The spiritual renewal at the heart of Lent is not about learning to follow the rules of the Christian or any other religion. It’s about finding a way to experience being fully alive and fully human.1 It’s a way to discover what it means to be alive and to experience what Jesus said he came to offer: abundant life, life in all its fullness, “more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message).
People don’t want merely a life of good experiences, columnist David Brooks said recently. They want “a life of meaning, and we’re willing to give up some happiness for some holiness, whether you’re religious or not. People are willing to endure suffering for something they really believe in. If you ask anybody, ‘What’s the activity that you had that made you who you are?’ no one says, ‘You know I had a really great vacation in Hawaii.’ No one says that. They say, ‘I had a period of struggle. And that period of struggle or that period of toughness made me who I am.’”2
As we prepare to celebrate resurrection and our entry into that “more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of,” I’ve been talking about decisions that change your life, and those involve bigger changes than you can imagine. Change is okay as long as I can convince myself that it’s my choice or is mostly under my control. But if change comes from someone or something beyond my control, even if it’s potentially very good change in the end, it can be unsettling, even terrifying. It’s not change that I fear or resist; I fear being changed, I resist being changed.
Deciding to follow; deciding to live; deciding to mature; deciding to respond; deciding to persevere – I can convince myself that I’m in control of those decisions. I can choose to go only as far with those decisions as I’m willing to go, and I can stop or change course whenever I choose. But surrender requires another kind of decision. It requires that I give up my discretion to choose. It reminds me of something Jesus said to Peter, that “you will stretch out your hands, and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).
I don’t know that I want to stretch out my hands and let someone take me where I don’t want to go. How un-American that is, where autonomy, self-reliance, and self-determination are held in such high regard! How fearful is that, to let someone else – even God – have control over my life! No one decides to surrender by thinking like the culture in which we live. Coming to that decision takes something else.
“Thunderbolt thinking” is what some people call it. Out of the blue, something changes the way you think, the way you see the world, the way you live. “You cannot solve problems,” Einstein said, “by using the same kind of thinking you used when you created them. You must learn to see the world anew.” St. Paul said the same thing about the problem of living the more and better life than you ever dreamed of: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
That was the problem Nicodemus had when Jesus told him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). No one can begin the new life, Jesus said, without starting life all over again. Nicodemus was a literalist who could not think metaphorically. And I think Nicodemus, powerful and influential as he was, could not imagine surrendering control over the changes that were necessary in him if he was to have the life Jesus offered. All he could imagine was the natural birth that brings anyone into this life; he could not imagine the supernatural birth that is the entry into eternal life.
But surrender does not mean giving up who we are; it means giving up ideas of who we think we are so we can become who we really are. It means deciding to no longer be controlled by our human nature, so our God nature can take control. That God nature is love, and “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). If we were to surrender to it, resistance to change, fear of change, anxiety about how life will turn out in the end, fear of uncertainty in the present moment – these things would fade away, and we would experience the abundant life Jesus offers.
Always I find I’m surrendering to something. I’m surrendering to the opinions and expectations of others, or to the tyranny of my ego and its appetites, or to fear of the unknown, or to the demons of my imagination, or to a dozen other things I can’t name. Or I can choose to surrender to God, who loves me, who assumed the form of someone like me and emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and for my sake and yours became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11).
The choice is always ours. We’re always free to choose what we surrender to, but we’re never free of the consequences of our choices. Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), to the place where the powers of this world were enthroned, and there he surrendered his own will into the will of God and so entered into the fullness of his life.
The things we fear, I’m convinced, have something essential to teach us about ourselves and what it means to live, to really live. We need to set our faces to go to Jerusalem. We need to stop resisting and struggling against the things we fear and instead surrender to them. We need to look at the things we fear with the eyes of divine love, embrace them, and learn what they have to teach us about who God is creating us to be.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Perhaps by surrendering in faith and love to what life brings us, we will see the new creation God is bringing to birth, and we will taste more and better life than we ever dreamed of.
notes — 1. Joseph Campbell wrote, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” ▪ 2. David Brooks, quoted by Ashley Hamilton in “What’s the Key to a Meaningful Life? You Might Not Like the Answer,” Oprah Winfrey Network via Huffington Post, 15 March 2016.