Be still: surrender over striving
When I signed onto Facebook this week, I found a private message from someone who told me that a Life Lines column I had written about surrender eight years ago had been instrumental in helping her “let go and let God” in the midst of her struggle back then, and again even now as she faced new challenges. I have to admit that not only was I humbled, but I went to my own website and tried to find what words I might have written that had made such an impact, because, Lord knows, I could use some advice on how to surrender.
We tend to hear the word “surrender” and imagine failure or weakness, but, in reality, surrender is often the most challenging but ultimately satisfying path. We are taught to strive, to achieve, to keep on keeping on until we just can’t physically do it anymore. But our faith asks us to take a different path, to loosen our grip, to let go of the reins, and let God be God. It’s not easy. Okay, sometimes it feels downright impossible, and yet, if we keep coming back to this idea, this teaching, we find that, over time, it begins to feel more natural, more comfortable, a little bit like home.
A few months ago, when I was giving a retreat in Maryland, I opened the Bible to Psalm 46, since my focus would be on the famous line: “Be still and know that I am God.” But when I placed the book on my table, I noticed that this translation said: “Stop fighting and know that I am God.” I stopped in my tracks and did a little groan out loud. This was not what I wanted. I started searching for the “right” translation, aka, the one I like. Instead, I came upon the translation from the New American Standard Bible and suddenly everything I thought I knew about this Scripture verse fell into place:
“Cease striving and know that I am God…,” it said.
Wait. What? This is very different from just being still. It’s a whole other reality, one that doesn’t fit into our modern mindset. What would it mean to stop striving? Who would I be if I didn’t strive to maintain control, trying to bend God to my will instead of the other way around? As it turns out, I’d be much closer to the person God meant me to be if I just released the need to control. Surrender doesn’t lead to defeat; it leads to freedom.
When I shared this news with the folks on two different retreats in recent months, I could see the light bulbs go off. It was an Aha! moment for them, just as it was for me. “Be still and know…” sounds so calm, so passive, but “Stop striving…” is a whole different ball of wax. We don’t just sit and wait for something to come to us; we actively stop doing the things that are getting between us and God.
“Only when I surrender myself completely to God’s love can I expect to be free from endless distractions, ready to hear the voice of love, and able to recognize my own unique call,” wrote theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen in The Road to Daybreak.
“It’s going to be a very long road. Every time I pray, I feel the struggle. It is the struggle of letting God be the God of my whole being. It is the struggle to trust that true freedom lies hidden in total surrender to God’s love.”
What would happen if you didn’t just choose to be still but chose to stop striving? Would the earth stop spinning? Would your world turn upside down? Or maybe, just maybe, would everything finally be exactly as it was meant to be? Stop striving, and let God do what only God can do.
This column originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2021, issue of Catholic New York.