Category Archives: Relational

Stages of Surrender, Part 8

Surrender is very hard at Stage 3 because human beings enjoy the perks that come with success; the praise of others, a sense of job security and often financial rewards of various kinds. Because it can be so hard to surrender at this stage, God allows suffering to help and motivate us to surrender. The dark night of the soul is a personal crisis, usually beginning somewhere in the middle stage of your life, when you are in your 30s or 40s. In the dark night of the soul, past certainties become inadequate and you often question everything you have ever believed up to that point. God uses the dark night to shatter our foolish certainty, tarnish our pride, and summon us to deeper intimacy with Him. When we refuse to give up our pride and our certainty, God allows circumstances to shatter them for us.

In this painful shattering of pride and certainty, we should hear the call to a deeper intimacy with God. As we learn the real truth about ourselves, the way is open to learn deeper truths about God. A psychiatrist once asked me, “What’s the difference between the dark night of the soul and depression?” I said that they can certainly be related, but what I mean by the dark night of the soul is something that comes from God, something that God allows into your life for a spiritual purpose. Depression can be just a chemical problem, something that needs treatment, something that needs getting out of as quickly as possible. But the dark night of the soul is a call from God. It may have a chemical component, but it is more than that.

The dark night of the soul is sometimes precipitated by a stage of life, like when you hit 30 or 40. Sometimes it kicks in as a mid-life crisis. It can involve an external event, like the loss of a loved one, an accident, or being fired at your job. It can likewise be precipitated by an internal event; like cancer, heart disease, or a psychological trauma of some kind. Sometimes it is just the sense that the presence of God in our life isn’t there anymore. Our prayers are simply bouncing off the ceiling. The dark night of the soul is a very painful thing, and it afflicts most or all of us at some point in our lives. If you’re more than 50 years old you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You may even be in that place now.

The only remedies I know for the dark night of the soul are solitude and mentoring. But the only mentoring that really helps is the kind that comes from people who have already been through the dark night of the soul. The stage three people can’t help you now and that is a high percentage of spiritual leaders. It takes a person who has truly suffered to help the suffering. It takes a person who knows darkness to help someone else through the darkness. If you’ve lived with a bright light your whole life you can’t help someone through the darkness. So many of those to whom we looked for help before are inadequate guides for this part of the journey. Those who have been through this stage and know how to do spiritual counseling are unique people and are worth seeking out.

The good news about deep suffering is that it indicates God has a big plan for us. I am not suggesting that God sends the dark night, but that He allows it to happen at this stage because we need it in order to make the decisions that we need to make. When God has big plans for someone, He puts them in the best place so surrender all to Him. The decision is still ours to make, but God uses circumstances to reach out to us and make it as easy as possible to yield our ways to Him.

There are challenges in the dark night of the soul. People are tempted to escape it by going back to stage three. They keep on preaching, keep on teaching, and most people don’t even notice. Yet deep down inside they know in their hearts that God called them and they said no. So there is a certain emptiness and hollowness inside. Other people decide in the dark night of the soul that the whole problem is the church they belong to. It’s the doctrines and practices they were taught as disciples, so they decide to abandon ship. Granted, there are times when changing communities is a positive thing, but as a reaction to the dark night, such a decision can be tragic. The dark night of the soul is a call to go deeper with God, not a call to avoid Him.

That brings me to the surrender points of the dark night. The core point of surrender has to do with a false sense of purpose. In stage three, people have big ambitions for God. They have big plans for their ministry, a sense of purpose, but maybe it was a purpose that was given to them by their parents, or by the local church, or by the larger church. In their time of success they thought they were living God’s purpose, but in the dark night of the soul they realize, “All of that was for me!” It was all about pride! “I wanted to be all I could be for God in order to get recognition.” Related to this surrender point, the dark night of the soul completes our stage 3 surrender of our need for certainty, our need for applause, and the selfish drive for perfection. The outcome of the dark night is that our focus is less and less on ourselves and more and more on God.

