Relationship with God, 3: Step Two—Surrender (5/29/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This is part three of the series on my doctoral thesis. In week one we overviewed my notion that there are reasons to preach besides the saving of souls, and that relationship with God is one of the most important aspects of human life. I also introduced my belief that there is a process people go through in order to be in an honest and empowering relationship with God, a process I call wrestling, surrender and congruence.
In week two of the series we discussed wrestling, and what it means to wrestle with God. And today we’ll move on to the second step in the process, which I call surrender to God. This was quite a learning experience for me—coming to understand how much people detest the word “surrender.” In survey after survey it was shown that people simply don’t like that word. They associate it with defeat, with shame, with a loss of dignity.
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So this was the biggest challenge of the three year thesis process—getting people to understand and accept the notion of surrender to God. The people who objected to this idea were many: professors, classmates at seminary, the participants in the adult Sunday morning discussion group, and especially women from every background. If I was going to have “surrender” as a part of my process for being in an honest and empowering relationship with God, I was going to have to fight for that word. And it was a bloody fight at times!
The notion of surrendering to God makes sense for our traditional, male, Eurocentric theology. If you are a white male, you have a certain amount of power in our society not granted automatically to others. And most of us take advantage of that power, even if we don’t recognize we are doing so. Not too many of us white males have lost sleep in the last week worrying about the fact that women only make about 60 or 70% of what men make for doing the same basic job. That’s just the way it is, right?
But whether we admit it or not, traditional Christianity is built around our white male attitudes. Consider a basic confession of faith: Almighty God, I have wronged others. I confess my sins and ask for your forgiveness. Grant that I may be more meek and mild, more gentle and loving, following in the footsteps of Christ, even if that leads to the cross.
That is surrender to God. And there are a lot of people who justifiably say, “Wait a minute. I’ve lived with an abusive husband for ten years. He belittles me, he beats me, he treats like I am some worthless piece of property… I don’t need religion to make me meek and mild. I need to be empowered by religion. I need my faith to give me the strength to reclaim my life and to stand on my own two feet.
Several biblical stories became focal points for the problem with this idea of surrender to God. The first story is the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Paul is the prototypical powerful male. If you’ll recall, after the death of Jesus, there was this little sect of Jews who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth had been the Messiah. This did not please the Jewish authorities who had conspired with the Roman government to put Jesus to death.
Let me remind you as an aside that all the followers of Jesus, like Jesus himself, were Jews. The Jews are not the bad guys in this story. The bad guys are the corrupt authorities who had taken over the Jewish faith. It is much like Christianity today. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. My first instinct, when somebody tells me they are a Christian, is to run the other way. Judaism, then and now, is a great religion. Christianity, then and now, is a great religion. But just like the Jewish authorities of the first century, modern Christian authorities and public figures are quite often corrupters of the faith, at least in my opinion.
As for Paul, he was one of those who had turned first century Judaism into something ugly. Paul towed the company line, and when this little sect who claimed Jesus was the messiah started growing in numbers, Paul was one of the leading figures who attempted to crush this new cult.
Paul had done a great job of rounding up Christians around Jerusalem. Paul was there when Stephen, the first martyr of the church, was stoned to death for publicly saying that Jesus was the messiah. So the Jewish authorities gave Paul a new assignment. There was a group of Christians in Damascus who were growing in number. Paul was told to go to Damascus, round up those troublemakers, and bring them to justice.
It was on the road to Damascus that it happened. Paul was suddenly knocked to the ground, blinded, and he experienced Jesus Christ in a very powerful way. Even today when a person has a radical experience of God it is often called a Damascus Road experience. The story can be found in the Book of Acts. Something truly amazing happened. Paul, who had been the greatest enemy of Christianity, became the greatest proponent of Christianity. In fact, it was Paul who really started the church. He spent the rest of his life traveling all over the Middle East and Europe establishing churches. If not for Paul, there would probably not be Christianity as we know it today. Almost half the books in the New Testament are credited to Paul.
This story reveals the traditional notion of surrender to God. Here is this powerful man who is confronted with his own evils. He is knocked to the ground, and ultimately surrenders himself to the will of God. He spends the rest of his life being beaten, stoned, and imprisoned for his convictions.
Our traditional Christian theology is made for the Pauls of this world. How did Paul end up in a proper relationship with God? He was knocked down. As one of my classmates at seminary pointed out to me, in order for Paul to look Jesus in the eye, Paul had to be knocked down off his high horse. Paul had to be humbled.
But that same classmate pointed me toward another biblical story—the story of the bent over woman in the Gospel of Luke. I’ll read the passage:
Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
That story is almost the opposite of the story of Paul. Paul had to be humbled—knocked down—to look Jesus in the eye. The woman in Luke’s gospel had to stand up to look Jesus in the eye. It is easy enough to say that Paul surrendered to God, since he had to come down a notch or two. But can we say the same of the woman? Was her rising up a form of surrender?
It’s easy to equate these stories to our modern world. Karl Marx said religion is an opiate of the people. The insidious institution of slavery in America was strengthened by keeping slaves down. There’s a better life waiting for you in heaven. Be humble; be meek; don’t make waves, and you’ll receive your reward.
