What images come to mind when you hear the word “surrender”? We often associate it with the end of a war, when one side lays down its arms, waves a white flag, and yields to its opponents. If we’re the ones surrendering, we associate it with losing to the enemy.
But in the spiritual life, surrendering to God doesn’t mean giving up or being vanquished by an enemy. It means walking the path of holiness, giving him our joys, our hopes, our sorrows, and our crosses. It means listening to his call, following his will for our lives, and relying on his grace to do it. Ultimately, it means doing what Jesus did: placing ourselves in the hands of our loving Father and trusting that he knows what’s best for us and will care for us always.
This month we want to talk about how we can better surrender our lives to the Lord. In our first article, we’ll talk about the importance of surrendering to God’s love and mercy. In the next article, we’ll focus on surrendering to God’s call and will for our lives. And in the final article, we’ll address some of the obstacles we face in surrendering and how we can persevere in giving everything over to the Lord.
The most important part of learning how to surrender is understanding who God is. We should never think of him as an adversary or opponent. He is our heavenly Father. He is on our side and loves us beyond measure. He is so merciful toward us that he sent his Son into the world to save us. We need to believe these truths because we have to trust, deep down, that every time we give ourselves to God, he gives us a deeper sense of his love in return. Several Gospel stories make this abundantly clear.
Surrender to God’s Mercy. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were often the object of hatred and scorn because many of them were, in effect, traitors and thieves. They collected revenue from poor people struggling to make ends meet for their oppressors, the Romans, and they kept enough for themselves to live in luxury.
Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, could well have fit both descriptions. But when he heard that Jesus was passing through the town, he was so eager to see him that he climbed a tree to get a better view. Zacchaeus probably never expected Jesus to notice him, call him by name, and invite himself over for dinner (Luke 19:5). But that’s exactly what he did, and it changed Zacchaeus’ heart. Zacchaeus knew he was a sinner, but that didn’t stop him from surrendering to the mercy Jesus was offering him. He not only welcomed Jesus to his home, but he offered to give half of his possessions to the poor and pledged to repay fourfold those he had cheated (19:8).
Another tax collector was the apostle Matthew. Matthew knew that Jesus was a holy man. He probably thought that Jesus would never take an interest in him. But Jesus proved him wrong. One day, as Matthew was sitting at his customs post, Jesus came by and said, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27). Moved by Jesus’ invitation, Matthew left everything behind, “got up and followed him” (5:28). In doing so, Matthew (“Levi” in Luke’s version) was not only surrendering to God’s mercy, but he was also giving up his livelihood and way of life for him.
For both of these tax collectors, Jesus’ loving invitation moved them to repent of their sins and surrender to his mercy. This isn’t always easy for us. Shame and guilt over our past, or a sense of self-sufficiency or pride, may hold us back from even approaching God, let alone accepting his mercy. But going to God requires that we surrender to his ways, not ours. His way is one of love and mercy. We might find it hard to forgive someone else or even ourselves. But God is not like us; he yearns to forgive us and welcome us, just as he welcomed Zacchaeus and Matthew.
Surrender to God’s Love. Let’s take a look at another familiar Gospel story, that of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Unlike Matthew and Zacchaeus, this fellow didn’t need an invitation from the Lord. On his own, he approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man was already following the commandments, so Jesus, “looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’” (10:21, emphasis added).
The man had a decision to make: whether to surrender his possessions, which were many, and join Jesus’ band of humble, poor disciples. But more important, he had to decide whether to surrender to the love of Jesus. It saddened him to realize he wasn’t ready for such a surrender, and he walked away.
This story might have ended differently if the rich young man had allowed Jesus’ look of love to capture his heart. It would have helped dissolve his objections, and it might have given him the courage to take the next step. It could have helped him trust that living in God’s unconditional, abiding love was worth much more than all of his possessions.
As for us, we know that God loves us. So what prevents us from giving our hearts to him in surrender? Maybe we doubt that God could love us unconditionally. Maybe we fear that if we do surrender to him, he’ll discover what we’re really like and reject us. But if we don’t surrender, we won’t give the Lord the chance to show us what he longed to show the rich young man: that he welcomes with open arms anyone who comes to him.
Or maybe, again like the rich young man, we are afraid of the changes we might have to make if we give ourselves to God. What else might he ask of us if we decide to follow him? But if we surrender to him, he will give us all the grace we need for whatever lies in our future.
Take That First Step. This first step of surrender can often be the most difficult. One man in prison had abandoned his faith many years before. But when he joined a Bible study, he began to ask a crucial question: “If God can forgive me, why can’t I forgive myself? If I am good enough for God, why would I think I’m not good enough for myself?” This became “a turning point” in his life, he later said. He was finally able to let go of his anger and pain and surrender to the mercy God had always wanted to give him.
Surrendering to God’s love and mercy is not something we do only once in our lives. It may begin with a major turning point as it did with this prison inmate, but it’s something we should do each day. Every time we come to the Lord in prayer, we need to take the focus off ourselves—including our feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt—and let God love us.
So each day, give yourself over to God. Give him your joys and your blessings. Give him your sins, your crosses, and your difficult relationships. Give him everything that is on your heart. Don’t let shame or guilt make you hold back from him. Say to him, “Father, I believe you are a God of love and mercy. Though I am not worthy, I know that you gave your only Son for me so that I could be set free. So I surrender to your love that heals me, and I surrender to your mercy that forgives me. Lord, I give my life to you!”
As you continue to surrender to his love and mercy, God will ask you to take the next step. He’ll ask you to follow him and do his work in the world. In the next article, we’ll see how we can better surrender to God’s call and will for our lives.