A well-known pastor of a rather larger Baptist church of whom I have much respect once said something that I have wrestled with ever since. Regarding the popular hymn “I Surrender All” he said, “I told me music staff that we’re not going to sing that song because it’s a lie. Folk will come into church every week talking about how much they’re surrendering and then leave just as burdened and laden down as they were when they came in. It’s a lie. We’re going to stop lying.”
I hear this pastor’s frustration. Heck, I share this pastor’s frustration. This pastor isn’t frustrated at the wording of this particular hymn or any particular hymn, but rather the sometimes intention-less way that we engage our spirituality. Every church from the most liturgical to the most extemporaneous deals with similar frustration – people who come in to service week in and week out and who engage on the surface, but who never go deeper. 2 Timothy 3 refers to this as having the “outward form of Godliness by denying its power.”
But why do we stay in the form, instead of allowing our lives to be transformed by going deeper? Let me suggest a three reasons:
1) Fear – The form is safe and secure. We know what to expect. We will not be made uncomfortable and at any given point we can retreat into our spiritual sphere of safety. Giving ourselves to increasingly deeper levels of spirituality is by nature an act of death-defying faith. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was once quoted as saying “faith is like taking the first step even when you can’t see the staircase.” In order to deepen our relationship to God, we are called to surrender everything that we know trusting that both it and we will be well.
2) Pride – The form has us at the center. The focus is on our image and what we look like. Sure, we’re fulfilling the requirement of coming to church, but that’s it. We can be tempted reduce our spirituality to a means of self-aggrandizement. We can be tempted to reduce God to a piece of jewelry – something we wear when it is convenient to make ourselves look better. But to go deeper in our relationship to God we are called to surrender our “self.” We can no longer be the center of our world. In fact, nothing that is created can be the center. God is the center. Going deeper in God is actually a process of slowly reorganizing the priorities in our lives so that the reflect a right ordering of things.
3) Shame – Everyone has a past, and we can do extreme emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves be attempting to compare our past with that of someone else. We may feel that because of who we are, or what we’ve done, or who we’ve wrong, or all the ways that we’ve fallen short that we are not worthy. We focus all of our attention and energy on what we’ve done wrong. In affect what we’ve done is made our past an idol. However, 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” It doesn’t matter what we were, with God all that matters is who we are – a child of God. Going deeper in our relationship to God calls us to surrender our shame to God and allow God to raise us to new life – a life of living intentionally in our fundamental identity as a child of God.
All of these reasons (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) are results of wrong focus. One of the Church Fathers suggests that sin is not an absence of love; rather, sin is the love of the wrong thing. Humans are creatures who are wired to connect and experience, we are wired to love; however, we can be tempted to love the wrong thing and thus be drawn into sin. Is it possible that our fear can in fact be a love for “what is” more than God? Could it be that our pride can be a love “ourselves” more than God? Is it feasible that under the surface of our shame is a love for “what we could’ve been” more than God? Maybe.
I believe that our relationship to God calls for us to surrender all of that. We are called to surrender our loves for other things and yield our lives to God. This is what Jesus was driving at when he said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” No, Jesus isn’t advocating hate or family strife; rather, Jesus is calling us to reorder and restructure our lives, to surrender the loves of our lives to God.
One of my favorite authors, Dr. Howard Thurman writes,
…the individual enters the [religious] experience… with the smell of life heavy upon him. He has in him all his errors and blindness, his raw conscious and his scar tissues, all his loves and hates. In fact, all that he is as he lives life is with him in his experience. It is in his religious experience that he sees himself from another point of view. In a verse real sense he is stripped of everything and he stands with no possible protection from the countenance of the Other [God]. The things of which he is stripped are not thrown away. They are merely laid aside and with infinite patience they are seen for what they are. A man may take a whole life time to put away a particular garment forever. The new center is found and it is often like giving birth to a new self. There need not be only one single rebirth, but again and again a man may be reborn until there is nothing that remains between him and God. (from “The Creative Encounter”)
This closeness with God is the true definition of holiness. Holiness is not perfection in the moralistic sense. Holiness is union with God. But to get there we must begin the process of surrendering our lives to God. First we start small, with things in our lives that seem insignificant. We invite God in. Yet slowly but surely, the successive walls of our lives come crashing down under the power of God. That’s what it means to surrender to God.
So perhaps “I Surrender All” isn’t a statement of reality, but rather an earnest desire. Perhaps what we are singing in that moment is “God, I am desirous of surrendering all to you but I need your help.” It may not be a complete surrender, but it’s a good first step.
Keep the faith, and make it colorful!