See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. Jeremiah 21:8b-9
Jerusalem was under siege from the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans. The Israelites asked the prophet Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord if God would kindly make them go away. Instead, the answer given through Jeremiah was for the Israelites, God’s chosen people, to surrender or die. Not only that, but God would join the Chaldeans to help assure the defeat and destruction of the Israelites if they did not surrender. Talk about a harsh message! The lives of the people of Jerusalem had strayed far from God’s designs, and it was time for a reset. Either they could die holding fast to their stubborn ways, or they could surrender and live in Babylonian captivity.
Few of us like to surrender, but sometimes it is our best option. Sometimes, we are better off admitting we are beating our heads against a wall that will not fall. Sometimes we, like the Israelites, need a reset. The term surrender carries negative connotations, not all of which are fair. Particularly in the United States, we believe that if we try hard enough we can accomplish anything. In that sense, surrender is failure and evidence of a weak spirit. What happens when we struggle to climb to the top of the ladder, however, fighting through every challenge, temptation, and warning to descend, only to find the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? Sometimes, life’s rules, frustrations, and warning signs are there for our own good. In the context of the story of the people of Jerusalem, saving them from the Chaldean siege to continue with the status quo would not have been in their best interest. God showed love by refusing to intervene on their behalf.
Far from a sign of failure, surrender is a necessary part of a spiritual life. We are not all-knowing. Our plans are not always the best way to get to where we wish to go, nor is where we wish to go always a good place for us to be. Being open to God’s guidance, as well as that of our mentors and teachers, is not surrender as in giving up, but is surrender in the sense of trusting in and submitting to the wisdom of another. Of course, God provides the free will to stubbornly follow our own desires – no doubt, at least some of the people of Jerusalem died in doing so – but I am certain God’s heart breaks on our behalf when we need to change course and refuse. I do not believe God wishes us to suffer more than necessary. When we learn and grow from life’s experiences and challenges, we become better equipped to discern when it is best to stop and change direction.
I do not mean to imply that God causes our suffering, or that by the conditions that cause us to suffer we have necessarily done anything wrong. When life puts barriers in our way, we must stop and discern whether this is something we should power through or whether a change of tactics is in order. The discernment process is not easy, nor is it a one-time event. When we push for something that is inconsistent with what is good for us or others, when we insist on making something happen that is best not to happen, we can be sure we will receive pushback. Perhaps even pushback from God. If and when that happens, it is not a sign that God is against us, only that God loves us too much to pave an easy path to our own self-destruction.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the familiar Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful summary of the type of surrender that does not deny the importance of hard work, resolve, and courage, but confesses that sometimes the mountains we believe should be moved are not going to budge. To blindly push forward with our own fruitless desires becomes, at some point, like praying with one eye open. What we believe to be faithfulness deconstructs into faithless obstinacy.
This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.
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