“Surrender to God” is a common phrase in the evangelical lexicon of evangelism and discipleship. It is taken almost as an obvious axiom of Christian evangelism: the only way to experience God is to surrender to God. After all, we are all sinners and we have been obstinate to God’s will and purposes in our lives. So, the logic goes, if we have been resisting God, then the solution is to just let go of that resistance.
But allow me to state something: surrendering to God doesn’t make you a Christian. It makes you captive; a captive to a theology and worldview in which submission and obedience
Now, one might say that my characterization of “surrender” is unfair, misconstrual, and missing the point, that people don’t mean that God is taking you captive. Perhaps that is genuinely the case in many individual instances. But when “surrender to God” is an evangelistic meme that is an “obvious” axiom of preaching that is used in substitution of the language of the Bible, then it starts to be decontextualized from the Bible, as it attains
Furthermore, even as there are many people who use such language with no ill intentions, there is the possibility of those who when they say “surrender to God,” they actually mean “surrender to me/us as God’s agents.” Much like a con artist relies upon getting around people’s defenses by using reasonable and trustworthy sounding language, the more we use the language of “surrender” the more we make it ripe for misuse. While this danger exists for all language, even the language of love which can be marshalled in many exploitive means that has little to do with the love of God as made known in Jesus Christ, at the very least most of the Biblical language doesn’t seek to directly challenge the resistance that protects us from the exploiters. But the language of “surrender” even as it may be used for well-intended directions is also prone to use for other reasons.
But let’s note: Jesus didn’t “surrender” to God’s will. God didn’t corner Jesus and force his hand into going to the cross; God wasn’t nagging Jesus “You need to do this.” Jesus laid it down on His own voluntary accord. He accepted God’s purposes as he simultaneously pleaded to God in the garden for a different way. He does this out of love for his friends. And as he was present to Israel, he didn’t come to take captives for God, but to liberate people so that they could serve God. The only actions of surrendering he took was to those who would try to steal his life.
The closest we get to the language of “surrender” when it comes to Christian discipleship that I am aware of is Paul’s language in Romans 6:18 when he talks about becoming “slaves of righteousness.” But it bears mentioning that while perhaps rare in the Greco-Roman world, voluntary slavery was a concept in which someone gave themselves as a slave to become a Greek or Roman citizen; it was someone people participated in on their own accord. When Paul talks about
But what does Paul talk about in the Christian journey? The faith of Jesus Christ and in God and putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the leading of the Spirit. Trust and commitment, not surrender. Furthermore, Paul calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus, which means he is joining them in
God is not a conqueror, seeking to take captives and then extinguishing everyone else who resists and doesn’t surrender. Rather, God in Jesus Christ is the conquered who overcomes his conquerors through a power that isn’t of human origin, who through his overcoming his captors he provides liberation to the captives.
Now, let me be honest about the concern that undergirds this: fear reaches deep into my bones when I hear someone talking about “surrender” in religious contexts, even as I know most people don’t mean it in its worst possible usage. This is not because I have a crippling fear of God, but a fear of what the person who says I should surrender is expecting and how they view people. If you expect people to “surrender to God” are you the type that is expecting compliance? And then if they are the type that expects compliance, how do you respond when you don’t get the type of compliance you expect? And if they join compliance
So, let me ask: do you think God is more like a conqueror who wants people to surrender, or is God more like a liberator who wants people to be free and to show them how to learn how to live out this freedom? Are we surrendering to God or are we accepting God’s liberation? Are we conquered or are we free? To preach about surrender is certainly much easier and more pragmatic to get people to do what we think good Christians should do as it tries to stifle anything remotely sniffing of resistance in the person, but to preach liberation that gives us an opportunity to learn how to rightly love God and love one another is the only way to go beyond compulsion on the surface to becoming sanctified, slaves of righteousness, obedient to the heart.