Monday, November 01, 2010

Surrendering to God?

"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

- 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.


Michael Canaris said...

---"Third, if our lives are surrendering to God, then what place is there for wisdom?"---

Looks like Swinburne anticipated that question:
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death."

Heather said...

Thank you - that was really helpful for some things I was thinking through.

byron smith said...

Michael - Can you say a little more about how you see that poem relating to this post?

Heather - Glad it was useful.

Michael Canaris said...

From those two lines I quoted the main congruent impression I received was that a conquest/surrender to a religion can be framed in negative or nostalgic terms, with potential implications for our memory.

Matt said...

Thanks Byron. This is such an important topic. I have long felt that the only thing being 'surrendered' when we 'surrender our lives to God' is our ability to be self-critical and reflective about our future actions. If we're surrendered to God, after all, we should just do what he says. (Which is largely what my pastor says he says, what my emotions feels he says, what a random scripture seems that he says...) But then what happens when we mess up?

In my experience the whole idea of 'growing up' is something that is somehow missing for many Protestants, (Growth we are all for, particularly in our attendance numbers, but growing up is another matter), but this is the whole point of sanctification. To me this seems rooted in two things perhaps.

One is the classic Protestant over-sensitivity to 'works', such that ANY growth is seen as anti-grace and accused of being Pelagian. In this sense we can't really ever admit to our having grown up in any meaningful way because to do so would be to suggest we've saved ourselves... and if we do grow up it's 'all Jesus' - no help from us or effort... right. (I could tell painful stories about this sort of BS).

Second, because we don't take the idea of growing up seriously, we are captivated by 'renewal'. I mean if we are really 'surrendered' to God what happens when we sin? Either we tell ourselves we haven't really surrendered well enough so go back and do it again (find renewal, usually some kind of experience is satisfactory or prayer, etc) or we think, jolly good, God must forgive me and off I go without any sense of renewal, which further erodes a sense of growing up, or else (even worse) we begin to doubt God's love and our security in him entirely. (I should write a book about my experience in campus ministry with these very issues.)

I think the burden of the New Testament suggests we can only 'grow up' in Christ if we take seriously our SELVES and the history of our actions in the context of our life with God (to follow Hauerwas, we need the notion of character). We need to rid ourselves of the bad metaphors and poor imagery, (Have you given Jesus the wheel, Byron, or is he just your co-pilot?) and instead learn the practices which shape us as a people faithful to Jesus Christ.

I suspect this were more thorough a comment than you expected but as it were.

(Let's be in touch.)

byron smith said...

Matthew (a.k.a. white whale - nice name, BTW. Moby Dick reference, I assume?): Yes, yes, yes. Thorough comments are entirely welcome, especially when they so articulately reinforce my hobby horses! :-)

Your analysis of Protestant concerns about "works" is very insightful, as is your language of "growing up" (vs "growth"), and the necessity that this include some measure of reflectivity about our selves, including our history and future.

"Surrender" makes disengaging one's mind the norm for Christian discipleship, which is not only disastrous spiritually, but also socially and politically.

byron smith said...

@Michael - Yes, I see. Thanks for clarifying.

Jeremy said...

Really nicely put Byron! Great post and useful insights on the purpose of the moral life as a transforming and liberating encounter with God! The list of worship songs that I feel uncomfortable singing grows longer still...

byron smith said...

Yes, soon it will be down to "Jesus loves me, this I know"...

byron smith said...

PS I had an earlier rant about bad eschatology in hymns back here as one of my first posts (many contemporary worship songs manage to avoid this problem by lacking any eschatology at all).

byron smith said...

John Roe reflects on some similar themes via a discussion of self-denial.