And consider women in 21st Century America. Let’s say a woman has an abusive husband and has spent her life as a homemaker. Is she doing something wrong if she takes control of her life? Is she turning away from the Christian faith if she enrolls in school and makes up her mind to find a way to take care of herself? Doesn’t this mean she is abandoning her husband and children?
And that brings us to a third biblical story—the story of Hagar. This story was at first used by those who objected to my belief in surrender to God. But as we talked it through, over a period of about a year, I was able to clarify my position regarding surrender, and even my most vocal opponents of the word surrender accepted my thesis—very reluctantly, and wishing I would find some word other than surrender to describe what I’m talking about. Let’s look back on the story of Hagar.
Abraham was married to Sarah, and the couple had never had children. Even though God had told Abraham that a great nation would arise through his offspring, it didn’t appear that was going to happen, since Abraham and Sarah were both over 90 years old. Sarah, feeling that Abraham should have a son to be his heir, tells Abraham to take her slave—Hagar—and impregnate her. It seems Hagar has no say in this matter. She is, after all, a slave. So when her master, Sarah, tells her that Abraham needs someplace to plant his seed, Hagar has no right to protest.
Hagar bears Abraham a son, and his name is Ishmael. And this would be one of those “they all lived happily ever after” stories except for what happens next. Sarah gets pregnant. And she has a son—Isaac. So now Abraham has two sons—Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah is not happy with this arrangement. She asks her husband, Abraham, to send Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness to die.
So Abraham gives Hagar a little bread and some water, and sends her off into the wilderness. I’ll read what happens next from the story in the 21st chapter of Genesis:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Hagar is a woman who doesn’t need any lessons in being humble. Bear this man a child; okay, it’s my duty. Go off into the wilderness and die with your child; okay, that’s my role. But what happens in the story? She is empowered by God. God calls to her, and she stands up, takes control of her life, and it is through her and her son that a great nation arise. In fact, even today, both Jews and Muslims claim that Abraham is the father of their faith. The Jews believe they descended through Isaac, and the Muslims believe they descended through Ishmael. But that’s another story.
The question, for the purpose of my thesis and the necessity of surrender to God, is this. Did Hagar surrender to God? And I say she did. And here is the whole point. Surrender to God humbles the oppressors, and it empowers the oppressed. Picture Hagar in the wilderness, starving, watching her beloved child slowly die. She turns to the only thing that is left for her—God. She has been walked on and abused by both her religion and her culture. She has been surrendered to a system that oppressed her. She was surrendered to Abraham, bearing his child and having no say in the matter. She has been surrendered to Sarah, who owns her as if she were livestock. She has been surrendered to her culture.
But once she turns to God—once she surrenders to God—she is empowered to take control of her life. It is through surrender to God that she finds the strength to overcome all those powers that have oppressed her. She is no longer surrendered to Abraham, or Sarah, or a society that says she is “only a woman” or “only a slave.” She is surrendered to the One who gives her life, and she will never again fear the powers of this world.
This idea of surrender to God is not an easy one to accept. Many told me to replace the phrase “surrender to God” with something more palatable. The suggestions included “devotion to God,” and “commitment to God.” But I just don’t think those phrases are strong enough. I honestly believe that to be in an honest and empowering relationship with God, one must first wrestle with God; and then one must surrender to God. After all, God gets the last word. I’ve told you before about an old movie I saw which began by showing two bumper stickers on the back of a car. The first bumper sticker said, God is dead: Nietzsche. The second bumper sticker said, Nietzsche is dead: God.
It makes the point. Each and every one of us will ultimately surrender to God. My feeling is that this surrender is something that should occur before you’re on your deathbed. It may be legend, but it is said that Henry David Thoreau, while lying on his deathbed, was asked by his aunt if he had made his peace with God. And he said, “No—but we’ve never been at war.” I myself have been at war with God, but surrendered long ago, and am much the better for having done so.
Wresting with God—asking the tough questions, facing life squarely in the eye, and knocking on the door Jesus asked us to knock on until we receive some sort of answer—that is the first step to a relationship with God. Surrender to God—recognizing that God makes the rules, and that we are mortal beings whose very existence is dependent upon the love of God—that is the second step to a relationship with God.
Next week we’ll talk about congruence. The word is a little scary, but the idea is simple. Congruence means the quality or state of agreeing or corresponding. I contend there are three things that make a human being the person he or she is. Head, heart, and hands. The head represents the way a person thinks about life and about the world; the heart represents the way a person feels about life and about the world, including how one chooses to worship; and the hands represent the things a person does, including the way he or she makes a living.
My thesis claims that the final step in relationship with God is to have all three elements of our lives—our heads, our hearts and our hands—congruent—lined up in surrender to God. When one of those three elements decides to go off in its own direction, the result is damaging not only to one’s relationship with God, it tends to make a mess of our lives.
And that’s where we’ll pick up next week. And whether you spend the week wrestling or surrendering, just remember that God loves you every step of the way.