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On the Spectrum of Surrender (Surrender’s Spectrum)

The second book I wrote was “The Victory of Surrender.” Although written long ago, it has remained the “crowd favorite.” As I have continued to wrestle with my view of God and the nature of my relationship with him, an important truth has dawned on me. Surrender falls on a spectrum with at least three positions. We often speak of people being on “the spectrum,” meaning the spectrum of autism. There is a wide range encompassing the condition we call autism. Similarly, there is a range on the spectrum of spiritual surrender. All surrender is beneficial, but not all surrender is equal. My recent insights have shown me that my own past conception of surrender was not at the pinnacle of the spectrum. Where we are on that spectrum is tied inseparably to our conception of the nature of our God.

At the low end of the spectrum is what I would describe as resignation, simply resigning ourselves to any given situation that we find challenging. Even non-Christians adopt this approach to challenges when they can find no other. But for them, God is not in the equation. As Christians, we accept such resignation as ultimately being from the hand of God, whether we feel good about it or not, whether we are really trusting Romans 8:28 or not. Even if God is working all things together for good, what we are experiencing doesn’t seem good and trusting it will turn out for our good can be an elusive goal indeed.

I remember hearing a sermon over a half century ago that used the term “resign” in three ways in speaking about finding ourselves in challenging situations. The preacher said that we could resign or quit, just give up—application number one. Or we could just resign ourselves to the objectionable situation, grin and bear it or grit our teeth and bear it—application number two. Or we could re-sign, sign back up for another go at handling the problems facing us with grace, God’s grace—application number three.

Resigning ourselves to what we see as a negative situation may have some spiritual convictions behind it, but the level of trust is not impressive. Thomas the apostle seemed to operate with this level of surrender, as these passages indicate.

John 11:16 
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John 20:24-29 
       24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas is called “Doubting Thomas” for good reason. He always followed Jesus in spite of his doubts, but his trust was clearly at a low level. Thus his surrender was not the kind to inspire others. Like all the apostles, I believe the reality of a resurrected Lord ultimately changed him and he became an inspiration. None of the apostles were stellar examples of believers in the resurrection until after they had actually seen Jesus. But in spite of their difficulties in believing that Jesus was going to die and be resurrected throughout Jesus’ ministry, they still had the commitment to follow him no matter what. Resignation, even accompanied with doubts, is on the spectrum, if we simply keep following.

The second level on the surrender spectrum is when our main focus on Jesus is that he is the Lord, the Master, and we are his servants. Such is a biblical analogy to be sure. Consider Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” As with all passages, context is hugely important. Jesus had just given them a shocking lesson about forgiveness. It should be unlimited, said he. In their shock, they exclaimed, “Increase our faith!” After telling them that even a small amount of faith, the size of a mustard seed, could accomplish great things, he focused on the need for them to simply keep obeying as servants.

They had a long way to go yet in developing faith, and obedience was the path to follow in developing it. They would reach that third level of surrender, as we will see, but they were not there yet. We sing the old hymn admonishing us to “trust and obey,” but sometimes we have to obey in order to develop trust. Mark 1:15 suggests this principle in these words of John the Baptist: “Repent and believe the good news!” John 8:31-32 is similar, in that Jesus said that really grasping truth and being freed by it follows obedience (“holding to his teaching”). In this passage, initial belief has to move on to obedience if we are to be made free of Satan’s hold on us through surrender.

I think this level of surrender was what motivated me to write my book on the subject. Surrender has always been one of my biggest challenges. I think that is true for most of us, but not all of us. I have known a few who lived in level three. No matter what happened to them, they simply trusted that God was in control and the principle of Romans 8:28 was inevitably going to be proved true. Wilner Cornerly was one such disciple. When I went to Phoenix in 2003, the financial challenges in a time of upheaval were such that the role for which he was hired simply wasn’t feasible financially. Joe Silipo and I took Wilner out to lunch, and with as much sensitivity as possible, fired him. Joe and I were both crying as we did it. Wilner was calm and simply unflappable, full of trust in God and the plans God had for his life.

He ended up going to Chicago to be a part of the ministry staff there, and those who hired him later thanked us for firing him! He later developed terminal cancer. I was speaking in Chicago and present for one of the last staff meetings he ever attended. With two of us by his side helping to hold him up, he led the closing prayer. His attitude about having cancer and facing death were the same as when we had the termination talk. God is God and all is well. What a hero of the faith! What an inspiration! What an example of surrender at the very top of the spectrum!

