Why I’m Not a
Committed Christian (And Why That’s a Good Thing)
By Bob Butler
Most often I hear
from God through study and reading the Bible. Sometimes His guidance works
through a sermon or the spoken word. Occasionally the still, small voice is
obvious during my quiet time. But, once in a while, it takes a whack on the
side of the head.
One such head whacking occurred some time ago.
In The Incredible Power of Kingdom
Authority I read about a conversation between the late Adrian Rogers and
Josef Tson, the revered Romanian pastor, author, and president of the Romanian
Missionary Society who survived years of persecution and exile under cruel
Communist rule. Rogers asked Dr. Tson for his perception of American
surprised by Tson’s answer. After some hesitation, he replied, “Well, Adrian,
since you have asked me, I’ll tell you. The key word in American Christianity
is commitment.” Rather than being a
positive thing, he saw it as an inadequate replacement of an older Christian
Tson described the difference, “When you make
a commitment, you are still in control, no matter how noble the thing you
commit to. One can commit to pray, to study the Bible, to give his money, or to
commit to automobile payments, or to lose weight. Whatever he chooses to do, he
commits to. But surrender is different. If someone holds a gun and asks you to lift
your hands in the air as a token of surrender, you don’t tell that person what
you are committed to. You simply surrender and do as you are told. . . .
Americans love commitment because they are still in control. But the key word
is surrender. We are to be slaves to
the Lord Jesus Christ.”
WHACK! I was stunned. Like most American
Christians, I had made innumerable commitments to God. As a preacher, I had
asked in hundreds of sermons for congregations to make various kinds of
commitments. Now, unexpectedly, a core assumption of my vocabulary of faith was
being disputed. I felt the wind knocked out of me.
Was Josef Tson correct? And if so, then why
did he consider this to be such a critical issue? I immediately sensed he was
speaking the truth, but knew I would have a lot of work to do to grasp the full
meaning of what he said.
The Lens of Surrender
As I pondered, I realized Tson was right in identifying the
root issue as control. My commitments seek to gain the blessings of God without
giving up autonomy. My commitments may be righteous or noble but are merely
promises about what I will do and depend entirely on me. I am retaining control
to some degree, as if I could negotiate with God’s sovereignty.
Surrender concedes that in the battle of
wills, God has already won. Surrender begins with the understanding that I am
not God’s partner—not even a junior partner. He is my creator and absolute
Lord. I am ruined and worthless without Him. Surrender is really so distasteful
to us because it exposes the core issue of our sin: pride.
characters and stories and teachings of the Bible began to look different as I
read them through surrender-colored lenses. Two anointed kings, Saul and David,
markedly illustrate the contrast of commitment and surrender. No doubt, Saul
was a committed worshipper of Jehovah, but deliberate disobedience exposed his
lack of total surrender. At Gilgal, impatience drove him to perform a sacrifice
specifically prescribed to be offered only by the priest, Samuel (I Samuel 13).
Later, Saul purposely disobeyed the Lord’s instructions to destroy the
Amalekites totally (1 Samuel 15).
On the other hand, David’s highest priority
was his relationship with the Lord. David was obviously as great a sinner as
Saul. His family was dysfunctional. He made errors in worshipping the Lord and
administering the kingdom. Yet there was never a doubt that David was
absolutely surrendered to the glory of God, as evidenced by his response to the
rebuke of the prophet Nathan, his attitude when his baby son died, and his
abandoned worship as the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem.
I also saw the distinction between surrender
and commitment in John 6. Here, Jesus feeds five thousand people. Then, seeking
solitude with God, He leaves the crowd. They followed him, expecting more
miracles and food. Jesus challenged their motives and told them He was the only
spiritual food they needed. Their reaction is enlightening:
this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal
life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of Israel.” —Jn. 6:66-69
Before my head whacking, I interpreted this
episode as a crisis between the uncommitted crowd and the committed few. I now
saw it as the difference between the merely committed crowd and the surrendered
twelve. The multitude was committed . . . to a point. The Bible even calls them
disciples. They had simply reached the end of their commitment. In contrast,
the Twelve were fully surrendered. As Peter expressed, they allowed themselves
no alternative other than following Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
How are commitment and surrender different for us? Looking
at how the attitudes impact significant areas of spiritual life helped clarify
Priorities. In large degree, our
secular culture measures a person’s worth in terms of success, winning, and
accumulating. In this view, where winning is everything, surrender is
unthinkable—even surrender to God. Commitment is acceptable, but surrender is
considered foolish and perhaps dangerous. All that is associated with
surrender—yielding, submission, obedience, self-denial, dying to self—either
falls on deaf ears and hard hearts or else evokes hostility from those of us
saturated with Western standards.
I once served in an exceptionally difficult
ministry situation on the island of Maui. (I know what you’re thinking, but it
really was tough.) After a couple of years, I decided to get out, and put my
name in my denomination’s candidate pool to be considered for a different
situation. Nothing happened for more than a year. One day, after whining to God
about it, I just gave up. I said, “Lord, if you want to leave me on this rock
for the rest of my life, that’s up to you.” I did not decide to stay or leave;
I just left it up to God. I believe God was waiting for me to pray that prayer.
My commitment in that place had long since expired, but my surrender to the
Lord opened the door to joy and peace and effectiveness.
