I hide behind snooze buttons and busyness, excuses to avoid you, for fear of what you require of me: everything. Heart, soul, mind, strength, passion, purpose, understanding, ability— all of me, myself in sum, denied. I know my life depends upon surrender, so help my unbelief until I sit and listen and obey.
This poem was inspired, at least in part, by C. S. Lewis’s sermon “A Slip of the Tongue,” wherein he considers our hesitancy to draw too near to God for fear of what he may require of us, for we know that he requires complete surrender.
I recently read C. S. Lewis’s sermon “A Slip of the Tongue.” There, Lewis considers the human tendency to be wary of close proximity with God. While we may desire to know the Lord and to serve him well, we nonetheless approach him with caution, fearful of what he may require of us if we get too close. Lewis recognizes that we would much rather play at religion than embrace it fully, for we know that true religion, while being our only way to know true life, is costly.
I’ve been reading through Job lately, and I think a similar theme is at play in that story. There, Job expresses confusion at his circumstances, and he desires an audience with the Almighty. “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” Job says, “that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me” (Job 23:3-5). And despite the mistaken diagnoses of Job’s friends, Job maintains his cause. He wants to lay his case before God and receive answers.
Then God answers. The Lord speaks out of a whirlwind not with answers to Job’s concerns but with a series of questions about the details of creation (Job 38:1 and following). After chapters filled with speeches and arguments from Job and his friends, speeches presuming to speak of God’s character and ways in the world, God himself speaks, and all fall silent before him. The men understood their place when God answered.
Do we want God to answer us when we cry to him? Do we want to hear him speak? Do we want to enter his presence? In one sense, I’m not so sure we do. When God speaks, our misconceptions and misunderstandings about him and his ways tend to crumble. And while this is a good thing, it’s uncomfortable. The voice of God humbles and corrects us, revealing our arrogance and error and presumptions. We cannot remain as we are when the Lord speaks. We dare not.
But in another sense, we do want God to speak. Misconceptions and misunderstandings tend to be comfortable, but they’re also unhealthy. They reflect hearts and minds that aren’t as surrendered to the Lord or as conformed to the image of Christ as we might assume. If life and salvation are found in God alone, then we must recognize, as Lewis recognized, that to avoid surrender is to shrink back from life itself. If we would live, we must live on the Lord’s terms and not our own. Therefore, we must learn to know him and love him as he is and not as we wish him to be. He requires our all, and we do well to let him have it.
Lewis highlighted a common hesitancy, and his point is confirmed by the story of Job. Close encounters with the Lord change us in deep and profound ways, and those ways are not necessarily comfortable. But as Peter so insightfully said all those years ago when Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). There is no other Savior, no other King, no other God than the LORD. There is no other life or love or happiness than what he offers. So we seek him while he may be found, knowing that we will tremble and be changed when we find him. But we seek him anyway, for he is worth the effects of the finding.
I make my pray’r to you. You answer, “No.” And I don’t understand your reasoning. I ask to stay, but you call me to go. ‘Tis daily bread with bitter seasoning. I try to turn my grief into a gift: My heart’s desires become my offering. But I can’t see the rescue in the rift, And sov’reign love feels much like suffering. In seasons such as this, my faith is stretched, A stretching that is needed though it hurts. And through the test, your grace and truth are etched Upon my heart more deeply and convert My ignorance and fear to trust in you, The God of love who’s making all things new.
You call me to surrender, to lay down the desires of my heart willingly. I would rather you take them from me, for then my part would only be to accept what I cannot change. To give me a choice— that is a difficult test. But let me be found faithful. Help me to trade treasure for greater treasure, the fleeting for the lasting, to sit through the eclipse by faith. None who wait for you shall be put to shame.
I’m not sure God means for us to take advantage of every opportunity presented to us. True, he gives us good gifts and leads us in restful places. I don’t believe he enjoys seeing us suffer. But we know from Scripture that following Jesus means denying ourselves and embracing a more difficult road than we might otherwise walk. Self-denial will require us to say “no” to some things. So how do we know when to say “no”?
In part, discernment is a process of surrender and submission to the Lord. As we present our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, we choose “not [to] be conformed to this world” but choose instead to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” (Romans 12:1-2). We discern through testing, evaluating our options in light of our renewed understanding. And this process is ongoing. We deny ourselves daily, submit to the Lord daily, seek to be renewed daily, and discern the will of God daily.
I’m no expert in this process. I’m still learning, still practicing, still failing often. But along the way, I’m learning some signs that help me determine when I need to say “no” to something. Below are two that I’ve noticed in my own journey recently.
First, I’ve noticed that when I’m wrestling internally with a decision or am trying to rationalize a decision, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m considering. I draw this in part from Romans 14:23: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If I have doubts about something, I need to be very cautious about pressing forward. In some cases, I need to spend some more time praying and discerning before making the decision. Often, though, I already know I need to say “no,” but I recognize that doing so is a denial of self I don’t want to make. When I’m wrestling with uneasiness about something I want to do, or when I try to justify why the choice isn’t a bad choice to make, I probably need to say “no” and surrender my desires to the Lord.
