Surrender or Struggle?

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National debt, global debt, economic chaos, houses valued at levels that belong to the last century, no prospect of economic improvements for the better part of another decade, the imminent collapse of the Eurozone, massive unemployment, pirates in our oceans, chaos in the Middle East, an Arab spring that seems to be breaking bad, instability in Eurasia fueled by nuclear contingencies and terrorist violence, a Middle East peace process that has moved from stagnation to chaos, gridlock in government, debates without deliberation, campaigning without government, politics without statecraft—and those are just the (relatively) new threats to the well-being of our globe. And then there are the millions of personal stories of crisis shaped by those events and others. Anxious, depressed, or fearful yet?

Focusing on the looming (continuing?) recession in a recent article, CNN's John Blake describes the work of Richard Rohr and, in particular, his book, Falling Upward. Rohr, he observes, is distressed by our failure to listen to the elderly and we do so at our own expense. And he thinks that if we listened, we would learn a lot.

According to Rohr, the elderly are the ones who are more likely to have acquired the wisdom that will enable us to survive hard times. In particular, he notes, the elderly learn to let go. They let go of the need to succeed, to control, and the need to make life do what they thought it would do. Central to that effort is a deeper letting go of our false selves—the definitions of their lives that gave them a sense of belonging and importance. If we can learn to do this, Rohr argues, we can navigate hard times.

On one level, I couldn't agree more. When life's circumstances strip us of the familiar, our dreams, a sense of security, or comfortable certainties, the wisdom of letting go can be an enormous gift. And there is no more difficult task than letting go of our need to have a certain life, live out of a certain role, and make it all fit. When a crisis challenges our self-understanding, it is time to realize that we are more than our roles and titles. We are beloved children of God. Letting go to discover that can be a liberating gift.

But as Edgar Nace, a friend and psychiatrist notes, the language of "false selves" can be also misleading. The roles that we assign to ourselves often represent our aspirations to be a better, nobler, and stronger version ourselves. To run from those aspirations, then, can be a flight from the spiritual and moral challenge that they enshrine.

So, in hard times, how do we distinguish between these two very different kinds of letting go? The answer, I believes lies in recognizing an even more fundamental spiritual truth:

Destructive attachment lies in refusal to trust God. If the vision that motivates you is more important to you than God, you may need to let go. If you are grieving the same loss—over and over again—it may be time to walk away from the grave.

But if you sense that in letting go that you are taking the easy way out—if you are spiritualizing surrender—then what God may need from you is perseverance and bold effort.

Grasping, fearful clinging to a world lost or, worse yet, unyielding insistence on childish dreams can keep us from ever growing up—or down into God. But painting surrender as deep wisdom is spiritual treachery and dereliction.

Hard times and hard places can alert us to attachments and expectations that are spiritually seductive. As Rohr observes, we can discover that we lack the ability to trust God's love for us.

But hard times and places can teach us that we don't yet know how to trust God. They can teach us that we mistakenly assumed that the ease with which we lived was evidence or a sign of God's love. And, harder yet, we can discover that our trust in God was thin and superficial—something that withered in the harsh, hot light of life's tough, unforgiving places.

Acceptance, then, is only one of the lessons that the second half of life has to teach us. Perseverance and courage are among the others.

How do we know which lesson we are being taught? That, I think, is the wrong question. The right question is: Which lesson do we need to learn?

9/25/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • The Spiritual Landscape
  • Christianity
  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: