The Art of Surrender

Surrender. Rest. Peace. Letting go. But if the Bible says that the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, then how can you surrender to God?

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The dilemma

All Christians experience to a varying degree great conflicts between their desire to do the will of God and their inability to do so. The theme Surrender is well visited by various authors through the ages from both Christian and secular sources. To the Christians the ability to surrender means many things; from being able to say no to temptations, to being obedient to what one might deem as the will of God in their lives, to being able to overcome many character flaws that had plagued them since the time their need for a deliverance nudged them toward the place of trust in God.

Paul not only described these struggles in the two letters he wrote to the Galatians and the Romans, he also showed us how we may find a solution. The goal of this article is to show that though it is indeed a very desirable and profitable thing to surrender to God, it is never intended to be a goal to be achieved, but instead it is realized by the believers as a byproduct, a fruit, of a much more important thing, a change in mindset, or outlook, in how we walk with God, from law-based obedience to grace-based empowerment.

Paul to the Galatians

Paul declared a statement of the fact concerning the reality of the flesh in our lives:

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Galatians 5:17).

In this verse we clearly read that our flesh’s desire is not the things of God, so it will not voluntarily surrender to God, and the end result is “ye cannot do the things that ye would.” But most Christians think otherwise, that they can somehow muster the strength to do the things Paul said they couldn’t.

Paul wrote this as a statement of fact, without exception, which will be further reinforced when we next study the following Romans passage.

Paul to the Romans

15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … 21So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:15,21-25).

Paul again describes the same thing he does in Galatians, but here he calls it a law, and a law is just what it is, it cannot fail, like the law of gravity, or other laws that describes the universe. But here Paul goes further to explain why this is the case. The reason being we are made up of two parts: 1) the inner being, the spirit, or the mind, and 2) the flesh, and they are in constant struggle.

Verse 25 appears to show us a resolution to the conflict, with presumably the flesh to be on the losing side when it wrote: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But is this really the case? No, this is not the case at all, because if we continue to read to the second part we’d find the opposite to be true, where Paul confirmed the reality of the existence of our two parts side by side: the flesh and the spirit, when he wrote: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

Our mind, or our spirit, the part that comes alive when we received Christ and the Holy Spirit as a seal of our redemption, loves and obey the law of God. This part does not have any trouble in such a way that it needs to surrender.

While our flesh, our sinful nature, is a slave to the law of sin. Notice the use of the term SLAVE, which suggests a total submission to this law which makes resistance to it an impossibility.

Paul reiterates the inability of the flesh to submit to God later in Romans 8 as follows:

5For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so (Romans 8:5-7—NET).

Here we read that besides the fact that the flesh does not submit to the law of God, it’s unable to do so even if it does desire it. There is a very thorough discussion of the “outlook of the flesh” in the article Mortify the Deeds of the Flesh which helps us see a more harmful aspect of the flesh not as instrument for sins, but as instrument for righteouness.

To put Jesus in control?

We can put this question another way: Can you surrender to God? Here the old hymn “Fully Surrender” came to mind with the following lyrics:

Fully surrendered—Lord, I would be,
Fully surrendered, dear Lord, to Thee.
All on the altar laid,
Surrender fully made,
Thou hast my ransom paid;
I yield to Thee.

The hymn suggests a willingness, and a decision is made, by the surrendering person to submit to God. But what did Paul write about the flesh? We learned from the Galatians and Romans passages that the flesh will not, and cannot, submit to the law of God. So if we apply Paul’s reasoning to the hymn, though its author may want to surrender to God, his or her flesh “does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.” This hymn reflects the sentiment of the majority of Christians who are tired of the constant struggles and simply want to lay down and rest.

The apostle Paul suggests we do not try to control the flesh, but to walk in the Spirit. We overcome the flesh by not doing battle with it, by not focusing on putting it under submission, but to walk in the Spirit. It will become clearer as we enter the next section.

Walk in the Spirit

Hopefully it has become clear that the focus of ministries should NOT be on the taming of the uncontrollable flesh because the volume of truth we’ve read has shown the futility of doing so. Let us expand the context surrounding Galatians 5:17 to see the solution fo the problem of surrender.

16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whateverc you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (Galatians 5:16-18).`

Here Paul shows us how to NOT gratify the desires of the flesh, or in other words to achieve a state of surrender, by walking by the spirit instead of doing battle with the flesh which will not submit to the law of God.

But what does it mean to walk by the spirit? To pray all the time? To consciously put oneself in God’s presence? Read more Bible? Practicing God’s Presence?

What motivates someone to wish for a state of surrender? Isn’t it because of the constant struggle against what that they hate but end up doing anyway because the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?

There is still one more important point that we can easily miss in verse 18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” It is the law that amplifies the struggle with the flesh, just like it is written in 1 Corinthians 15:56 which says “the power of sin is the law.” When someone lives under the law, there is a need to control the flesh, to put it into submission, to make it do the impossible: to submit to the law of God. Verse 18 shows us that it’s the law that puts one in this constant struggle, but you can be set free from the law by walking in the Spirit.

Here we must ask ourselves what is the role of the Holy Spirit in our relationship with God? Jesus describes the role of the Holy Spirit as follows:

8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; (John 16:8-9)

Jesus made it simple for us to understand the true meaning of sin, of what separates us from God. So in explaining the role of the Holy Spirit, Jesus shows us that sin is the act of not believing in Him; when someone places their trust in Christ, sin is no longer an issue.

When one walks according to God’s new law: the law of the spirit of life, which says he who believes on the Son will have eternal life (John 3:36), one experiences a rest from the never ending treadmill of performance where a sense of surrender comes without effort, like a child resting in its mother’s arms. That is how we walk by the spirit. That is how we surrender; not by struggling against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but by faith, by trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross.

To surrender from a flesh-based perspective is a never-ending process which will not get one to the place of true yielding to God, but to walk by the Spirit is a once for all act of placing our trust in Christ: It’s Finished! If the world has been wrong concerning sin, it has also been wrong concerning their trying to surrender. Because sin is not about transgressions, but about unbelief in Christ, so it is with surrender, it is not about trying to overcome the flesh, but it’s about resting in the finished work of Christ. One is a never ending treadmill of repeated sacrifices, the other is a once-for-all act by the One who comes from God.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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