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In this life-changing little book, Rev. Keith Beasley-Topliffe shares his experience of praying the Covenant Prayer?a classic prayer that calls us to surrender completely to God. Line by line, Rev. Beasley-Topliffe uses the wisdom of the prayer of surrender as a guide for those who want to learn to trust God more. With honesty and gentle humor, Rev. ...
In this life-changing little book, Rev. Keith Beasley-Topliffe shares his experience of praying the Covenant Prayer?a classic prayer that calls us to surrender completely to God. Line by line, Rev. Beasley-Topliffe uses the wisdom of the prayer of surrender as a guide for those who want to learn to trust God more. With honesty and gentle humor, Rev. Beasley-Topliffe shows us how simple prayers not only express our heart's desires to God, but also open the doorway to deeper prayer and transformation.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
The beginning of surrender, or self-abandonment, is in knowing whose we are, whose I am. The trend today is to talk about our own choice to offer ourselves to God: "the day I made my decision for Christ." We sound as if we had carefully reviewed our choices and then had decided, calmly and rationally, to invest our time and our faith in Jesus and the God he spoke of. The problem with this approach is that we can easily view the God we have chosen as no longer God's own but ours, our personal property. We see God as a sort of giant vending machine into which we put our good deeds, in expectation of some blessing falling down for us to claim. And, of course, if the blessings are not vended, we kick the machine. God did not deliver as advertised, and we regret our choice.
In truth, though, the initiative is always God's. God laid claim to us long before we accepted that claim. We have always belonged to God anyway, whether we were willing to admit it or not. We are God's creatures. We exist, the universe exists, only because of God's ongoing creation. We were never really our own, but always have been God's. God states that claim clearly through the prophet: "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isaiah 43:1). God then promises to be with God's people, to rescue them, to bring them home. Why? "Because you are precious in my sight, andhonored, and I love you ..." (Isaiah 43:4a). We are God's children, and God can no more forget us or give up on us than a mother would forget the child she bore (Isaiah 49:15).
We are Christ's by redemption. When in our attempts to be our own persons, we ended up selling ourselves to some other god (food, success, sex, power, computer games, security, whatever), Christ paid the price to buy us back. Paul asks the folks in Corinth, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). With Paul we must say, "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). We are no longer our own, but Christ's.
Even what good we have done is not strictly our own doing. For the Holy Spirit is working within us to guide, transform, encourage, teach. The best that we do is what we do when we cooperate with the Spirit. Even our assurance that we are God's beloved children is "that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16). We no longer claim our own accomplishments, but they are the Spirit's doing.
We have been made, claimed, redeemed, transformed by God—loving Parent, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit. If we are to be honest at all, we each have to say, "I am no longer my own, but thine."
I can understand all of this intellectually and affirm it as truth. But still there is a part of me that rebels, that childishly shouts, "Oh yeah? Well, you're not the boss of me!" Or maybe it more poetically asserts, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul!" This is the part that hears God's call to unconditional love and asks, "What's in it for me?" It hears God's offer of absolute forgiveness and says, "If forgiveness is for everybody, then it's just not fair. After all, I'm pretty good and you're not so bad, but he's a real rat. Why should we all get the same deal?" Adrian van Kaam calls this deep-seated part of ourselves the pride form: "It veils the truth of our being made in God's image and likeness; ... it tempts us with the illusion that we can do it alone; it encourages us to deny our dependency on the God who made us." Thomas Merton calls it the false self. In the seventh chapter of Romans, Paul tries a number of names: sin, flesh, another law. He spells out clearly the warfare between the truth to which we give intellectual assent and the pride form:
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:20-24)
This is the conflict so often depicted in cartoons. A little angel-duck stands on Donald's left shoulder, a little demon-duck on his right shoulder, and they argue back and forth about what Donald should do. And even though it is presented as an inner struggle, the real decision is whether to follow God or rebel against God. The inner battle is truly a war of rebellion.
Such a rebellion can only end in unconditional surrender, self-surrender. "I tried to do it my way. It didn't work very well. I give up. I'll try to listen better this time, to follow your lead, Lord. I surrender." When I was starting in the ministry, I had a chance to talk with Harry, whose ministry had begun in the early years of the twentieth century. He said that when he was a boy, self-surrender was a big theme in preaching, especially evangelistic preaching. People sang hymns like "I Surrender All," written in 1897, or "Trust and Obey," written ten years earlier. But then, said Harry, it all changed. America won the First World War. We were the top nation, the most powerful on earth. We didn't surrender to anyone. And so the language of surrender disappeared from mainstream American churches. At least that's what Harry said, and he was there. Maybe that's when we began to elevate our own choice, our "decision for Christ," as something made calmly and rationally, rather than as an admission of the truth to which our failures drove us.