I served in
that position for two more years—joyfully—until I was called to another
congregation. Looking back, I now see the damage that could have been done to
my family, the Maui church, and the new church, if I had insisted on forcing my
will into that situation.
Discipleship. My repeated
failure to live up to my commitments has been an overwhelming source of
frustration in my Christian walk. A growing desire emerged to get off the
merry-go-round of making promises to God and to embrace the simple, joyful life
of believing God’s promises. I needed a surrendered heart in place of a list of
commitments and goals, accomplished or not.
Poppins said, we make piecrust promises all the time—easily made and easily
broken. Every time we use a credit card, we are promising to pay for that meal
or DVD or plane ticket. We hardly think about it, but that habit of making easy
promises often is at work in Sunday-morning pledges to God or the church or
self . . . to change or do or go or give. And, like credit cards for many, we
are surprised and overwhelmed when those promises accumulate and we are unable
to honor the debt we have created.
When I first learned to have a quiet time, it
was a major struggle to spend ten minutes in prayer and Bible reading each
morning. Wanting more, I proudly and piously committed to half an hour a day,
then one hour a day. I found I could not live up to the commitment. Things
might go well for a few days or weeks, then I would fail my standard. I felt
defeated instead of blessed. After I discovered the meaning of surrender, I
learned to let the Lord set the agenda and draw me to Himself. I was
astonished, not at the length of my quiet times, but at the discovery that the
Lord sought me throughout the day. My time with God was no longer an obligation
but an opportunity.
Relationship. Commitment sets limits or
boundaries to relationships. Commitments are always partial and restricted.
Commitment makers never give away the farm, but carefully define limits of
time, cost, etc. Surrender gives away the farm . . . and everything on it. The
multitudes in the John 6 episode demonstrated the limit of how far they would
follow Jesus. They had reached their self-defined spiritual boundary and would
go no farther.
Commitment is the mindset of the consumer;
surrender is the attitude of the beloved. God woos us and paid dearly for our
love. Christ invites us into relationship with Him, but He does not bargain or
renegotiate. The Twelve continued to enjoy intimacy with the Lord because they
were willing to follow wherever He led. They did not yet fully understand what
being a follower meant, but they knew who had the words of eternal life. They
were in love with Jesus and trusted Him totally. Commitment invites Jesus along
for the ride, but surrender gives Him the steering wheel . . . and signs over
the title of the car too.
How Do I Surrender to
My conclusion was that I had no choice but to surrender. But
how was I to go about it? Jesus gave us the answer: “If anyone would come after
me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). There
is no more elegant and simple description of surrender than these ancient
Taking up my cross daily means to pursue God’s
will in the place of my own. Surrender is setting aside my ambition and agenda
and desires in order to pursue God’s. Jesus perfectly demonstrated this
surrender at Gethsemane when he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this
cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
The surrendered disciple prays like her
surrendered master, saying, “Father, if my problem or pain or illness or
loneliness can be part of accomplishing your will, do not take it away.”
Jesus’ invitation of “follow me” means to obey
Him absolutely. While drinking coffee early one Rocky Mountain morning at our
favorite vacation campsite, I suffered another head-whacking reality check. At
my age then, I collided with the indisputable fact that I could reasonably
assume about three-quarters of my life and ministry had passed. The question
that emerged was, How will I play the last quarter? Going through the motions?
Sitting on the bench? Playing it safe? Finishing strong?
I did not know what or where “follow Me” meant
here, but I somehow understood that this was a surrender moment. Pulling out an
old sports cliché, I prayed, “Lord, I want to leave it all on the field.” I
never imagined the great adventure the Lord had in store for me, spiritually
The Surprise of
In Absolute Surrender,
Andrew Murray wrote, “We find the Christian life so difficult because we seek
for God’s blessing while we live in our own will.” Making commitments can be
our subtle attempts to get God’s blessings while holding on to our own
authority and lifestyle. Many fear that surrender will cost too much or make
The surprise of surrender is that by giving
control of everything we have and are to God we gain the blessings we desire.
That is counterintuitive to our human nature, but Jesus promised, “Whoever
wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will
find it” (Matthew 16:25).
control of my life to God means I am not in control . . . and what a relief
that is! It is the secret source of peace. Failure, frustration, and
disappointment are the legacy of commitment, because it is always about me and
depends entirely on me to achieve some outcome. Surrender takes “me” out of the
equation. As I heard a person once say, “When I began to follow Christ, I
resigned as General Manager of the Universe.”
When I acknowledge that Jesus is my sovereign
and not my peer, He begins to transform me. C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “The more we get what
we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly
ourselves we become.” When we deny ourselves, we find ourselves.
In my surrender journey, I have discovered joy
and delight and peace. I feel less pressure to achieve. I do not have to
struggle to solve every problem. I do not have to fight to protect what I have.
I am less concerned about the future and enjoy today more. I am learning to
trust my absolutely trustworthy master.
Of course, the inconvenient truth is that if
we are not surrendered, we are not really free and in control at all. The Bible
says we are either slaves to sin or surrendered slaves to Christ.
I must choose to surrender to Christ. I do not
want to leave him. Where else would I go?
About the Author
BOB BUTLER continues to follow God on the adventure of surrender as he works with a Christian organization in Cambodia. “Surrender has become a new perspective for my faith as I continue to learn to obey Christ fully,” he says. “God has called me deeper and closer to Himself.”