- Galatians 5.1.Over the last couple of years, I have increasingly been struck by the frequency with which certain kinds of Christian discourse (not least many contemporary worship songs) refer to the idea of our "surrendering" to God. The more I have noticed this, the more it has started to ring false in my ears.
To surrender is to cease resistance and to submit to a hostile power generally after losing all prospect of victory. It is done in order to survive, or to bring to an end a hopeless conflict and so to salvage what remains (especially one's life) from further destruction. But the victory of God is not over us, in order that we might become slaves, giving up our freedom in exchange for survival. If we are going to use metaphors of warfare, conflict and victory, then it is important to note that the New Testament speaks in this way of God's triumph over the powers of evil, sin and death in Christ. God does not beat us into submission, he defeats the powers that hold us captive, liberating us to experience an increase in our agency. We are set free to love. This what Paul means when he speaks of being set free from slavery to sin and becoming a "slave" to righteousness (Romans 6.18). "Slavery" to righteousness is not a straightforward parallel to slavery to sin (as Paul acknowledges in the very next verse: Romans 6.19). The switch of masters is from a dominating tyrant to a loving Father who wants us to grow up into maturity.
What is the problem with getting this metaphor confused? Why is it an issue to speak of our surrendering to God? First, because it implies that becoming a Christian is a process of moving from greater to lesser freedom. Prior to surrendering, I was free, but I gave that up in order to prevent a greater power from destroying me utterly. This is to get things upside down. Being rescued from the power of darkness and being brought into the kingdom of the Son is to be brought out into a wide space, not placed into a cell. It is to regain the power of action, that is, the possibility of acting in faith, hope and love as an expression of true humanity, to be freed from the constrictions of selfishness and fear, guilt and impotence. In other words, ethics is good news.
Second, to think of Christian discipleship as unthinking submission ("surrender") to an externally imposed (or even willingly received) divine will is to misconstrue the nature of Christian maturity. We are to be adults in our thinking. Following Christ doesn't mean losing the messy complexity of the world for black and white simplicity, it doesn't mean that every choice becomes obvious and straightforward, that every situation becomes morally perspicuous. This is one of the dangerous attractions in the language of "surrender": that all my quandaries will be resolved through someone telling me what to do again. I can once more be a child whose decisions are made for me. I can regress to irresponsibility.
Third, if our lives are surrendering to God, then what place is there for wisdom? God does not simply give us a list of do's and don't's that we either accept (surrender to) or reject. He guides us in a true and living way, a path of peace, in which we are to walk. This wisdom requires that we pay close attention to the world around us, to ourselves and to the opportunities available at this time.
Do not get me wrong. Following Christ requires the denial of self (Mark 8.34), indeed, dying to oneself, an end to the rebellious self that seeks to live without God. Perhaps in this sense we can speak of a surrender, an end to the impossible quest for self-sufficiency. But this "death" is the prelude, perhaps even the necessary condition, to a "resurrection" in which our whole being is renewed and transformed. This process includes our minds, which are not switched off or put onto autopilot.
Obedience to the will of God is not a matter of a struggle between a human and a divine will and the former being conquered by the latter through sheer force. Instead, obedience in the scriptures is sharing the same mind (Philippians 2.5), being wooed by love to seek a unity of purpose. Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14.15). This isn't a threat or emotional manipulation. It is a description of the nature of love, particularly when one realises that in the context of the farewell discourse where Jesus makes this statement, his commandment is to love one another (John 13.34-35). Love obeys, that is, continues to participate in love, because that is the nature of true love.
In sum, Jesus isn't recruiting impressionable minds who simply swallow and regurgitate his teaching. He wants friends who understand him, who know what he was doing and seek to participate thoughtfully and creatively in that mission.
"I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
- John 15.15.