The language of surrender is growing in popularity again. Maybe we realize how much we've mucked up trying to be in charge, or maybe the decline of the mainstream churches and the growth of evangelical ones has forced us to take a new look at the older language. At any rate, "I Surrender All" is back in the United Methodist hymnal. But it's still a struggle to reconcile the competing directives of Christian self-surrender and American self-reliance. We sing our surrender to Christ in church and then talk about the importance of looking out for number one the rest of the week. And while we may talk about our desire to serve God, many of us are mostly interested in serving as advisors.
More recently, Christian talk of self-surrender has been under attack from another direction. People struggling to gain some small measure of control over their lives are not eager to give it up again, even to God. Too often, Christ's call to self-denial has been used by oppressors to keep the oppressed in their place. Men (like me) have used it against women. Whites (me again) have used it against blacks and other persons of color. The rich (I guess I qualify here, too) have used it against the poor: "Just grin and bear it. Think of it as your cross. Join your pain to the suffering of Christ. When you get to heaven, you'll be blessed."
Christ came to set us free from such hogwash. Against all those who have tried to co-opt obedience to Christ as obedience to them, Jesus says, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24). Or, as Richard Alleine says, "Christ will accept of no consent but in full, to all that he requires; he will be all in all, or he will be nothing." Others may be able to control our bodies or our work, but they cannot control our allegiance or our love. They are for Christ alone. All other loves, however strong, must take second place. We are no longer our own, but his. We may feel called to put up with oppression for Jesus' sake, as an opportunity to love our enemies, to do good to those who hurt us, and to witness to the gospel. But such action is for those who have found strength in Christ, who know his love and are able to endure all things through its power. As soon as an oppressor begins to claim that if we don't submit, Christ won't love us any more, that person—or that oppressive system—has lost any claim to speak in the name of Jesus. For Christ sets us free from the terror of death, from the fear of divine punishment for sin. He gives us back our lives, so that we may freely surrender them to him.
And still we don't. No matter how much control we have over our lives, we find it hard to give it up. We can always find reasons to insist that we alone know what is best for ourselves. We are happy to accept suggestions from God, of course. We respect Christ greatly. But we reserve to ourselves the right to make the final decision. We back away from full surrender. At least in some areas of our lives, we are sure we know what's really best.
But the Covenant Prayer keeps calling me away from this misplaced self-confidence. It helps me remember that I haven't really done very well trying to call the shots in my life. Great plans turned to dust and ashes. When I thought I was grabbing for all the gusto, it turned out to be pretty tasteless. Trying to be my own didn't work. Time to admit it, wave the flag of surrender, and let God be in control. Hannah Whitall Smith spelled out this surrender in a prayer over a century ago:
Here, Lord, I abandon myself to thee. I have tried in every way I could think of to manage myself, and to make myself what I know I ought to be, but have always failed. Now I give it up to thee. Do thou take entire possession of me. Work in me all the good pleasure of thy will. Mold and fashion me into such a vessel as seemeth good to thee. I leave myself in thy hands, and I believe thou wilt, according to thy promise, make me into a vessel unto thy own honor, "sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work."
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) counseled his readers to offer everything to Christ as part of freeing themselves to accept his love. As part of that counsel, he wrote a simple and powerful prayer of surrender:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will—all that I have and possess. You, Lord, have given all that to me. I now give it back to you, O Lord. All of it is yours. Dispose of it according to your will. Give me your love and your grace, for that is enough for me.
Even though the Covenant Prayer is the one I learned first, this prayer also keeps echoing in my mind, thanks in part to a beautiful musical setting by a twentieth-century Jesuit, John Foley.
Though Christ demands complete, unconditional surrender, we continue to fight our losing battle, giving up just a bit at a time. Though I promise complete, unconditional surrender when I pray the Covenant Prayer, I constantly find new ways in which I am resisting God's will, new areas of my life that insist on having their own way. Surrender is not once and for all, but every day a little more. As John the Baptizer said, in a different context, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). I have made this verse into a breath prayer: "More of you, Lord, less of me." It serves as a reminder of my desire to surrender more fully throughout the day. It is also the mantra that I use for centering at the beginning of more formal prayer times.
John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Carmelite and close associate of Teresa of Avila in her reform of the order, speaks of Christians as panes of glass through which the light of Christ shines. The dirtier the glass is, the more we see the glass and not the light. But when the pane is clear, transparent, the light blazes through in all its glory.
A soul makes room for God by wiping away all the smudges and smears of creatures, by uniting its will perfectly to God's; for to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God. When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God. And God will so communicate his supernatural being to the soul that it will appear to be God himself and will possess what God himself possesses.
Strangely enough, this transparency is not a loss of self, but the fullest realization of our calling. What we are losing is the pride form, the false self. As the false self disappears, it stops obscuring God's call to us and lets our true self, who we most deeply are, shine through along with the light of God. Church Father Irenaeus said that the glory of God is the truly living human person, and true human life consists in beholding God. And we are most fully alive when we are most fully surrendered to Christ, when people look at us and see him in action. So as we surrender ourselves more and more fully, we give more glory to God.
Excerpted from Surrendering to God by Keith Beasley-Topliffe. Copyright © 2001 by Keith Beasley-Topliffe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.