Stages of Surrender, Part 7

Stage three is the success stage, the doing stage. This is the stage of faith where people become pastors, Sabbath school teachers, and church elders. They become leaders, not just disciples. They help other people learn what they have learned. At this stage people usually develop a high-level reputation in the community, they win awards and other forms of recognition. At this stage people praise you and you get lots of nice letters, and similar acknowledgements. Most people would think it great if the stages of faith reached the top right there. “I made it now. I’m teaching Sabbath school, I’m good. I’m the pastor, so I’m good. I’m the conference president, so that’s good, nothing to worry about now.” However, that’s not what the New Testament teaches.

With every success comes spiritual challenges. As we have seen already, every stage of faith has its challenges and its points of surrender. Those who stand up front are often motivated by applause, by what other people think of them, and by how others respond to their ministry. They can be stuck in perfectionism. That’s the idea where you don’t just want to be better, but instead you have to be the best. People in Stage Three are often motivated by perfectionism. Like with Stage Two, this is a stage that likes to be right. Being right is one of the motivations that makes people at this stage go. I think you can already see a number of points of surrender related to this stage.

The first point of surrender is the need for applause. Ellen White said of Jesus, “He was never elated by applause nor dejected by censure.” (DA 330) Does that apply to you? Not me. This is a surrender point that I recognize in myself, to surrender the need for applause, the need for perfection. Because when you focus on perfection, the miracle of perfection (whatever that means) can’t happen. You’re trying to grow the blade of grass. You cannot be perfect without a miracle from God in your life. It’s that simple. You can’t make a blade of grass. That is something only God can do. The more you focus on the perfection the less likely that it will happen. When it happens, it is a miracle.

But what about the need for certainty? Isn’t that an important piece of the Christian experience? It is important to be certain of some things. You want to be certain of the cross and that Jesus loves you and the kinds of things where obedience is very important. The problem is that conservative Christians are often certain about everything. If you’re certain about your politics, dietary habits, exercise routine, religion, and how to do your job right; that kind of certainty tells more about you than about God. It’s all about you. And that kind of certainty can get in the way of letting God work. But here is where the issue comes to a head. People in stage three, successful spiritual leaders, don’t take mentoring very well. They have arrived, they’ve made it, and everything is all good. But it isn’t. The reality is that there are still issues there. There is still pride and selfishness. So much of what we do for God in the success stage is subtly driven by our own ambitions and goals, by our desire to please. And because surrender is especially difficult at this stage, God often does the last thing we expected and probably the last thing that we wanted. I call it the dark night of the soul. More on that next time.

Stages of Surrender, Part 6

The second stage of faith is the discipleship stage, when you’re learning about the faith, growing in faith, and discovering what it means to follow Jesus. It is a time to get involved in a faith community, to learn what the community is all about, how to fit in. You explore the community’s belief system, you learn how to practice the community rules. In the discipleship stage, you develop a strong sense of community identity. People at this stage not only join a community, they know that they found the right community. They are confident that “This is where God wants me to be!”

At this stage there is usually a strong sense of being right. That provides assurance of knowing God and confidence in moving forward with God. But the strengths and challenges of each stage are like two sides of a coin. In this stage the self-confidence of being right can lead to being pretty legalistic and judgmental. “If I am right then you must be wrong,” comes easily at this stage. To get stuck in this stage, then, is to get stuck in a very dark place. You can become really rigid in your approach to the faith. There is a lack of flexibility, everything has to be just right. “We have to sing the hymn in just this way, and use only this instrument.” This leads to a black and white, “us versus them” mentality.

These challenges at the level of Stage Two help us identify the surrender points that will help people move forward in faith. One of the things you need to surrender in order to grow at this stage is the need to be right. This may seem at first a dangerous thing to surrender. But think about it: who is the smartest person in the room? Are they closer in smartness to God or to a 2 year old? I would say the smartest person on earth is a lot closer in intelligence to a 2 year old than they are to God. But if human intelligence is much closer to the level of 2 year olds than to God, what was God doing in the Bible? He was writing essentially to 2 year olds. Can you talk to a 2 year old? Of course. Can you tell them about the 7 trumpets of Revelation? I don’t think so. Can you tell them about quantum physics? I don’t think so. You have to get down on your knees, cup their face in your hands, and talk baby talk, right? That’s what God was doing in the scriptures.

