One of the most intelligent and wealthiest men I know sits across the table from me. We are sharing our testimonies at lunch. His is simple, “I had to give in to Christ because I knew him to be real and I finally realized that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t outthink him.”
The narrative of Christian history contains countless stories like this of men and women in various circumstances surrendering to Christ because they ran out of alternatives and finding, like the disciple Peter, that we have no other place to go because he has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68-69).
“Surrender” is a verb that means to completely give up and yield to the power, control or possession of another. To surrender has a mostly negative social connotation. We love political and military leaders that say, “I will never surrender!” To surrender is considered humiliating; to surrender without a fight is considered cowardly.
Surrender is an often used concept in Christian thought. I Surrender All with its premise of an unconditional yielding to Jesus Christ is one of the most popular Protestant hymns. Yet, the word is not used much in Scripture and not at all in the New Testament.
A description of “winner-take-all” surrender is found in 1st Kings.
King Ben-Hadad of Aram gathered all his army together; thirty-two kings were with him, along with horses and chariots. He marched against Samaria, laid siege to it and attacked it. Then he sent messengers into the city to King Ahab of Israel, and said to him: “Thus says Ben Hadad: Your silver and gold are mine; your fairest wives and children are also mine” The King of Israel answered, “As you say, my lord, O king, I am yours, and all that I have” (1 Kings 20:1-4).
It is hard to read this account without cringing. It is pathetic really. Once proud Israel, mighty under the Lord’s leading, and its conniving, corrupt King Ahab have lost the battle to superior force. Power, wealth, and relationships have not only availed nothing, they now must be given up and relinquished into the hand of the conqueror who will have his way with them.
Surrender usually follows the exhaustion of resources and a defeat that crushes spirit and hope about continuing the course of action. The surrendered have no control over what will happen to them after they stop resisting. Of course, resistance by that point is futile. The only apparent choice is to give-up or die.
There can be another choice — to whom does one surrender? In World War II, many of the defeated Germans preferred surrendering to the Americans or British rather than to the Russians whose brutality they feared. It’s not surprising that someone would choose to surrender to the possibility of fair and decent treatment over the specter of harsh retaliation.
Job’s wife notoriously urged him to surrender to despair over the suffering that afflicted him. “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job chose to surrender to his God.
Let me have silence and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
I will take my flesh in my teeth,
and put my life in my hand.
See, though he kill me, yet I will trust in him;
but I will defend my ways to his face.
This will be my salvation,
that the godless shall not come before him.
You may ask, where in this was Job’s integrity mentioned by his wife? He yielded to God’s control even when he could not understand what the result of that decision might be beyond the possibility that God might kill him. He trusted that whatever God had in mind for him was better than the darkness that was the alternative.
The overarching theme of Scripture is that humans would rather have it their way, whether good or bad, virtuous or sinful and are in a perpetual state of rebellion against the God who made them and loves them. There is a cosmic war between good and evil, love and selfishness, pride and humility.
Humans are made in God’s image and that gives us rebels amazing capabilities in the fight against God. But we lack one thing, God’s creative power without which death is inevitable and final. When we have strayed down every highway and byway and have lost everything along the way, but have still found no way out of the predicament of death, the choice is to surrender to the God who offers eternal life and hope or die (1 Cor 15:15-19).
There are those who figure out that yielding to God is the way to go long before they are destitute. But human pride, selfishness and fear of loss of control keep most trying to hold off God. Some suffer the delusion that living a life of charity and self-discipline will translate to eternal life, but that’s not going to happen. Sweet Aunt Mary, who serves cookies and lemonade to every kid in the neighborhood, volunteers at the soup kitchen, and gives generously to the Red Cross, but who has no faith in Jesus Christ, is no closer to heaven than a serial killer. Good works and public declarations of piety are death traps without an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to inspire them (Matt 7:21-22).
The essential precondition of eternal life as set out in the Gospel of John is an intimate, loving relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ who he sent for us (John 17:3). It is a symptom of the depravity of sin that so many choose the bondage of materialism over surrender to a loving God. By bondage of materialism I mean dependence for life and significance on the flawed and fallible people and transient things of this world without belief that there is a God who loves us and wants us to live in his grace forever.
Debt, addiction, coercion of thought and action, tyranny and exploitation of all kinds are consequences of that materialism. Without the gracious power of an infinite Creator this is a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” world. Left to our own devices, we will compete and escalate to violence, physical or verbal, when we can’t get what we want. This isn’t simply the path of criminals and profligates. The harsh self-righteousness of religious judgment or political zeal can have the same result. Remember that the high priest Caiaphas wanted Jesus killed for the good of the people and the preservation of the nation (John 11:49-50).
The rebellion against God can’t succeed. Satan, the original power behind the revolt, made his best try at the crucifixion of Christ but fell short because it was the glory of the Father to raise his Son to life and us with him (Rom 6:4). We are all under the power of sin and fall short of God’s glory absent our acceptance of the grace of Jesus Christ to redeem us and empower our lives (Rom 3:23-24). If we do not surrender everything to Christ, we are condemned to the futility of our limitations.
I mentioned earlier that pride, selfishness and fear of loss of control are what fuel our resistance to God. Some may say, “I am so afflicted and impoverished that I have no pride left and I’m beyond the help of God.” I am sorry but thinking or feeling that you are beyond the reach of Jesus Christ who God sent for you is as arrogant as thinking you are so great that you have no need of God. True humility is surrendering yourself and everything that concerns you to God (1 Pet 5:5-7).
There is nothing that devastates us like surrendering to Jesus Christ. The tensions inherent in living a defensive life as a rebel are swept away by the forgiveness, security, power and love of his grace. But that means our pride and everything we’ve collected and hoarded to establish our worth have to go as well (Luke 12:13-21). He is a jealous God and won’t share us with any other object of our affection (Deut 5:8-10; Luke 14:26, 33).
Surrendering is itself a gift from Christ. Even if you believe that you lack the strength to yield and give in, you can ask him to take over your life and he will. That request is the essence of surrender. On the other side of the request is the life you’ve always wanted.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who find refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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The Lord is the strength of his people;