Second, I’ve noticed that when I’m avoiding accountability or running from the Lord, I probably need to say “no” to whatever I’m chasing. I draw this in part from James 4:17: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The restlessness that makes me want to run is a sign I’m not doing something the Lord wants me to do. I’m failing to rest in the Lord, failing to trust the Lord, failing to obey the Lord. The lack of peace I feel in such times is a red flag. Peace with God is a big deal for me. If I feel like I’m off, even in the slightest, I’ve learned to be extremely cautious about moving forward with a decision and to evaluate my heart before the Father.
I’m not always good at discerning the way forward. I second-guess myself often, doubt my decisions, question possibilities. Lately, I’ve felt more distress than peace, and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. But I’m learning to walk, step by step, in greater faith and obedience. I want to be faithful, even when faithfulness means saying “no” to my desires. And to that end, I’m trying to be more sensitive to the Spirit and more attentive to these signs, all for his glory and my good.
Yesterday morning, I read a few chapters in 2 Samuel. In chapter 5, David sought the Lord before two different encounters with the Philistines. Each time, God answered and gave direction, though his guidance was different each time. David listened and found victory.
In chapter 6, as the ark of the covenant was brought into the city, David danced before the Lord, worshiping and celebrating. Though his wife criticized him, he defended his actions as being done for the Lord alone regardless of who may have witnessed him. The Lord appeared to justify David here.
In chapter 7, the Lord made magnificent promises to David. David, upon hearing the word of the Lord, responded in humility and reverence. He prayed confidently in light of the promises of God.
Throughout David’s life, we can detect a pattern of reverence and obedience. God was central and primary to David’s life, Lord over all of his ways. David sought the Lord before he went to war, refrained from acting against God’s anointed, and lived with a recognition that God ruled over all things.
Of course, David wasn’t always faithful. We see him tempted to take vengeance when wronged by Nabal (1 Samuel 25), though we see too the faithfulness of the Lord in that story. Later, we see David fall to a host of sins, with devastating consequences (2 Samuel 11-12). Yet in spite of the depth of David’s sins, he consistently returned to the Lord, understanding that, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Even when he strayed, David eventually returned to a place of surrender.
The stories of David’s sins are instructive in that they illuminate how our own sins often work. If David’s strength was his commitment to keep the Lord central and primary in his own life, his weakness was his tendency to let something else take that central and primary place. So too with us. We err when we place anything else as first in our affections. Leisure, pleasure, comfort—each have their proper place in our lives. When we elevate them above their rightful places, however, shifting our hope from the Giver to his gifts, we move our entire trajectory from the pursuit of the Lord to the pursuit of self.
But David’s heart for the Lord is a worthy example for us. Let us be people who hold the Lord higher than anything else, who keep him as central and primary in our lives. Let us be people who seek him first, love him first, and order our lives around him. Let us be people who see God as God and who respond accordingly.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, . . .”
On multiple occasions over the last year or so, I’ve caught myself wondering what God was doing in my life. In part, I’ve wondered this because his recent methods don’t fit my expectations. It’s as if his focus has shifted from particular actions to internal motivations and desires.
In the past, spiritual growth seemed closely tied to my external behavior. Don’t do this, avoid that, make a habit of practicing these things. Such a focus makes tracking progress somewhat simple, because you can clearly see your successes and failures. Trials, in such seasons, seem to affect those external behaviors. As I seek to build a spiritual discipline, I’m tempted by busyness or distraction or circumstance, and I have to respond either by surrendering to the Lord or to my desires. While the pursuit of holiness in outward actions isn’t easy, you can get used to it a bit. Distractions may become more complicated and temptations may increase in strength or in frequency of appearance, but you still appear to have a clear choice between two paths. You grow accustomed to the type of trials you face.
Now, however, the Lord’s focus seems to be on the internal side of life. As healthy habits have formed and external behaviors aren’t as difficult to manage as they once were, it’s as if God has moved below the surface, showing me that my motivations, desires, trusts, and hopes aren’t as grounded in the Lord as I may have once assumed. I may do the right action, but I may do it for the wrong reasons, acting out of selfishness, fear of others, pride, or any number of motivations rather than acting in faith and obedience to God. My desire may be for my own glory rather than for God’s. Trials, then, are not so clear cut. When the focus shifts to my desires and motivations, the situation is a lot more confusing and complicated.
At first, a shift in trials discourages you. You move from a place of confidence to a place of uncertainty. What once felt like known territory suddenly becomes foreign and unfamiliar. But the change is good, as is the work God is doing. When you meet a new variety of trial, an unexpected and unknown test, you’re reminded that you can’t weather such tests in your own strength or wisdom. Rather, you need the Lord, as you always have. Growth and progress only come as a result of submission to him.
In this way, no matter how trials may change throughout your life, they remain constant in their function: to drive you to the Lord. Trials reveal our weaknesses, uncover our insufficiencies, and highlight our need for further sanctification, further surrender, and further help from above. And thankfully, the Lord is faithful in every trial. Indeed, though the variety of trials seems far more vast than we ever anticipated, the grace of God remains sufficient for them all.