I think my book described both levels two and three. We often start off at level two and end up at level three. Truthfully, I often write much better than I think, feel and live. That could be seen as hypocrisy, but in this case, I don’t think it is. As one old preacher of yesteryear wrote, “I don’t have any respect for any preacher who doesn’t preach better than he lives, but neither do I have any respect for any preacher who isn’t trying his best to live as well as he preaches.” I like that. I like to think that’s me. I believe it is. I am not nearly all that I want to be for God, but I want it badly and I’m striving for it and will until I draw my last breath. I believe I have fought to get to level two of surrender many, many times in my life when challenges came fast and furious. When I gave it my best to simply trust and obey, or obey and trust, I yielded to Jesus as my Lord and Master and ultimately found peace. That peace at the end of the process was either level three or very close to it. However, level three is, as I said earlier, inseparably tied to our view of God and his nature.

So what is level three on the surrender spectrum? It is what Jesus was leading his twelve disciples to, as described in John 15:15. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” The apostles started at level one, progressed to level two and finally reached level three. Seeing yourself as a friend of God will motivate in ways that seeing yourself merely as servant to the ultimate Master will never accomplish.

I think of my earthly father in this connection. When he was younger and quite a force of nature, I was afraid of him. I did what he said out of fear when I was young. When he was old and becoming feeble, my motivation wasn’t fear at all, but desire to do anything to serve him and nothing to disappoint him. Love and quality of relationship had replaced fear. I think of level three surrender as a combination of warm love and total trust of a loving Abba. And I picture it in the words of Psalm 131:1-2. “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”

I think that is where I am with God now. Like I was with my earthly father when he was old, I am not afraid of God. I just don’t want to disappoint him in any way. He has been so amazingly kind to me. His kindness has led me to repentance time and time again, as he intended (Romans 2:4). His kindness toward me is almost impossible to conceive. From birth until now as I approach my 80th birthday in a couple of weeks, he has blessed me beyond measure, almost beyond comprehension. As the old song puts it, I stand amazed in his presence. I stand amazed at all that he has done in my life, the ways that he has orchestrated it, inserting just the right people into it and the right situations into it—at just the right times.

I am a blessed man who has lived a blessed life, from birth to death, whenever and however death may come. I cannot imagine how or why he has blessed me so. I sometimes attribute it to having married my little angel, Theresa, and reasoned that since God is determined to bless her, I was able to come along for the ride by being one with her in marriage. That does make some sense, doesn’t it? But then I look at my early years, my BT (before Theresa) years, and even though spirituality was neither a fact nor an interest, he blessed me anyway—repeatedly. Unbelievable! What a God I have—a Father, an Abba, a Friend!

Only when these three terms seem real to us in our relationship to God will surrender level three become a reality. I am not there all the time, but I want to be. I was there during my 23-day hospital stay, sitting with God on the brink of eternity. When I left the hospital, I was in a euphoric state. It wasn’t because I was finally being discharged from a very challenging period, although I was thankful to be going home—alive. It was because something happened in those long nights as I sat with God, my Friend, and contemplated eternity. As I stated at the beginning of this series, I don’t know just how to describe it. When I was in what could have been mistaken for a manic state, as Tom Jones thought, it no doubt seemed like it. Tom wasn’t far off in his observations about that part. It was an unbelievable experience. Euphoric for sure.

I wish I could say that it lasted until this present moment, but it didn’t. Like many emotional highs, we do come back down to reality. Anyone who has attended an inspirational conference knows what I am talking about. Even Jesus coming down from the experience of the Mount of Transfiguration knows what I am talking about. But in spite of the descent back into the real world, the hospital stay was one of my life’s greatest adventures. I was born wired for adventures. I love them. I need them. God has provided them all of my life. Even some of the greatest challenges I have faced have proved to be great adventures as I look back on them.

My tendency to imagine worst case scenarios hasn’t stopped God from giving me best case scenarios. I stand amazed in his presence. I stand blessed in his presence. I stand grateful, exceedingly grateful, in his presence. He is the Servant of all servants, and he has served me for a lifetime. O God, my Abba, my Friend, help me to imitate you in becoming a servant, growing more and more into your likeness as I represent you as your image bearer, striving to demonstrate you as the greatest Servant of all times and all worlds!