This is message #9 in the Creekstone sermon series in James, The Gospel for Real Life.
An episode of the NPR radio program This American Life follows several people currently living what they call “Plan B.” As part of the show, host Ira Glass asked a room of hundred people to think back to the beginning of adulthood when they were first formulating a plan for their lives, what they would call “Plan A.” Plan A included their career choice, the place they would live, the size of their family, etc. He then asked those who were still on Plan A to raise their hands. Only one hand was raised, and she was only 23 years old.
We make plans. We dream dreams. And then something happens that completely alters the course of our lives.
- For some, it is a break-up.
- For others, it is not being accepted into the school that would have launched your chosen career.
- Maybe it was a bad financial decision. Or a bad moral decision. A bout with depression.
- An unexpected death.
In my pastoral experience, not all, but most people who walk away from God do so when their Plan A is derailed, revealing that the problem we tend to have with God is not as much intellectual as it is emotional.
I mean, it is difficult to argue intellectually against the reality of a personal creator God. What causes someone to walk away is that that there are life wounds that can’t be reconciled with a loving God. With a wise God who claims to be my Father. If he really loved me, why would he allow so much in my life to be derailed?
But it is not just the big picture of our lives that changes course from what we expected or projected. It is the week-to-week and even the day-to-day.
We continue to make plans. Those plans continue to get frustrated by weather, traffic, uncooperative children, car trouble, and all kinds of unexpected interruptions and alterations in our plans.
In the midst of such frustration, the question that I have is this: is it still possible to live a life of freedom, peace, and joy?
The answer is found in James 4 and can be summarized in two words: unconditional surrender.
In this passage, James calls us to surrender our souls to the sovereignty of God. Not an aloof, distant, cosmic ruler, but a very concerned, near, personal Father.
We are called to submit and surrender ourselves to God’s Plan A, because in his providential design of history, there isn’t a Plan B. He is sovereign over every molecule in the universe. He is in total control over the weather, over rogue regimes, traffic accidents, sicknesses, and even the dumb decisions that we make, including our sin.
James is challenging us to wave the white flag of the soul in unconditional surrender. To let God by God, where we discover that, ironically, it is by giving up control that we are able to live lives of freedom, peace, and joy
The first thing we see in the process of surrender is that…
Surrender Begins with Awareness (v. 13-15).
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Surrender begins with the awareness that I tend to live blissfully unaware of the sovereignty of God.
This is the charge James makes in verse 13. He mentions making travel plans, where we assume that we know what will take place not just tomorrow, but a year in the future.
The person to whom James is writing is the professing Christian whose life is being guided by a secular worldview where God really doesn’t fit in the equation of real life.
Those of us who wear glasses remember the first time we put on our new corrective lenses. We could see the individual leaves on the trees. We noted that clouds have edges. And words that were no longer blurry. Glasses opened a new world for us.
James is giving us a pair of glasses through which we can see the world through biblical lenses, providing us with an awareness of God’s sovereignty that we have been lacking.
In previous generations when folks hand-wrote letters, believers would often inscribe the letters DV as the post-script. Those letters stand for the Latin phrase Deo volente, which means “if God wills,” or “if God should permit” or “if it is in God’s plan.” Writing those simple letters was a conscious way of applying verse 15, ““If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that,” reminding themselves that God is sovereign and in control of all events, including the most detailed plans that we make. As verse 14 states, we do not know what tomorrow will bring.
I am not God. I am not sovereign. I am not in control. But I struggle to live as if I were, which leads us to recognize that…
Surrender Includes Repentance (v. 16).
16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
The crushing reality is that when I live as if I am in control of my world, I am putting myself in the place of God. Now, this is not a theology that most if any of us would espouse. We would never say that we are God. Nevertheless, the functional way I live is as if I have been given the responsibility to control my own life and those around me.
This is why James calls the assumption of control the epitome of arrogance.
Many of us are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer. Some of us have even memorized it and can say it in our sleep. I wonder if we realize how brutally difficult it is to pray the Lord’s Prayer… and to mean it.
Even just the line that says, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Do I really mean that? “Your will be done.” To be honest, many of my prayers are for God to stamp my will with his—not for him to enable me to submit my will to his.
The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of surrender. And surrender involves repentance—a recognition that I have sought to sit on God’s throne, attempting to enforce my will on earth rather than submit to his.
Surrender involves repentance—a recognition that I have sought to sit on God’s throne, attempting to enforce my will on earth rather than submit to his.
I have addressed God as a personal genie rather than as my sovereign Lord. When this arrogance comes home to my heart, I can do nothing else but repent—confess that this disposition of my heart is a subtle but very real form of boasting that James calls evil.
But you know, playing God is not only arrogant, it adds stress to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders—even simply the weight of my own life, not to mention the life of my kids, the success of this church… or whatever it is for you that keeps you up at night.
Can you see what a practical difference it would make if we held our plans loosely? If we held what we think is best loosely?
What if I could really trust my Abba, my Father… completely. Even when I don’t understand or can’t make sense out of why he would allow something to happen that causes such pain and grief?
I think if I could surrender my soul to the sovereignty of God that I finally would be at the foothills of a life filled with freedom, peace and joy.
If you are ready for this surrender, you need to know that…
Surrender is Active, not Passive (v. 17).
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
To surrender in war, you can’t just think about it. Even if you intellectually agree to surrender, until you wave the white flag, you have not truly surrendered.
