Several years ago, I met with a spiritual mentor with whom I shared an ongoing battle with a particular sin. We had been meeting every month for over a year, yet I was still tempted by the same sin. I didn’t feel like I was making any spiritual progress! I asked her, “When will I stop battling this sin?” She wisely responded, “When you stop battling, you will have lost.”
I was reminded of this conversation recently when I read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. It’s challenging and in many ways discouraging. In his most famous sermon, Jesus lays out what it looks like to honor God with our lives.
“You say ‘you must not murder,’ but I say even if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment.”
He then follows the same pattern with adultery, defining it not just by what we do with our bodies but what we do with our hearts. On He goes, calling out our sins of pride, judgment, worry, greed, deceit, hypocrisy, and revenge. In essence, He’s saying, “You think your rules are tough? Let me make them ten times more difficult to follow.” By the end of this sermon, what honest man or woman could possibly stand as a righteous person?
Maybe that was the point. Not simply to call us to an impossible standard of holy perfection, but to show us our inability to achieve it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was paving the way for the only way to holiness … surrender.
When You’re Ready to Give Up
Have you ever felt discouraged by your failure to live up to God’s perfect standard? Do you vow to run from lust, gossip, hypocrisy, pride, or worry only to find yourself falling into it once again? Welcome to the Christian life. The great apostle Paul experienced exactly the anguish we often experience:
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate … I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”
I lived much of my early Christian life with this great burden … wanting to do what is right but falling repeatedly into sin and hating myself for it. I tried harder to please God, but it seldom worked.
Most Christians are stuck in this depressing demise. Is this where God wants us to be? If Jesus died to set us free, why do we still feel like slaves?
From Defeat to Victory
Paul’s anguished words above are from Romans 7. In the chapter that follows, we find some of the most encouraging, triumphant passages in the whole Bible. In Romans 8, we learn that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus and that nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus. We are told that both the Holy Spirit and Jesus intercede for us. Just let that sink in for a moment!
So what’s the difference between the discouragement of Romans 7 and victory in Romans 8? And perhaps more personally, how can you make the transition Paul made in his life? The secret is simply this: working hard to please God vs. totally surrendering to God’s work within you.
Here’s the truth: we cannot make ourselves holy, even after our salvation. No amount of effort or willpower can expunge sin from our hearts. Only the dwelling of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit can save us from our sin, our shame, and the lies we gravitate toward.
You cannot love your husband without Him.
You cannot live with integrity without Him.
You cannot fully forgive without Him.
You cannot resist sexual temptation without Him.
You cannot maintain joy without Him.
You cannot bless your enemy without Him.
Andrew Murray wrote, “Your religious life is every day to be a proof that God works impossibilities; your religious life is to be a series of impossibilities made possible and actual by God’s almighty power.”
What Do I Do?
It may sound crazy, but stop trying so hard to be “good” and instead focus on surrender. Lay down your efforts of self-control and self-improvement and give your life totally and completely to the work of God. You have one job … it is to surrender. This means you come before God empty and desperate, no longer trying to impress Him with your efforts of reform. It’s the difference between a teenager negotiating for the car keys with good behavior and a child simply crying out for help and comfort.
Trying harder is easier to explain than surrender. How do you surrender? While there is no formula, here are some practical aspects of surrender:
- The end of negotiation and a willingness to do whatever God asks. Trying harder is spending less time on social media because it triggers you to sin. Surrender is deleting your accounts.
- The recognition that only Jesus can change your heart. In moments of struggle, I quote Jude 24 “to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you unblemished in His glorious presence …”
- Hard work is usually motivated by fear—fear of failure, sin, consequences, and rejection. Surrender is motivated by love and gratitude. There is no fear in surrender. I want Jesus to have ALL of me!
Sin loses its hold on us only when we are captured by something more powerful.
I was recently talking with a close friend who has been a Christian for most of her life. She was sharing about a new level of intimacy and love for God. “Juli, why didn’t I see this before? Why do all of the Christians I know not have this joy? This freedom? This love for God? How are we missing this?”
I totally understood what she was asking. There is so much more to the Christian life than a “get out of hell” card and obeying the Christian “rules.” Jesus offers us the power and peace that comes from true intimacy and fellowship with Him. Yet our hearts cannot be full of God and full of ourselves at the same time. Only something that is dead can be resurrected. We refuse to die to ourselves, and instead stubbornly try to honor Him with our strength and resolve.
Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” Over the past decade, I have learned that all of my work is done in morning worship and surrender.
The moment I wake up, I must die so that I can truly live. The day will be walked out either in my flesh with my priorities, or it will be lived with the most important battle already won.
A Prayer of Surrender
Lord Jesus, I offer myself to you today. Let me be a vessel filled with your truth, love, and power. I lay down my agenda to be available for your work. I lay down my ideas, to be led by your Spirit. I lay down my sin to be filled with your holiness.
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