A New Year, A New You

New starts can be very powerful. There’s something about starting a new year: it’s motivating, inspiring, and easier to commit to needed changes. In Leviticus 25 we learn how the ancient Israelites experienced a brand new start every fifty years, when debts were forgiven and land was regained. They sounded this radical new start with the loud burst of the ram’s horn, hence the name given to this merciful event: the Year of the Ram (or Ram’s Horn = יוֹבֵל, yovel). Most translations give it the euphemistic name of The Year of Jubilee, probably since that’s what the sound of the ram’s horn likely invoked in the people.

Do you need a new start in 2018?

I’ve been praying and reflecting much lately on a very difficult topic: surrender. One dictionary says that surrender means “to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” Of one thing we can be certain: Jesus demanded and expected utter surrender. For example, he told the crowds: “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk. 9:23-25 NET) There it is, front and center and clear. There is no middle ground. Jesus never intended His message to be suggestive, as if He were giving some grandfatherly advice. He spoke as if He’s the Commanding Officer and everyone else in the world is either a good or bad soldier; either loyal to the cause or a rebel. You either “take up His yoke” or you don’t (Matt. 11:28).

Once, Jesus was speaking of how difficult it is for rich people to be His disciples. I appreciate Peter’s response: “Look, we have left everything we own to follow you!” (Lk. 18:28 NET) And they had. Everything. I can see the disciples singing the song, “I Surrender All” as they walked down the road: “All to Jesus I surrender/All to Him I freely give/I will ever love and trust Him/In His presence daily live; All to Jesus I surrender/Humbly at His feet I bow/Worldly pleasures all forsaken/Take me Jesus take me now…” They surrendered everything to the ministry. They did not sell all their possessions and cut off relationships. Instead, everything they had and every relationship they had been subsumed into the cause of Jesus. Everything and everyone was at Jesus’s disposal. They rightfully acted as if Jesus had “eminent domain.”

But, why can surrendering everything to Jesus be so difficult? We surrender in other circumstances all the time. I appreciate how Billy Graham says it: “You’re surrendering all the time. When I fly in an airplane and I sit down in the seat, I’m surrendering to that plane. Nothing I can do about it. I’ve been operated on several times, and I didn’t negotiate with the doctors. As they took the knives out and put the anesthetic in, I put my full trust in those doctors that they were going to do the right thing.” (“Total Surrender”)

In my good moments, I want to surrender all my struggles, all my sins, all my stress, all my worries, all my relationships, all my goals, all my hopes…everything. I just wish I had those good moments all the time. I don’t. Not only am I haunted by this idea in my own discipleship journey, throughout my ministry I’ve noticed others struggling with the implementation of surrender.

I’ve known so many men, in particular, who have not surrendered everything to Jesus. They confess being Christians, and I’m sure they mean it. However, there are certain habits in their lives that they’ve simply not surrendered to Jesus. There’s a certain distance between them and God. And I can often tell. These men get a little involved in a local church, but not that involved. They come and go. They just dip their toe in the water. I can even feel that distance between this kind of man and myself. I’ve had guys tell me, “I tried to avoid you like the plague.” Why? Because they were struggling with a sin and just being around me (I guess because of my profession? The Spirit?) they felt ashamed. Instead of being vulnerable and open about the struggle, for which they would have received grace and love, they remained distant. It always makes me sad for them. I’ve known “great” guys who are loyal to their families, but worship their work. They think that providing lots of toys or “stuff” is what their kids really need and want. They really owe their chief allegiance to their jobs. I’ve known guys who are so kind and encouraging, but routinely get drunk on the weekends and cuss/curse often when in other company. Well, these are terrible sins (e.g., Mark 4:18-19; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; Eph. 4:29; 5:18). They just haven’t surrendered fully yet. They practice sin habits that haven’t “died” (cf. Rom. 6).

Typically, I’ve heard such people say things like, “I try to be a good person,” as if that’s what Jesus ever demanded or died for. He didn’t. Not one time does Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must try to be a good person.” Honestly, I think the mantra, “trying to be a good person,” assuages the guilt they feel when they do the thing they know they shouldn’t do: “I know I shouldn’t do X, but I’m a good person. I don’t hurt anyone; or, I’m not as bad as some people.”

What in the world makes us think that we can categorize our lives like this? Whatever gave us the idea that being Jesus’s disciple means there are whole areas or routines of our lives that are off-limits to the claims of Jesus? Oswald Chambers once said, “Beware of stopping anywhere short of total surrender to God. Most of us have only a vision of what this really means, but have never truly experienced it.” (“Total Surrender”) Why not? Why haven’t most of us “truly experienced it”?

I’m sure there are several reasons. One might list reasons such as: I’ve never wanted to give Him everything; I didn’t know that I was supposed to; My sin habits are fun or bring me some joy; Giving up my old habits is too difficult; What I’m doing “on the side” isn’t really that bad because I’m really a “good person”; I don’t really trust God; Going “all in” is for other people, like pastors and clergy; I’m scared to give it up; I’m too ashamed to receive help; It would be too painful to take off my fake mask that I wear around others; find my identity in that part of my life; et al. What would you add? What is your excuse if you make one (or more)?

I think one of the main reasons why people don’t fully surrender is because we really don’t think that surrendering everything to Jesus is better than what we’re presently doing. This is typically reinforced by the belief that God is merely a Commanding Officer or Rule Enforcer, rather than a Loving Commanding Officer who is heaven-bent on making us perfected into the image of Jesus Himself (Rom. 8:29).

C. S. Lewis said it so well: “The proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator—to enact intellectually, volitionally, and emotionally, that relationship which is given in the mere fact of its being a creature. When it does so, it is good and happy…  The Son of God’s humble, trusting, loving, and complete surrender of himself to the will of his Father is difficult for us to fully grasp. But what we can and must grasp is that Jesus’ pattern of self-giving is what God asks and expects of those whom he adopts as his sons and daughters. At its heart, such self-giving is not a matter of submitting to God’s power but of surrendering to his love. When seen in this light, what once seemed unthinkable becomes attractive and desirable—though still scary and hard. Once made, our surrender must be lived out one day at a time in the obedience of faith and love. There will of course be times when the fallen nature rises up and we reassert our sinful self-will. But God’s forgiveness and his empowering Holy Spirit will meet us each step of the way to help us enter ever more fully into intimacy with him and the Trinitarian life of heaven.” (The Problem of Pain)

Imagine being so utterly surrendered to Jesus that you take inventory of every relationship and habit. Then, you pray for Him to speak to you: you ask Jesus to tell you if there’s anything you need to surrender. You ask God for the courage to hear Him put His finger on the very thing that gets in the way of your discipleship. Then, you ask Him for the courage to release it. To let it go. To be free. To kill it. And, by His grace, you receive His strength and endurance in this most holy affair. Finally, you tell at least one trusted, Christian friend who can pray for you and support you.

Remember well: we can’t give up even when we fail Him. We can’t. We know that those who are in Christ are not orphaned (Matt. 28:20; John 15) and have His Spirit to strengthen and lead us (Rom. 8:14; 16:25; 1 Cor. 1:8). Moreover, God has surrounded us with fellow Christians in the exact same situation: each of us working to surrender all that we have to the profoundly gracious, loving Father who cleanses us (1 John 1:7; Gal. 6:1-2; Heb. 12:1-3).

Do you need a new start in 2018? Then surrender. Lay down your sins. Lay down the good and receive what’s best. Release every aspect of your life to our good, trustworthy Lord. See how He takes those dead things in your life and grants you resurrection.