Until I wave the white flag, I have not truly surrendered.
Surrender is more than good intentions. It is more than intellectual assent. True surrender involves doing something.
Surrender is active, not passive.
This is what James means when he makes the distinction between the person who “knows the right thing to do” [intellectual ascent] but “fails to do it.”
Additionally, James says that knowing something to be the right thing to do and not acting on it is sin. He is not advocating an abdication of responsibility but a surrender of control. Whether it is fulfilling a responsibility or giving up control of what is not my responsibility, practical obedience to God’s will is always a surrender of my will – a surrender of my wisdom and what I think is best.
For some, this will mean taking our worry to the Father in prayer as we consciously hand over our anxieties.
And there will be plenty of reason for worry and anxiety in this life. Jesus himself spoke to this directly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, saying,
“25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?… 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all… 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Ok, even if I realize that worry isn’t just a bad habit; it is sin—that worry is a direct transgression of Jesus’ clear command to not worry. According to Jesus, it is possible to not worry! But how?
The apostle Peter addressed this when he wrote, “Cast all your anxieties upon [Jesus], because he cares for you.”[i]
When you “cast” something, you throw it, right? You use physical muscles. Throwing something is active, not passive. It takes effort.
It is the same way with worry.
This may mean surrendering the life plans the plans I have for our church, the plans we have for retirement, the plans we have for our children.
We have seen the well-intentioned bumper sticker that reads, piously, “God is my co-pilot.” I suppose that may be a step in the right direction. But in view of the sovereignty of God, if I have seen Jesus as a co-pilot, James is calling me to trade places with Jesus—to let him fly the plane while I sit in the co-pilot seat, trusting his navigational skill, not my own.
Trading places will require me to fight to believe that God is a good Father, who really does care—believing that he really is working all things for the ultimate good of his adoptive children.
Surrender is not passive. It is a conscious, willful, determined decision that sometimes feels like lifting 1,000 pounds. But when we have fought for the faith to trust the plan of our Abba, Father, it actually will feel like letting go of 1,000 pounds. It is this place of surrender where we truly we experience freedom, peace, and joy.
“Spiritual Advice for How to Survive Cancer and Other Disasters”
The Washington Post ran a story last year on Christian psychologist and researcher Dr. Jamie Aten, who at 35, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. The article was entitled, “Spiritual Advice for How to Survive Cancer and Other Disasters.”
In the article, Aten said:
“For the first six months, whenever I asked for a prognosis, all my oncologist would say was: ‘I can’t tell you that it’s going to be okay, Jamie. It’s too early to tell. If there’s anyone you want to see or anything you want to do, now is the time.’”
In his own words, Aten learned that the key to facing the trauma of an unexpected and unwanted life detour involved “spiritual surrender.”
Aten continued, saying:
“In a research study I led after [Hurricane] Katrina, we found that people who showed higher levels of spiritual surrender tended to [manage the stress far better than others]. [Initially,] this finding… seemed like a passive faith response. Fast forward to my cancer. I vividly remember taking the trash to the curb one winter morning while praying that God would heal me. The freezing air felt like tiny razor blades cutting across my hands and feet because of the nerve sensitivity caused by chemotherapy. Wondering if God even heard my prayers for healing, I kept praying as I walked back inside [the house]. Then, all of a sudden, I just dropped to my knees and prayed the most challenging prayer of my life. Instead of continuing to pray for God’s healing, I asked that God would take care of my wife and children if I didn’t make it.
This was the hardest prayer I had ever prayed. [But] for the first time in my life, I truly experienced spiritual surrender. I finally understood. True… surrender is far from passive—it is [an excruciatingly] willful act…”[ii]
The Ultimate Surrender
I think that Jesus would agree that surrender is far from passive–that it is a willful act.
After all, Jesus is the ultimate example of the one who consciously, willfully surrendered to the Plan A of God. And it was an excruciating surrender.
In a place called the Garden of Gethsemane just outside of Jerusalem on the night of his betrayal, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Why was the Father allowing this to happen? How could he be a good, caring, loving, wise God to let his only begotten son be savagely nailed to a cross by a Roman execution squad? What possible good could come from such a scenario? How could that be part of God’s plan?
These are the same questions we ask about our own lives.
And yet with hindsight, we know what the Father was doing and we understand his plan for the cross. He was providing his own son to serve as the substitute for sinners—sinners who deserved the judgement that the cross represents, where all of my faithlessness and arrogance was condemned. The law fulfilled. My sentence served.
This is the God before whom we submit. The God of unfathomable grace who shows unconditional mercy to any who will surrender to it, which is the initial and perpetual surrender of the Christian life—where I submit to being reconciled to God by grace alone—not by my works, but because of the works of Jesus for me.
Then, as I continually surrender to his will—to his plan—I am able to face and endure challenges, stress, hardship and grief, with a freedom that doesn’t feel the need to control and a peace that trusts that my Father is at work, even in this—whatever this is.
If he can turn the cross into good, I can trust him with everything else.
If he can turn the cross into good, I can trust him with everything else.
So, are you ready? Are you ready to surrender? For some of us today, this is the opportunity you have been waiting for. To lay it all down before the Father… and to trust in the perfect but sometimes painful… the mysterious but always purposeful plan.
[i] 1 Peter 5:7
[ii] Jamie Aten, “Spiritual Advice for Surviving Cancer and Other Disasters,” The Washington Post (8-9-16)