest, she has remembered that she is safe and she allows me to love her.
This is surrender that comes from seeing clearly, knowing who we are and recognising the true goodness and love of the one to whom we surrender. This is surrender that allows us to be who we are truly meant to be, for our choices to flow from a deep knowledge of love and belonging.
In this surrender there have still been tears shed. In my own experience of this surrender, I have still wrestled as I have transitioned through the renewing of my mind. Surrender, in its very nature, does not seem to be an easy thing. Jesus himself shed tears in the garden of Gethsemane, as he faced what his surrender would mean.
The Struggle to Surrender
Mary, the mother of Jesus, modelled perfect surrender. As Dallas Willard has said, “Mary was the first to accept that redemption should take place in the way we do not want it to take place; ruining all our plans, all our expectations, causing them to fail.” David Benner underlines this: “Mary agreed to allow God to deprive her of the one thing we count most basic among our natural rights, the right of self-control.”
This is the surrender I have faced and, as one might expect, it was not a one-time thing. All my own ideas about how my life should be - the sort of person I am, the way I might make certain choices - all of these are seemingly in tatters as a result of both past choices and current decisions. Right choices and right decisions, it must be said.
Here’s the thing: throughout my life I have consistently chosen to say ‘yes’ to God. When he has offered me the opportunity to follow him in ways that ran counter to my culture, my instincts and my plans for self-determination, I have chosen to do so. (Since this has not always been for the right reasons - as my exploration of surrender metaphors illustrates - it really says little about my own goodness!) What I do know is that this has not been easy and it does not get any easier. In fact, it seems to go deeper and become more heart-wrenching as we go along.
Why is this? Is it because somehow I still have a distorted view of God and of how he will handle my life, of how much he loves me? Is it because somewhere inside I thought that surrender would lead me to self-fulfilment, just in a more roundabout way? Is it because, as I go along this path of choosing I feel that past choices now leave me with a far reduced freedom, such that now my choices are not really choices at all?
Or is it because I sometimes forget where I am and with whom I am, curled up in the arms of my Father, with my older brother alongside me and Holy Spirit assuring me of my inclusion in their commitment of forever-love?
I think about Mary and I wonder about her heart. We say that she ‘models perfect surrender’ - do we mean by that that she graciously and gently submitted her heart to God and his will? That somehow inside herself she knew his will was perfect and good, that she would be safe? Was there no struggle?
Is surrender really surrender if there is no struggle?
Later, we read that Mary “pondered these things in her heart." She thought about what was happening with her son, and possibly about the implications for her as she surrendered again her right to have him with her to old age; her right to have some say in how he managed his life. She thought about these things, possibly she wrestled with them. But it seems that she kept quiet, and that is not something I find easy!
I confess my longing for a vision of surrender - of my present and particular surrender - as worthwhile. Surely this is what Jesus had in the garden? What Mary had at the foot of his cross? I want a vision that would supersede (not remove) all the discomfort, all the anxiety, all the angry expressions of my Self as she writhes on the altar. I find myself focused instead on the nature of these choices - to be a mother, to be at home, to have no reputation - and they seem to lack value. I long to keep in mind the bigger story, the story of Jesus and his kingdom breaking into this world, into my life, reconciling, restoring, recreating.
I wonder how Mary did that? How did she keep her eye on the bigger story, rather than on her own personal part in it, that was at times painful in the extreme?
“I say this prayer to you, Yahweh, for at daybreak you listen for my voice; and at dawn I hold myself in readiness for you, I watch for you” (Psalm 5,3).