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What It Means to Surrender
If we cannot think our way into control or surrender, what else can do we do to turn our trust over to God and surrender our illusion of control?
When I first became a Christian, I wanted to follow Jesus with everything I was—to turn from my selfish ways, take up my cross, and follow him. And as best I knew how, I released my life to Jesus. Many of us can look back and identify seasons in which we are sure we did the same.
Yet . . . we will never reach the end of surrender. Each of us has ways of thinking, habits, and heart conditions that we hold on to with a tight grip. Holding on so hard to an illusion of control leads us right back to the place of despair. Whether we realize it or not, we continually respond to God’s invitation to further surrender with resistance, wanting instead to exercise sovereignty over our own lives. We cross our arms, ball our hands into fists, and distract ourselves.
Surrender is a struggle because our culture forms us into tightfisted self-seekers.
Not to mention, over the last thousand or more years, parts of the church have reduced salvation to the forgiveness of sins alone, which requires nothing more than mental assent and offers very little advice as to the role of our bodies or what to do in our everyday, bodily lives. Indeed, dozens of generations have dismissed and denigrated Paul’s call to an embodied faith.
If we want to meet God in the midst of our fear, brokenness, shame, and anxiety, we must be willing to learn how to surrender.
Let’s start by talking about what surrender means. Most of us can conjure images of troops waving a white flag in war time, a victim raising her hands in the face of a bank robber, a child yelling “uncle” when an older sibling twists their arm behind their back, or a person giving in to a particularly strong temptation. We associate surrender with a weak position in which we are forced to give in to a stronger person or face death, pain, or some other kind of discomfort. No wonder we don’t like the idea of surrendering.
But what if we could come to understand surrender differently?
What if we could see surrender as releasing effort, tension, and fear to someone we trust? David Benner paints a picture of surrender as a kind of floating: “Floating is putting your full weight on the water trusting that you will be supported. It is letting go of your natural instincts to fight against sinking. Only then do you discover that you are supported.” Surrender is one of those things we recognize best when it’s missing.
Not long ago, my husband got me a gift certificate for an hour in a float tank. This relaxation technique, in which you get into a personal pool filled with ten inches of water and 1,000 pounds of epsom salts, is supposed to boost your immune system, help with muscle pain, and calm your mind (among other things). All I had to do was lay on my back in the water and close my eyes. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, not so much. If I didn’t know I had anxiety before this “relaxation exercise,” I would have known by five minutes in. I could not trust that I would float. Although I assumed the proper position, I held on to the side so I could remain in control. And as soon as I would start to relax, and realize it, I would jerk with fear, open my eyes, and be bombarded by worried thoughts all over again. I was like Peter walking on water, feeling his trust slip away and the waves creep higher. I couldn’t think my way into relaxing. As much as my mind wanted to, my body still had the most sway. My body—seemingly apart from my own mind—decides when it is safe and when it is not.
Our bodies remember, in a way that goes beyond pure memory, when we have felt unsafe and remind us when they feel unsafe again. That’s why surrender cannot be a mental exercise alone—our bodies must be given over too; they must be integrated into our spiritual life. But they, too, must feel safe in order to relax and trust.
Surrender in our bodily life leads to surrender in our spiritual life.
Dallas Willard asserts that “our body is a primary resource for the spiritual life.” And, the apostle Paul tells us, it is through our bodies that we are to “honor God” (1 Corinthians 6:20, niv). If we look at Romans 12–16, we see that bodies are a central part of lived transformation, an actively sacrificial part of our life with God. As we use our bodies as they’re intended—to serve and honor God and others (rather than using them to serve our own needs and ambitions)—we will see our ego, will, and desires begin to bend toward loving others instead of self. Conversely, the less we do for others, the less we desire to do for others. Our bodily life, our lived-out experience, leads our spiritual life.
What does bodily surrender look like?
In its most basic form, it’s being fully present where we actually are (instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past). This may look like me allowing my body to relax in an airplane seat 35,000 feet above the ground. Or it may look like physically showing up for and being present to someone else.
