By Michael C. Mack
The words were like a punch in the stomach: “I just don’t want to be married to you anymore.” I wasn’t prepared to hear that and neither were our four teenage kids. Suddenly we were separated: Heidi moved into an apartment, and I moved into a dark valley of the soul. I stepped out of my ministry position in our church so I could focus on my family and try to reconcile with my wife.
Knowing David and other psalmists had dealt with their own battles and dark valleys, I began to read through the psalms, journaling my thoughts and emotions. As I read David’s words of struggle, I wrote, “I am sick at heart and trusting in God to do what only he can do. Like David, I’m putting these circumstances in God’s hands.” I was beginning the journey of learning to surrender—but as I was about to find out, the only way to learn this biblical principle is in the throes of battle.
Here are several lessons I have learned about what it means to truly surrender:
God’s Terms of Surrender Are Nonnegotiable
Although I thought I was already living a surrendered life, I was still holding onto many things. Like a young child, I badgered God with many why questions: Why is this happening to me? (I imagined, even when my wife was unhappy, that we had a good, solid marriage and we would grow old together. I felt I hadn’t done anything to deserve the separation.) Why can’t I fix this? Why, God, didn’t you prevent it? As the months went by, my questions changed from why to when. Like David, over and over I asked, “How long, Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:3).
I had been trying to negotiate a peace treaty with God: I’ll surrender this, but I’ll keep that. I’ll trust that you are in control, but I want results on my timing. I learned that when I go to God with conditions, I am not yielding to him. God’s terms are unconditional surrender.
The night Heidi announced she wanted a divorce, I took a run in our neighborhood and sensed God speaking clearly to me. I didn’t hear a promise of how the situation would end—in divorce or reconciliation—but I sensed his assurance that he would eventually use it all for his purposes. It was a moment of hope in the midst of uncertainty.
The Costs of Surrender Are High
When I read Psalm 15:4, “Keep [your] promises even when it hurts” (New Living Translation), I knew God was speaking to me. I felt challenged to keep loving and serving my wife, no matter what.
Living life on God’s terms would cost me something—maybe everything. That should not have been a surprise to me; Jesus warned his followers, “You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own” (Luke 14:33). I still had much to yield to God, especially my delusions about how good my marriage was and how good of a Christian I was. I even had to learn to surrender my feeble attempts at surrendering.
I kept reading the apostle Paul’s convicting words: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). Yes, surrender costs me something, but it cost Jesus even more.
The Will Has the Final Say
At times I wept in my loneliness and loss. Again I sensed a kinship with David, who I imagine might have screamed the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1, NIV). But also like David, I eventually began to proclaim these truths: God does not ignore his people in need; he does not turn and walk away; he listens to his children as they cry out to him for help (v. 24).
Yes, my circumstances didn’t seem fair. I was hurting and alone. I felt betrayed, forsaken. But all this can be said about King Jesus as well as King David. It comforted me to know that Jesus understood my emotions.
After the skirmish between David’s feelings and his mind, I saw that his will took over: “I will praise you . . . I will fulfill all my vows” (v. 25, NLT). The will has the final say. Why? The will is the place of surrender. Jesus again modeled this for us. In his human frailties, he did not feel like going to the cross. He knew how utterly agonizing it would be. Yet he said, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NIV). That should be our cry as well.
As I walked with God through my valley of despair, I learned a vital lesson: it’s one thing to pray and ask God to guide you through something. It’s quite another to surrender everything to his will. I finally understood how powerless I was—and this was the moment I most sensed God’s presence.
Wrestling Is Part of God’s Game Plan
One day I received a call from a church across the country offering me an opportunity that my daughter called my “dream job.” It was the perfect fit for my experience, skills, and passions. If I didn’t take a job soon, within a month my severance and my family’s health insurance would end. I sought the advice of many counselors and nearly everyone said I should take the job; it would provide for my family. My daughters said they’d move with me. But I knew that taking the job would split up my family and would almost definitely be an acceptance of divorce on my part. I could have an opportunity to make a kingdom impact if I took the job, but what cost would that have on my family?
I wrestled with God over the decision. Was he providing the opportunity or was this a test? In my journal, I asked, “Do I stay here and trust God with a job and finances, or do I go and trust him with my family?”
As I was reading Psalm 34 one morning, I realized I could still make an impact on God’s kingdom by staying, but I couldn’t make as much of an impact on my family if I left. The decision became clear. My hope was not in a job, even a “dream job.” At the same time, my hope was not in my marriage, family, or finances (as good as those things may be). My hope was in God alone, a phrase David used often in the psalms. If I put God first, he promised to take care of everything else (Matthew 6:33). I said no to the job and yes to continuing to fight for my wife and family. God would supply for our finances and provide ministry opportunities.
I believe God allowed me to wrestle with myself and him in order to move me toward surrender.
God Uses Surrender for His Purposes
I remember the day I read Psalm 50:15: “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” That day I wrote in my journal, “God will rescue me and my kids in all of this. We simply must trust him. And when he does rescue us, it will be because he has done something only he could do! That’s the only way for him to receive glory!”
For a long time I had been praying for God to move in my wife’s heart. I know that he specializes in mending what is broken, even resurrecting what is dead. God worked in ways only he could, and Heidi came back. Today we are together, our relationship is reconciled, and our marriage is better than ever. We both know that only God could have accomplished that. We have continued to see his faithfulness as we grow together and work as a couple through the circumstances that come our way.
Recently God has brought two guys into the men’s group I lead who are struggling in their marriages. God is using what I’ve learned to help them surrender their relationships, and more importantly their lives, to him.
“Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). I have found real life—a challenging and often costly life, but a God-honoring one—as I continue to surrender each day to him.
Michael C. Mack works in his dream job from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, as a speaker, trainer, and church consultant through his ministry Small Group Leadership. He writes and edits as well.
What Is Surrender?
The word surrender is not used often in the Bible as it relates to yielding ourselves to God, but the idea of surrender is a central theme. From Adam and Eve to Abraham to Moses and the Israelites to the apostle Peter and to the New Testament church, God’s people have struggled to surrender themselves to him. We are called to surrender our rights, judgments, grudges, finances, control, and security, as well as life on our own terms.
The Bible uses words like trust, sacrifice, and commit to talk about surrender. Because we live in this world so independently of God, surrender also takes repentance. Jesus, of course, lived a perfectly God-surrendered life. He said he came “not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), and he lived this way right up to the cross.
Surrender is not a one-time event. When we first accept Jesus as Savior and Lord of our lives, we begin a journey of living a surrendered life. But surrender is an attitude we continue developing each day as we follow Christ. It’s part of the sanctifying work of God’s Holy Spirit.