“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” – Step 3

Back at this intersection between God and life after a leisurely week in Tulum, Mexico, I’ve been thinking about why it’s hard to surrender my life to God — or at least to do so consistently, daily, and moment by moment. According to Step 3 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery entails a “decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God as we understand Him.” This decision, I suspect, must happen more than once for most of us. It must happen over and over again. The word I give it is “surrender,” and can sound like a bad word in a culture that trades in the more familiar language of self-entitlement, self-expression and self-promotion. But why is this surrendering to God so hard, so much so that our very nature rebels against the very notion of surrender? And what does this surrender entail?

Why Surrender Is So Hard

Part of the answer to that question comes to me from an unlikely place: the pages of a book by my favorite mystery novelist, PD James. In her novel A Taste for Death, a sweet, church-going, God-fearing woman by the name of Miss Wharton is the first to happen upon a grisly murder scene in her home parish. In the wake of that trauma, she tries to find comfort in a favorite passage from Scripture — it’s the one from Luke, about the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep — but “this time,” James writes, “[Miss Wharton] had read it with a sharpened, perversely questioning mind. What, after all, was a shepherd’s job? Only to care for the sheep, to make sure they didn’t escape so that they could be branded, sheared and then slaughtered. Without the need for their wool, their flesh, there would be no job for the shepherd.”

I’d never thought about that before in relation to this passage, but the fictional Miss Wharton has a point. A good shepherd doesn’t take exceptional care of their sheep out of pure altruism. A good shepherd watches over their sheep because those sheep are a source of food on the table, either literally or in the form of income. And from now on, I’ll never be able to read this sweet parable again without that lingering recognition.

But maybe, then again, that’s precisely the point of this passage. Jesus doesn’t protect us from losing our lives. Jesus wants us to let go of our lives with the understanding that our lives were never ultimately ours to hold on to in the first place. And yes, the sheep do usually end up branded, sheared and then slaughtered, and their wool and flesh do usually service the needs of others. That’s pretty grim-sounding alright. Still maybe that’s better than being the dumb sheep who runs off, gets lost and has a terrible time of it, all because they thought that they really didn’t need a shepherd and could fool pain and death without one.

In other words, it’s hard to surrender to God, because it’s hard to trust that a God who will let us go through pain and death ultimately really loves us and ultimately will do what’s best for us.

Seeing Is Believing — and Surrender to God

That’s why the insertion of a God “as we understand Him” is a kind of merciful relief. And here I take heart that the only God we can hope to understand is the One we’ve caught partial glimpses of somewhere in our lives, maybe a bit like Moses on Mount Sinai: Moses can’t see God’s face, only God’s posterior. I love the humor there. It’s also a picture, I suspect, that many of us can identify with. We, too, many of us, have caught glimpses of at least the equivalent of God’s “backside” at discrete points in our lives. That has been enough to spur our search for More, even if that search at times has manifested itself as a heightened sense of God’s absence and our own emptiness.

Ultimately the only God we can surrender to is a God who has revealed Himself to us. A God who has submitted Himself to the risky enterprise of human understanding. A God, in other words, whom we have in some way “seen.” Upon that seeing, surrender (however seemingly transient this side of eternity) is, I suspect, irresistible.

In the second chapter of her first book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes that there are two kinds of seeing. The first, to quote author William Deresiewicz on Dillard’s work in this month’s Atlantic,  “is the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze.” But in Dillard’s words, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” Deresiewicz elaborates: “You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.” This kind of seeing is more like perceiving that one has just been seen by God.

Surrender that’s as simple and grace-filled as this second kind of seeing implies makes me want to lower my reflex-like defenses to the very notion of letting go and letting God. Surrender that invites me only “to see,” with the assurance that the rest of the work — the release and the transfiguration — is God’s, gives my soul rest. It’s surrender to God as I understand God: the beginning of recovery for at least one “restless soul.”




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