REVIEW for RELIGIOUS, Vol. 52: 842-848, Nov./Dec., 1993
The Spirituality of Surrender
By John P. Mossi
Losing, whether it is losing a friendly bet, an important argument, or a business contract, is a difficult to swallow. We detest losing. The same is true for any diehard sports fan who endures a hometown rout. We walk away replaying the game, blaming the unfair referees , or creating strategies that “would have” favorably altered the score.
When the defeat entails greater stakes, there is higher resistance to a surrender. To address a serious problem like addiction is personally painful. Implicit in such reality is a pervasive sense of failure. One has lost control over life’s direction. The only way to regain control is to surrender what has not worked and seek a new way. This process is replete with difficulty.
This article will examine the spirituality of surrender as a means of coming home to God (1). Surrendering to God will be looked at in three ways. The first involves an understanding of how surrender is operative in twelve-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The second involves a look at the life of Ignatius of Loyola and the surrender components of the final prayer of the Spiritual Exercises, the “Suscipe,” or “Take and Receive.” The third considers Jesus’ act of surrender on the cross in Luke 23:46. Each of these three different “ways” of surrendering involves putting our ultimate identity and confidence in God.
LET GO, LET GOD
At Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or twelve-step recovery retreats, the expression “Let go, let God” is often used. These four important words constitute the core spirituality of A.A. and similar recovery programs that have adapted the twelve steps to their particular addiction. “Let go, let God” is an invitation to surrender one’s unmanageable life to God.
“Let go, let God” is a gentle conversion reminder, a kind of mantra, which assists us both to admit the addiction and to hand it over along with its various forms of compulsions to God. The long form of the prayer would be something like “Let go of alcohol (or whatever the specific substance or non substance addiction might be) and let the hand and grace of God guide my life.”
The prayer is not magic. Saying “Let go, let God” does not instantaneously bring about recovery. Its first purpose is to assist the recovering addict to keep the daily partnership task of surrendering the addiction to God. The second purpose of “Let go, let God” is to be a prayer of liberation, to call on the greater power of God to help one escape from destructive lifestyle patterns. In this way the creative resources of the individual and the action of God are focused on together. The prayer also serves to silence those addiction-related inner-committee tapes and voices of doubt, loneliness, fear, and caustic shame that can interfere with a person’s slow recovery. These, too, need to be handed over to God.
I have the greatest admiration for all who enter the surrender process of a twelve-step program. For many, it is the difference between death and life, the difference between barely existing as a human and participating in community, between dysfunctionalism and experiencing the serenity that only God gives with amazing grace.
The first three steps of Anonymous programs set up this “Let go let God” dynamic. The language of the twelve steps is straightforward and simple. This is part of their wisdom and wide appeal. The steps make sense to a lot of people. Since A.A. began in 1935 at Akron, Ohio, Anonymous recovery programs have multiplied to treat various forms of addiction (2). These include Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics.
Let us examine these first three steps.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (or the other specific addiction) – that our lives had become unmanageable (3).
The first step is crucial. You admit you have a serious problem. There is no denial of the fact. The blunt reality is your life is out of control, in fact, unmanageable. Furthermore, you are powerless to do anything about it.
At Anonymous meetings, this first step is handled in an up front manner. When members speak, they state their first name and their addictiveness: “I’m John. I’m an alcoholic.” “I’m Susan. I’m a recovering overeater.” In formal religion we might refer to this acknowledgment as group confession. In recovery programs it is simply admitting what can no longer be denied. Step one is an honest, vulnerable beginning place. Owning and naming the unmanageable addiction is essential to the surrendering process. When one is aware of a specific uncontrollable disease, one can effectively pray “Let go.”
But to whom does one surrender? Steps two and three look at the second part of the mantra: “Let God.” God is the significant associate in restoring harmony. To appreciate the spirituality of the twelve steps, it is important to reflect that the existence and action of God are mentioned seven times in the twelve steps. The particular addiction is only mentioned once, and that is in the first step. The activity of surrendering one’s addiction and life to God becomes the spirituality cornerstone of the remaining steps.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity (4).
