When I first started surfing, I was under the impression it would eventually get easier. I quickly learned that the conditions of the ocean are too unpredictable for it to become “easy”, and if I’ve excelled at anything, it’s becoming resilient to oceanic beat-downs.
If you’ve ever tried surfing, you might know the feeling of being caught off guard by a towering wall of whitewater. Instead of lifting over the wave or successfully diving through it, the wave grips you in its torrent and spins you around like a piece of clothing in the dryer. The temptation is to panic and work your way out. But a seasoned surfer knows when the wave is in control, the best thing you can do is “go loose”—or in other words, surrender. Fighting only drains your energy and steals your most precious resource: oxygen.
Surrender is a word that is not uncommon in the surfer’s dialect; nor is it a term I struggle with in that context. But in my walk with God, surrender has confused me entirely. When people have advised me to surrender something to Him, my response has often sounded like, “Yeah, but how? What does that actually mean?”
My confusion has stemmed from experiences where I have wholeheartedly surrendered something and failed to see any change in my circumstances or emotions. I’ve begged God to take things only to feel I’m still the one bearing the weight. I’ve given things over time and time again, only to have them continue to cause me to worry. These verbal “I surrender ____ to you God” or the more desperate “PLEASE TAKE IT!” pleas have often left me feeling frustrated and unheard.
So why does surrender for me, and maybe you too, seem so difficult? Do I have an incorrect understanding of it? Is it something I am or am not doing? Have my expectations of God been wrong?
It might surprise you that the surrender we sing and preach about isn’t in the Bible. In most translations, it doesn’t appear at all. Across multiple translations, it is used less than 20 times—all of which are in the Old Testament. In those few moments it’s used, it refers to literal surrender in a battle that implies giving up all rights to the conqueror. When an army surrenders, the men lay down their weapons and the winning side takes control. But what does surrender look like for us in our daily lives? Why, when we lay things down at the feet of Jesus, does the battle sometimes seem to carry on? If we surrendered in a literal battle and the opposing army continued to fight, we might give them a funny look and say, “Excuse me, did you not hear me? I said I surrendered.”
Many of us have bought into the idea that surrendering in our Christian walk means doing less or ceasing to do anything at all. Yet even in the surf, surrender doesn’t look like me sitting back on my board and allowing the water to puppeteer me safely over a wave or back to shore. It asks me to evaluate my surroundings and my circumstance so I can make the best decision: where to paddle, how to posture myself, how to protect myself, when to dive, when to wave for help, when to keep moving, and sometimes when to know my limits and get out of the water. In the thick of a wave is the only time surrender looks like doing nothing . . . and even then, I’m still doing something. Still protecting my head, holding my breath and trusting gravity will bring me to the surface again. We can look at spiritual surrender in a similar way—not as a passive response but as something that requires our participation.
Philippians 2:13 tells us, “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” God does not do His will instead of us; He gives us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Surrender requires us to remember we have been remarkably designed by the God of the universe, who calls us His handiwork (Ephesians 2:9) and made us to represent Him (Genesis 1:27). Much of our confusion comes from thinking it’s God’s job to fix everything. But there are times when He doesn’t want us to give up, lay down or cease but to partake in the life He gave us autonomy of; to use the gifts He’s given us: wisdom, discernment, faith, clarity, boldness, strength, patience, compassion and kindness.
I love how motivational speaker and preacher Eddie Hypolite defines it. He says, “Surrender means we stop fighting God in the places He’s trying to change us and bring growth in our life.” We fight this in many ways: through denial, minimising, projecting, rationalising, procrastinating, distractions, blaming ourselves and blaming others. We become attached to identities, relationships and dreams. We have ideas about what we want our lives to look like and become disillusioned when things don’t work out as we hoped or planned.
Surrendering, therefore, can be the most challenging thing we ever have to do. It requires us to be honest with ourselves and examine where we need to grow. It asks us to trust in God and His love for us.
In the book Overcoming Through Jesus, Pastor Bill Liversidge says, “Victory is in surrender, not struggle.” Like a fish in the water, the journey will be a whole lot easier if we’re swimming with the current.
In life, as in surfing, there are waves that will come out of nowhere and throw us off course. There will be days we’ll go out with confidence and excitement yet find ourselves getting pummelled and pinned down. If you’re always worrying about things going wrong, you will stagnate your skills, stress yourself out, bypass the joy of the experience and constantly be guarding yourself from what-ifs. But there is strength in knowing and acknowledging our limitations and weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we do this, we can move forward and save ourselves and others from a lot of hardship. As Liversidge writes, “If you’re under grace, you are free to address every aspect of your life and character, and you’re free to grow up and mature in every way, without feeling condemned as you go.”
So, when the seas are rough and life is serving you a slice of humble pie, don’t just throw your hands up and yell to the heavens “take the wheel!” Instead, stay in conversation with the Divine. Work with Him. Ask what He wants to do in you. Let Him take you to shore, but don’t expect that will happen while floating on your back. Swim alongside Him as the brave and brilliant human He has called you to be. And trust that even when the conditions are wild, God’s there with you, doing something in you. He knows when to step in as your lifeguard and will throw you a rope when you need one.