The moment we are absolutely certain that we are right about everything, we’re in trouble, because in reality we’re a lot more like 2 year olds than we are like God. And any 2 year old that thinks they’re right about everything is in trouble! I remember when my oldest daughter was 7, the one that just had the baby. She came up to me one day and said, “Daddy, I know everything!” and I said, “Really? That’s interesting. Then tell me something, why is the sky blue?” She thought about it for a bit and said, “Well, I know everything but that!” She was pretty confident. There are times when we need to surrender the need to be right. Because if I am right and everyone else is wrong, there is no need for me to learn. And if I stop learning I stop growing. Even helpful ideas can become a problem if they prevent us from growing, from moving forward spiritually.

There are times when you need to surrender the need to be right, the need to be better than others. As Seventh-Day Adventists, we often have a word of critique for the wider Christian church, recognizing that Christian history is not as pretty as Jesus’ teaching encouraged it to be. When we read Jesus’ teaching we see a beautiful teaching, yet we look at history and wonder how many Christians actually practiced Jesus’ teachings, His self-sacrificing love. Often it’s been inquisitions, crusades, Holocausts, Bosnias, and Rwandas. So it’s not a pretty history. Sometimes you have no choice but to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. However, there is spiritual danger in thinking you’re better than others. It can feed the original and most deadly of sins, pride. There comes a time in our lives to surrender the need to be better than everybody else.

As I write it occurs to me that I struggle with that. I don’t like to make mistakes because that means that somebody else can do what I was doing better. Sounds like the need to be better than others. But if we want to grow spiritually that is something we may need to surrender. The need to be right and to be better than others can block the way to God’s power in our lives.

Stages of Surrender, Part 5

When we have accepted the gospel, we enter into the first stage of the Christian experience, which is acquaintance with God or what I like to call the romance stage. When you first come to Jesus it is such a great experience, somewhat like being in love. There is joy, excitement, a new lease on life. It may not be entirely rational, but it’s just a great feeling to know that God accepts you and that your sins are forgiven. His righteousness is now over you and you have a new life and a new experience.

There is a child-like openness and trust in that new experience. Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Note that He didn’t say “stay” in the kingdom. Childlikeness is a quality that enables entrance, he didn’t say that it is good to stay as children in our relationship with God. He said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot ENTER the kingdom.” What does that mean? At some point you simply have to throw all caution to the wind and say, “I’m not going to make it on my own. God’s offer is my best shot and I’m taking it.” Just say, “Lord, take me as I am, I don’t have anything else to give you. Lord, I’m going to trust you as I have no other way, yours is the only way.” So the first stage of Christian experience requires that kind of childlike trust. We open ourselves up to God, we come to trust Him, either out of positive experience with God (awe) or out of a desperate realization that we have no other hope (need).

But there are challenges for people in the romance stage. A sense of unworthiness comes over you, as you don’t progress as fast as you expected or wanted to. You say to yourself, “Now that I have accepted Jesus, I won’t ever be angry again, I won’t ever overeat again. I’ll never do this, or never do that.” Then you come to the horrifying realization, “Whoops, I did it again!” So a sense of unworthiness can block the way to further growth.

Another challenge in the first stage is that you can get comfortable with ignorance. People in the romance stage often latch on to superstitions, beliefs that just have no basis in reality, yet ring true in their own minds. They might have gotten them from the person who led them to Christ or they might simply have brought them along from their previous life. An example of such a superstition is, “If I don’t have my worship this morning, God will punish me. He will make me sick, or I’ll have an accident.” But that is a very dark picture of God, one not in accord with the God we have come to know in Jesus. If God wanted to be mean he could have gotten rid of us a long time ago. The fact that we’re still here in spite of all we have done means there is still a loving God at the center of the universe. If Satan had his way we would have all been destroyed. God is not watching every moment looking for opportunities to make us sick or send us to the hospital. Superstitious beliefs like this can block one’s way to growth. We obey God out of fear and fear is not a good basis for a relationship. Nevertheless, beliefs like that can be hard to give up. They have become part of identity going all the way back to childhood, they seem as obligatory as the ten commandments.