When I consider the essence of bodily surrender, I think of a time my daughter was sick as a young child. She didn’t get the stomach flu often, but on this particular occasion, I sat with her on the cold tile of the bathroom floor as she leaned over the toilet. I rubbed her back and assured her she’d be okay. She shook and cried and was afraid. It was the middle of the night, and I was tired. The hard floor hurt my ankles, and the longer I sat there, the more my back stiffened. The smell sickened me. The night was not going as I had planned. But then something came over me (I wish I could say I prayed), and I realized how selfish I was being. I wasn’t the sick one. I was merely inconvenienced. I exhaled, adjusted my body, and leaned in. As much as I tried to reassure my daughter with words, what she needed most was my presence. And it was a sacrifice for me to be there on the floor with her. At some point as she started to feel better, she said, “Thanks for sitting with me, Mom.” My heart melted. All these years later, I still remember that moment.
Richard Rohr says surrender happens “when I let go of my judgments, my agenda, my tyrannical emotive life, my attachment to my positive or negative self-image.” Yes. But more often than not, we try to do these things Rohr mentions as a mental exercise. If our bodies aren’t involved, mental surrender rarely works. We will find ourselves returning again and again to our own judgments, agendas, emotions, and desired image. Our brokenness, shame, anxiety, and fear will distract and push us toward the escape or control we seek in our coping practices. When we are physically present with other people, submitting to them in love and participating in their emotions, we can begin to get outside of ourselves and let go of these tyrants.
Now, please know that like anything in life, this tangible surrender takes practice. None of us will ever get to the level of perfection where practice is no longer needed. It’s a lifelong endeavor. But as we practice bodily surrender, we will see God enter our lives and our brokenness in ways we never expected.
Here is a practice of surrender that involves the actual turning over of ourselves—our bodies, yes, but also our self-image, ego, plans, control, attachments, loved ones, agenda, emotions. And our broken parts—shame, anxiety, and fear. All of it. All of us. This practice seeks to have the body do what the mind and heart desire—to let go and turn over to God’s love and care. In this process, we seek to express an inward desire by outward action, something that has a long history in our faith.
Close your hands in fists.
As you grip them tightly, consider what your mind and heart are holding on to in a similar way. Maybe you’re clinging to several different things—your expectations about how your work life was going to go; the relationship you thought you’d have with your child, but you don’t; the shame about the pounds you’ve gained in the last couple of years. Notice the emotions you feel around whatever has arisen.
Allow the ways you’ve tried to cope with these anxieties or disappointments or sins or missed expectations to come to mind. Your hands should be getting fatigued, tired of being held so tightly. This is the tiredness that your soul feels—tired of holding on and longing for a release.
Now, open your hands and allow your palms to face the floor.
If you’re afraid to just drop everything, then squat down and place all that you’ve held on the ground. Let your relaxed hands speak your release of each thing you held so tightly.
Pray, “Father, I give you this anxiety about [name the specific anxiety]. I’m so tired of holding it. I’m letting it go and placing myself in your care.”
This practice of release is something we’ll need to do often, especially if we pick everything we’ve dropped back up again.
Lastly, turn your hands over, palms up, in a posture of receiving, and receive into them these words of Jesus: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This practice is easier to do in semipublic places, like at your desk at work or standing in line at the grocery store. You can do it multiple times a day as you feel your shoulders tighten or your brow furrow. I’ve found it humbling to recognize how often I’m holding tightly to my own ways, refusing to release and surrender.
“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
How attuned would you say you are to your body and the ways it speaks to you about your level of stress and surrender? How do you know?
Next week, we’ll learn about praying common prayers—what they are, why they add richness to our lives, and how to get started. So glad we are doing this journey together.
Let’s keep the conversation going. Facebook @MomentsoftheSoul @navpresspublishing // #journeytovulnerability #holyvulnerability
 See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperOne, 1991), 37.
 See Jane E. Vennard, Praying with Body and Soul: A Way to Intimacy with God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 19, which describes the ways the body has been treated throughout Christian history.
 David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 61.
 David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 61–62.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperOne, 1991), 30–31.
 David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 17.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperOne, 1991), 9.
 Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (New York: Crossroad, 2015), 78.
 Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 63; “Our human mental processes, and spiritual processes, are perpetually seduced by the model of escape and the model of control.”