Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.