Surrender is about recognizing what’s blocking the way and saying, “Lord, I’m sick and tired of being stuck here. I need to grow and open myself to the fullness of the relationship you have offered me. I need to go where you want to take me.” So it is important at this stage to surrender two things. The first is a sense of unworthiness. We believe that we are not worthy enough to draw closer to God than we are now. And that unworthiness keeps us from moving forward. Second, a further barrier to growth in the romance stage is a reluctance to leave our comfort zone and risk a new kind of life. We don’t want the romance to end. We want to retain the shallow, giddy relationship with God that is so appropriate at the first stage, yet never lasts long. To believe that the romance should never end is to set ourselves up for failure. A relationship with God that will last for a lifetime needs to be grounded on more than feelings and happy experiences. It needs to be grounded on God’s Word and the rock of correct beliefs about God and salvation. Those that allow God to change them at this point move on to the second stage of the Christian life, which I call the discipleship stage.

Stages of Surrender, Part 2

I had a great-uncle who died a number of years ago and loved to tell this story: He was an engineer in his working days and he attended a convention of engineers once. They were all excited about their latest projects, like building a skyscraper in Los Angeles, or an academic building at a university. They were all excited about the great things that they were building. My great-uncle was the kind of person you might call stubborn, he was on a different page than everybody else. He stood up in the middle of the conference, and announced to everyone, “You’re all talking about this great stuff you’re doing, and I’m not impressed. Not one of you could make a blade of grass.”

Grass doesn’t grow by human effort. You can fertilize it, water it and trim it. But that doesn’t make it grow. The growth is a complete miracle from our perspective. The farmer doesn’t make anything grow. The farmer allows stuff to grow. The mother doesn’t make the baby grow, but instead allows it to grow, through care and feeding. A mother can get in the way of the growth. There are things she can eat or drink, or drugs she can take, that would be very damaging for the baby. But no matter what she does, she cannot make a baby grow. That growth is a miracle: a miracle of God. When grain grows it is a miracle. When grass grows it is a miracle.

And so it is with spiritual things. Spiritual life doesn’t grow by human effort. Spiritual growth is a miracle. No matter how hard we try we cannot make ourselves grow spiritually any more than an engineer can build a blade of grass. This is where surrender comes in. We cannot make ourselves grow spiritually, but we can surrender ourselves to the miracle-working power of God.

I realize the word “surrender” comes with baggage, it can easily be misunderstood. Some people don’t like the word because they think of it in military terms. To them surrender sounds like someone is not free anymore. They are stuck in prison, or have been sent to a slave labor camp. In those terms surrender doesn’t sound like fun. But the military sense is only the root meaning of the word surrender. In the spiritual sense surrender is not about a power differential. Surrender is not about somebody bigger forcing you to do things their way. When a lot of people hear the word surrender they think, “God is going to force me to do it His way.”

But force and coercion is not what surrender in the spiritual sense is about, rather it is simply opening the channel to God’s blessings. Surrender is allowing the power of God to flow into our lives. It is allowing the miracle to occur. Just as a mother has the capacity to harm her baby, and just as the farmer has the capacity to ruin a field, so we all have the capacity to block the miracle when it comes to spiritual growth. And surrender is all about opening the channel of blessing.

Recently my wife and I were visiting Volcanos National Park in Hawaii. There we learned the story about Kilauea Iki, the smaller of two large craters on the outer slopes of Mauna Loa. In the 1950s this crater was 800 feet deep. Then in 1959 a great fountain of lava burst forth. At its most spectacular this fountain of lava reached an altitude of 2000 feet in the air and singed people’s hair at a distance of more than a mile. The constant lava flow began filling up the crater until the lava lake was only 400 feet from the rim of the crater. At that point an interesting thing happened, because the fountain was coming out from the side of the crater rather than spraying in from the top. When the lake reached the level of the opening of the fountain, the lava poured back into the fountain and clogged it up. Because of that the fountain stopped and that means that today you can walk on the hardened surface of the lava lake (which still flows beneath). You can even walk right into where the hot lava was coming out in 1959. It’s safe today and the floor of the crater is cool. Why? There is no danger because the flow of lava has been stopped.

