There are any number of classic old hymns that I can sing with wholehearted gusto and zeal: “Amazing Grace.” “How Great Thou Art.” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
There are some beloved church favorites, however, that I struggle with. A few weeks ago in church, for instance, we sang Judson W. Van DeVenter’s 1896 hymn “I Surrender All.”
I love the intentionality that this hymn proclaims: “I surrender all, I surrender all,” the chorus says. “All to Thee, my bless’d Savior, I surrender all.” The problem is this: After 25 years of walking with Jesus, I’ve learned the hard way that even my most earnest, impassioned, well-intentioned attempts to “surrender all” eventually fall short. How many times have I sought to lay a deep struggle on the altar only to falter minutes or a few hours after so passionately doing so?
And so I have a hard time singing those words, because I know that a more honest version might go something like this: “I surrender … some.”
I think both Peter and Paul might have had similar experiences with this hymn, though for different reasons, had it been around for them to sing. Peter, of course, probably would have belted it out at the top of his voice. He was, after all, the disciple who proclaimed to Jesus on the eve of His crucifixion, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Mt. 26:33). A few short verses later, Peter has abandoned his Lord, who’s been taken into the custody of the Jewish religious leaders. We read in v. 58, “But Peter followed him at a distance …” Shortly thereafter, three quick and vehement denials would follow. How well intended Peter’s loyalty was! How far short he fell!
And then there’s Paul. In Romans 7 we read his famous description of the war between the two natures. “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25).
I can relate to Paul’s words here. There’s a part of me that genuinely longs to walk with Jesus. And there’s another part of me that, like a stubborn prodigal, insists on doing things Sinatra-style: my way. And so I wander away. I’m reminded of Robert Robinson’s classic hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which includes the lines, “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter/Bind my wandering heart to Thee/Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love/Here’s my heart, O take and seal it/Seal it for Thy courts above.”
So what then are we wandering prodigals to do? Do we give up on this surrender business altogether, proclaim it dishonest and unrealistic and stop singing about our good intentions to “surrender all?”
I don’t think so. I think what we must do instead is to remember that even our best-intended attempts to lay it all before God must be grounded in the reality that our imperfect and repeated surrenders are all utterly dependent upon Jesus’ saving and sanctifying work on our behalf.
In John 15:1-5, Jesus teaches, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
There’s much that we could unpack in these few verses, including the paradoxical tension between our responsibility to “remain” and Jesus’ promise to bear fruit through us when we do so. But I take heart in the fact that Jesus promises that He’s already made us clean, and that it’s not ultimately about me or my performance: “Apart from me you can do nothing,” He says.
So even when I feel like “I surrender some” is the best I can do, Jesus keeps beckoning me to follow Him—not at a distance, but right next to Him. It’s an invitation I can keep accepting, regardless of how many times I stumble, because He has already made me clean and He is at work within me — and you — to transform us from stubborn prodigals into those who’ve slowly learned that surrender isn’t a one-time event, but something we keep working on with Him every day of our lives.