Abandoning “Surrender” Language in Worship Songs

Zac HicksUncategorized0 Comments

*NOTE: This post was written in 2014, but it no longer appears on the site to which it was originally published, so I’ve republished it here.

Second Great Awakening Spirituality

The idea of “surrender” is prominent in evangelical spirituality. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, it became a leading metaphor to summarize the conversion experience. Preachers would urge the unconverted to “give up and surrender to Jesus.” One of the songs that continues to get airplay as an “old hymn” today, “I Surrender All,” emerged out of the spiritual climate heavily influenced by the leading metaphor of surrender:

All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.

I surrender all, I surrender all,
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

Written in 1896 (enough time after the Second Great Awakening for its spirituality to have been codified and promulgated), hymn writer Judson W. Van DeVenter recounts that this song emerged from a pivotal moment in his life when he gave up the idea of pursuing the arts for the sake of becoming an evangelist. It’s interesting to note that this song, though often used to encourage non-Christians to receive Christ during the altar call (read my thoughts about that here), did not emerge out of the context of conversion.

Since the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals have largely preserved the “surrender” motif as a leading metaphor for both conversion and the ongoing life. We hear it in Hillsong’s recently popular, “Mighty to Save,” in the second verse:

I give my life to follow
Everything I believe in
Now I surrender

Jesus Culture’s “I Surrender” says in its Chorus: 

All to You, I surrender
Everything, every part of me
All to You, I surrender
All of my dreams, all of me
I surrender

In fact, just in my own iTunes collection, the word “surrender” appears in the titles among eleven different worship artists. In this post, I want to voice a concern and encourage worship leaders to think more critically about the surrender-language we employ and the way we employ it. 

Surrender’s Tricky Double-Meaning

“Surrender” is one of those interesting English words that has a double-meaning, and contained in these two meanings are two very different understandings of how our relationship with God works. If I can put it this bluntly, one reading ultimately ends in death and the other in life. I’d like to describe them in terms of what I will call “active surrender” versus “passive surrender.”

“Active surrender” is what the Second Great Awakening was most often referring to and what a lot of worship songs mean when they say, “I surrender.” It is a willful choice to relinquish control, rights, or property. It means, “God, I have stuff [ideas, plans, possessions, objectives], and I give them over to You for You to take and do with them what You will.” And, this idea of surrender is a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s part of sphere of thought of what liturgists often call “consecration,” which is devoting oneself over to God’s use (“Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee”). Active surrender, as a response to the gospel, is a beautiful thing, but we must say clearly that in that moment the focus is on me and what I do for God.

“Passive surrender” is what we think of in conjunction with war or battle. It’s that “give up” moment where your back is against the wall. It’s where the hound of heaven has successfully tracked you down and cornered you. No more running. No more hiding. No more outsmarting. The gig is up. Checkmate. You lose.

Now, of course, the lines between active and passive surrender are more blurred than I’m describing them. When you’re pinned up in a corner, raising your white flag, you are in a sense actively giving up control over your situation. And often times, accompanying the passive “give up” moment is an active “okay, now I’m joining your team” kind of sentiment. But hang with me, and hear my concern.

Surrender Language and the Gospel

A lot of our surrender language can undermine the gospel’s powerful Word to us if we’re not wise in how we employ it in the context of worship. To put it bluntly, if ideas of active surrender do not follow the gospel, but precede it, they neuter the raw power of the reality that we are (ongoingly) saved by grace, not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Too often, active “surrender” language is used in worship songs and worship contexts in such a way that we actually end up praising ourselves more than Jesus. We’ve once again “curved inward” (Augustine’s and Luther’s idea of incurvatus in se) and begun that self-absorbed naval gazing: “Look at me! Look at what I’m doing for God! Look at what I’m giving up! Yay me!” I and others have called this kind of spirituality “triumphalism.” Think of worship songs that sing, “I’m living for You,” “I’m giving it up for you,” “I’m giving it all away.” It’s a “yes I can” approach to me and Jesus.

We must understand that as human beings, each one of us, because of original sin, has a short-circuit in God’s original wiring that bypasses the truth about our depravity and jumps straight to our ability. In other words, you and I are addicted to our own self-justification. Even seemingly innocent “surrender” language can become a moment where we unconsciously say, “I can do this; It’s my turn now, God. Your grace has brought me safe thus far, but I can lead me home.”

But it gets even trickier than this, because passive “surrender” is actually something we need to experience before we hear the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus. We need that gracious, wrecking word that says, “You can do nothing. You have nowhere to hide. Your fig-leafish attempts to cover your nakedness are pointless.” (“Naked come to Thee for dress; helpless look to Thee for grace / Foul I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”)

The idea of passive surrender is very biblical. The end of Psalm 5, for instance, sings, “Surely, LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.” I purposefully use the NIV because of how it translates a key Hebrew word, atar—“surround.” It’s the same word used in 1 Samuel 23:26 for when a hostile force was closing in on David to kill him. God has drawn surrender out of you, because His tanks and guns are all aimed at your head with the declaration, “You are guilty, and you must die.” And this is precisely the word we need before we are able to hear the glorious declaration, “BUT…Jesus paid it all.” Passive surrender forces our eyes outward and upward instead of downward and inward.

My concern, though, is that even our attempts to try to properly articulate and express passive surrender will easily collapse into unhealthy active surrender ideas because of how we’re wired. We are absolutely addicted to active surrender because it makes us feel good about ourselves. It puts some of the power and control for our growth in the Christian life back on our shoulders. It gives us an opportunity to claim ownership over at least some of the fruit we’ve been producing. But the irony of this is that, in doing so, we cut ourselves off from the life-water that actually causes our fruit to grow—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, because of this addiction, even our best attempts to employ and qualify passive surrender language can get lost in translation and heard as active surrender.

How Shall We Then Surrender? Maybe We Don’t

In light of this, and in light of the fact that most of our worship songs pump the glories of active surrender, evangelicalism probably needs to be weaned off surrender language, at least for a time. I would discourage abundant use of the metaphor in our worship and only wise, selective, discriminant placement of such expression (if we must) well after strong, bold declarations of the finished work of Christ. Because the word is so tricky, and because we are so addicted to our own self-justification, we could also fool our hearts into taking passive surrender language as active, so I’d be very cautious about engaging the word and its ideas before the gospel is actively proclaimed and declared. Furthermore, a cursory search of the English word “surrender” in the NIV shows only 15 instances in the whole Bible, none of which are (a) in the Psalms, and (b) used in a context of how God’s people relate to Him. That’s not insignificant.

The Only Real Surrender-er

The truth is that you and I are horrible surrender-ers. We don’t really surrender our lives to God with as much wholeheartedness, conviction, and forthrightness as we sometimes think. To make matters worse, when we find ourselves in a moment of “genuine” consecration and giving up of ourselves, we almost immediately and instinctively begin to feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back. We are sick and diseased. Our only hope comes when we look to the Man who really did “surrender it all” to God, for us and for our salvation. He made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2).

If I’m honest, I can’t in good conscience say “I surrender all” to Jesus. What I can say, sing, even shout is, “Jesus surrendered all for me.” Not to us, not to us, but to Your name be the glory.

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