That is sometimes what we do to ourselves spiritually. By hanging onto beliefs or practices the flow of blessing from God stops. Not because God wants it to stop. But because we block the channel, and then the miracle of spiritual growth does not occur. If we can recognize when that is happening and work with God to remove the blockage, the power of God can once again flow freely into our lives. That’s what this series of blogs is all about.

Stages of Surrender

I have to confess that I used to suffer from a very significant disease. You might not have noticed it by looking at me, but if you had lived with me for awhile you probably would have. It has a very special name, and it’s called grandparent-deprivation syndrome. Some of you probably have it too. That is when you have adult children who are married, but you don’t have grandchildren. For a number of years my wife and I were in this condition. It can be quite serious.

One day I was returning home from Florence, Italy, and took a short hop to Frankfurt, Germany. There I got on a 12-hour flight to Los Angeles and sat down in an aisle seat in the center block of seats on a 747. A short while later I saw an older gentleman coming up the aisle, holding the hands of a 2-year old blonde girl who wsa walking in front of him. They came up the aisle, stopped right next to me, and he said, “Sir, you just have won the prize! You get to sit with this young lady for the next 12 hours.” I rather suspect he was trying to deflect a negative reaction, but all I could think of to respond was to rub my hands together and say, “Oh goody!” The whole trip the two of us were making up games and doing all sorts of fun things. It was at that moment that I realized I was suffering from Grandparent Deprivation Syndrome (GDS). And there was only one possible cure.

Knowing this the excitement was great in our home a couple of years ago. We got a call from our oldest daughter asking if we could connect on Skype that night, She said she had a very important announcement. I thought to myself, “I know what this announcement is! She’s going to have a baby, awesome!” As the day went on my wife and I got more and more excited. Then the Skype call came through. Our daughter and her husband were there and she said, “Are you ready for the announcement?” I said yes! And she said, “I was just awarded my counseling license!” Yeah, awesome. I tried to look excited.

Around a year ago, however, we had another Skype call and this time it was the announcement we were waiting for. My daughter and her husband were going to have a baby! That announcement changed our lives. My wife started going on the internet every day to relearn the whole process and see what size the baby must be at each stage. It was all pretty exciting stuff! I was suddenly seeking out other grandparents and discussing their annoying pictures at great length. Everything was changing. Then on April 6, 2014, the baby was born. Six pounds nine ounces and twenty and a half inches long. His name is Julien Johann Clouzet.

But why am I telling you all this, beside the fact that I am now one of those annoying grandparents myself? There is an important spiritual lesson in all this. While Julien was born at a certain size he was not at that size three months before. And he has not stayed that size in the days and weeks afterward. He is eating and eating and growing an growing (great diet program for mom!). Every day he is a little bit bigger. Every week there are features there that were not there before. When it comes to babies, both before and after they are born, it’s all about growth, it’s all about development.

You see, growth is wired into everything in life. If a plant or a creature is alive and healthy, it’s going to grow in some way. It is the same way with spiritual life. In Mark 4:26-28 (NIV) Jesus told a parable. It’s unique to Mark. He said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–  first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” It doesn’t take long to figure out that Jesus isn’t telling this story so we can know more about plants.

Notice a few things here. First there’s development. A healthy person never stays in the same place. A healthy person is always growing in some way. If they are no longer growing physically then they are growing mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. When it comes to spiritual things (the kingdom of God) there is growth, development, and change. The parable tells us that spiritual life is developmental, but there is a second piece to it. Spiritual growth is does not arise from human effort. You don’t grow either physically or spiritually by human effort. My daughter today is not working very hard to make the baby grow. She is working very hard to allow the baby to grow (by feeding and caring for its heeds), but the growth itself is actually a miracle, just as it was when Julien was a fetus. You can’t grow spiritually by trying to. When spiritual growth comes, it is always a miracle.