Surrender

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Surrender

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[1]:

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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[1] https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/serenity-prayer-applying-3-truths-from-the-bible.html

The Face of Submission

The Face of Submission

 Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done. Luke 22:42

The setting for this passage is a garden on the Mount of Olives, moments before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the temple police to be tried, tortured, and crucified. Jesus is spending his final free moments on earth in prayer with his Father. He asks if this cup – the upcoming suffering and death – can be eliminated and some other, perhaps less gruesome way to accomplish God’s purposes be found. He closes by submitting, however, saying, “…not my will but yours be done.”

There are those who claim Jesus could have saved himself from the agony of his final hours by exercising the divine powers he displayed throughout his ministry. Perhaps he could have set a series of plagues in motion, as was done to the Egyptians. Maybe a crumbling of the city walls, as occurred in Jericho. A pillar of cloud could have covered Jesus and allowed him to escape unnoticed. While these options may have been possible, none were realistic. Jesus could not escape the fate awaiting him without denying the essence of who he was. It was the fact that he expressed his divinity in his humanity that threatened others so. No doubt, the religious and political elite would have preferred to have Jesus renounce his divine nature, to deny that he was the Son of God (and thus equal to God), discrediting Jesus for the rest of his days and allowing everyone peaceably to go back to their normal lives.

Being true to who and what we are makes us vulnerable and forces us to submit to certain realities. When we commit to love another, we make ourselves vulnerable to that person. Jesus’ foundational commandment was for us to love each other. In our relationships, we submit to some things we might otherwise resist because the value of the relationship outweighs the value of our own preferences. The deeper we love and submit, the more exposed we become; thus, the deeper we can be hurt. Jesus loved unconditionally, he submitted completely, and he suffered tremendously at the hands of those he loved. And yet, from the cross, he sought forgiveness for those who took his life because he knew they did not know what they were doing. They could not help themselves.

It seems counter-intuitive to think of God as submissive, as bending to our will, but that is a face manifested in Jesus. When we remain faithful to who we are, we open ourselves to criticism, persecution, and hatred, especially by those who have no such grasp of their own identity. When we know the why of our existence – our purpose for being – we become a threat to those who do not. To be in the presence of one who understands their who and why is a powerful and humbling experience. It often leaves those who are less secure feeling inferior and frightened. In Jesus’ case, they captured him, beat him, publicly shamed him, and killed him the in most excruciating manner known at the time. It was the best option their limited identity at the time could find. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s haunting poem, Carol, one character, observing Jesus on the cross, concludes “We’re surer of God when we know he’s dead.”  Jesus understood that reality and submitted to it. He loved, in spite of the high personal cost.

Jesus, in all his acts on earth, manifested God as love; and love submits. Always, and in all situations, love submits to a higher good. Does this mean we do not defend what we believe is right, that we do not resist evil and correct injustice? Certainly not! It only means that we refuse to act in ways beyond what love and our identity allow. For example, if we identify with the non-violent face of God, we might physically shield a loved one from danger but not take the offensive against the perpetrator. Love’s focus is outward to the beloved, not inward to the personal needs of the lover. Jesus modeled that perfectly on the cross. Love is always other-focused, always true to its nature, and always submissive to greater purposes, even to the death of the lover. Not my will but yours be done.

Note: this is the 28th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.