One summer evening when I was 19, a conversation changed my life.
I had just finished my sophomore year of college. Three of my best friends and I were on board a student ship heading to Europe for a big adventure. I began to chat with a fellow passenger who shared with me that he was a Christian and asked if I was. I answered, “I think I am. I hope I am.” And thus began an extended conversation in which he explained the gospel to me.
I had always believed in Christ but did not understand that he could be real and present in me. I had been living on an inherited faith. Now I realized I needed Christ to come into my life personally, to take control. Asking him to come into my heart was a turning point.
When I returned to my college campus, I had many questions but was sure about one thing: I was going to succeed in the Christian life. Driven, generally successful, and goal-oriented, I burst forth with determined grit to flourish in my new commitment.
But the harder I tried, the more miserable I became. Finally, I wrote to the friend who shared the gospel with me: “I admire you, but I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I’m more miserable than I was before I prayed that prayer.”
But the harder I tried, the more miserable I became.
Not expecting an answer, I was surprised to hear back immediately: “Susan, that’s exactly the point. You can’t do this. You can’t grow in Christ on your own. It’s something God will do in you. You need to relax and let him do the work.” For my accomplishment-oriented personality, coming to terms with my insufficiency was both humbling and relieving. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn repeatedly in each new season of life.
We had five children in seven years, including a set of twins. When the twins were six weeks old, we moved to a new state. I was sleep-deprived, lonely, and felt like a failure as a wife, mother, and ministry partner. It was all I could do to stagger through the day.
I cried out to the Lord, “I can’t do this.” And he heard my cry. God began to show me that my self-image had once again become based on my sense of accomplishment—and I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I needed to relearn that God loves me simply because I belong to him. Period. Not because of what I do or don’t do.
Today our children are grown. All five are married with families of their own, and we have 21 grandchildren. Yet in each season—from parenting teens, to the empty nest, to adult kids and grandkids—I’ve had to rediscover the wisdom of surrendering.
When I come to the place of I can’t but you can, Lord, I surrender my stubborn self-sufficiency and once again become dependent upon the Lord. I begin to grow deeper and to see more glimpses of just how big he is. Three things have helped me grow deeper and see bigger.
1. Distinguish Between Natural Growth and Spiritual Growth
Throughout life, we grow on two parallel tracks. Both are good and both are necessary, but they are completely different. The goal of natural growth is to become a self-sufficient, thoughtful, responsible adult. So we train our kids to work hard and accomplish goals in keeping with their abilities. We want them to become confident adults.
Spiritual growth, on the other hand, involves becoming more dependent on God. This is humbling yet crucial. It involves surrender, saying, “I can’t, but you can.” We get into trouble when we try to grow spiritually by using the same means we use to grow naturally.
We get into trouble when we try to grow spiritually by using the same means we use to grow naturally.
2. Delight in the Beauty of Process and Presence
Progress and product describe natural growth. Progress looks for steady movement toward a goal, and product looks for tangible results. Both are important. Yet we must guard against the trap of using progress and product to determine our self-worth. God is more concerned about process—what we are learning about him as we grow in dependence upon him. He doesn’t demand that we produce results. He desires that we increasingly sense his presence. God is infinitely patient and wants us to enjoy him.
3. Discover that God Is Much Bigger than Our Experience.
At every season, we have big concerns: children, career, financial pressures, etc. We pray about these issues. But it’s easy for a concern to become bigger in our minds than God. We need to focus more on who he is than on our troubles.
Reciting out loud God’s character traits helps us turn our thoughts from our problems and back onto how very big he is. This practice can be life-transforming, bringing perspective. I encourage you to read God’s Word and underline his character traits. Psalms and Ephesians 1 particularly encourage me. His Word is infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, the same strong power that raised Jesus from the dead.
When I was younger, I’d notice an older, godly woman and think: One day I’ll be like her—able to completely trust God. One day I’ll get there. Let me assure you, you will never get there. So, release that pressure. We will never get to the place of complete trust on this side of heaven. While we may long for a higher plane, God wants to take us to a deeper level of dependence.