There is a difference between surrender and giving up. They have so much in common it’s easy to get them confused: both involve ending resistance, both allow another power to prevail, both mean that we give up control over part of our lives. There’s loss, grieving, disappointment, and the loss of a Great Cause. On reflection, there is a difference. It’s a subtle difference but an important one, particularly when it comes to a spiritual path.
Giving up doesn’t really have many deep layers of meaning. It simply means to stop what were doing, walk away, and let things happen without us. We cut ourselves off from what’s going on, we take no more responsibility. Giving up on something means what we were doing is not only not worth doing anymore, it’s not worth anyone else bothering with. We take ourselves out, have nothing more to do, become part of the past. Frequently, giving up also means running away.
Surrender is a more active choice. It’s not just about stopping point were doing, it’s about putting ourselves at the disposal of a force we used to oppose. For a country to surrender means their adversary gets to dictate how they live their lives. For an individual, it means we give in to a new priority in our lives that were not in control of. We don’t get to walk away if we surrender; we make ourselves an active part of a new reality. A surrender means our lives continue and were still committed to the growth and well-being of those around us.
A good example was at the end of the Civil War. A little known fact: several ex-Confederates tried to make a new life for themselves south of the border in the (then) Mexican Empire. With the failure of their cause, they gave up and walked away, starting over in a new place. They didn’t get to stay very long, because after 2 years the government that gave them refuge collapsed and they were no longer welcome; their only choice was to return home.
The vast majority of ex-Confederates followed Robert E. Lee’s last orders to his army: “Go home, plant your crops, and obey the Law.” It meant surrender, acceptance of the new reality and being an active part of the society where they were. It meant staying part of their communities and looking to the future, even though it was a future they once opposed. The unhealed wounds of the Civil War are still with us, yet it’s remarkable how well reconciliation worked in spite of its imperfection. It’s only in our lifetimes that individual states have talked about going it alone.
Surrender to God doesn’t mean giving up on anything important. There are things we need to let go of, to give up on, usually our selfishness. Surrender to God means making God our first priority in all things. It’s not easy in something we can never do completely. There is always a temptation to rebel, to resist the new rule, but that’s true of every kind of surrender.
There is a popular image surrender to God, and especially embracing religious life means giving up on the world and everything in it, taking ourselves away from normal life to live a different one, apart from everything we knew before. It’s not really possible to do because we can never give up ourselves and most importantly, we can never give up on the people around us. We can never give up the world because we can never truly give up ourselves. If we try to walk away, our problems inevitably follow us. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in The Lord of the Rings: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” We have to stay put in many ways.
What we can do is try to surrender to God’s will. This means were still part of the world around us, still the same people we’ve always been. We accept a new authority in our lives and we let those standards be the ones we function by. Surrender to God’s will doesn’t mean giving up on ourselves, it means giving up on our losing battle to impose our will on the world. Jesus never gave up on the world: if He had, there would’ve been no Incarnation, no Church to carry out a mission to proclaim good news, no Great Commandment to love one another. As we reflect on our lives and what we may need to give up, it’s important to remember that the most important thing isn’t giving up, it’s surrender.