Step two admits the need of an outside corrective authority, a Higher Power, to bring about a stability in one’s life. This is the first glimpse of light that invites God in as the restorer of sanity.
There are two other important spirituality elements operative in the second step: 1. The belief that a Higher Wisdom exists and, 2. a disposition of humility on the part of the believer. These two qualities counter culturally work against the arrogance of the ego that craves to cling to the addiction. Step two indicates that the recovery process entails an attentive listening to a new Teacher, which means that the addict has to take on the attitude of learner. There is a major shift in trust: from addiction to God.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him (5).
Step three is where the capitulation actually occurs. First, a concrete decision to surrender has to be made. Second, this decision is total. It includes the will making conscious choices, and it affects one’s entire being and journey. Third, the whole person is placed in the care of God according to the individual faith background.
The spirituality of “Let go, let God” is a conversion process. Conversion of its nature has two basic movements: the surrendering of the compulsion, shame, and destructive addictive patterns which reduce freedom; the turning to the care of God and the Holy Spirit to be one’s permanent resources of wisdom and identity.
Matthew 11:28-30 speaks of a “letting go, letting God” process: “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light” (6). These three verses contain the confirmation signs that accompany a true surrender. A learning will occur, the process will be gentle and humble. Rest will be experienced. A new relationship arises, a companionship with the Master, which will be non addictive, easy, and light.
The Surrender of Ignatius of Loyola
Another way of surrendering one’s life to God comes from the spirituality of Ignatius’s surrender as expressed in his prayer the “Suscipe,” or “Take and Receive.” On his pilgrim journey Ignatius was called to surrender on several notable occasions. The first was during the defense of the city of Pamplona, Spain. In 1521 Ignatius, wounded by cannon shrapnel, reviewed the illusions of his life as sober death approached. But he did not die. His long convalescence became a conversion process. He gradually yielded up his stubborn self-preoccupation, bravado, and ambition and began to discover a new self in God (7).
The spirituality record of Ignatius’s surrender to God is found in his classic work, the Spiritual Exercises. Today, 450 years after its first published edition, it is still considered a significant theological work noted for its integration of Scripture, guidelines for discernment, sense of mission, and themes of justice. The Exercises’ developmental stages of growth in discipleship and intimacy enable a person to come home to God.
The last prayer of the Exercises is called the “Suscipe” or “Take and Receive.” I invite you to spend some time contemplating the components of the prayer. What is Ignatius, the once vain soldier-at-arms, now a mystic, asking us to do?
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will – all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me (8).
The “Suscipe” is a deceptively profound prayer. It invites us to acknowledge the primacy of God in our totality; it answers the humbling question What aspect of our being is not a gift of God?” In the light of this answer, Ignatius invites us to surrender all to God. The last part of the prayer is a seeking of the purer gifts: “Give me only your love and grace. That is enough for me.” Ignatius does not compromise in the process of “letting go of self and letting God in.”
I recall a forceful experience in praying the “Suscipe.” It happened fifteen years ago during a retreat. I attempted to pray and could not. I realized I had not surrendered anything, certainly not my liberty, memory, understanding, and will to anyone, much less to God. I told my director that I could not pray this prayer at all. As a consequence, I seriously questioned remaining a Jesuit. The director gave me sage advice. He invited me to return to the chapel and pray the “Suscipe” with my own words in my own way.
I prayed, “Lord, I give you my sins which I know so well; those many areas of my life where I am not obedient, poor, and chaste. I give you my pride, my negativity, my hatred and vindictiveness, my compulsive rebellion and addictiveness to self. I am overtly familiar with these dark recesses. And I truly need to surrender these to you. Send forth your Holy Spirit to guide, anoint, and heal with a love that I am most in need of, your grace.”
Like an ambush, the opportunity to surrender can appear at unlikely moments. Do not let the occasion pass by. The benefit of letting God in always outweighs whatever is surrendered.
Jesus on the Cross
We turn to the spirituality of Jesus and the particular way he has taught us to surrender. He, too, had to face a special moment of surrender. His prayer in Luke 23:46 is a powerful expression of letting go: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (9). Here on the cross Jesus is still the master teacher. He models for us how to pray and hand over our daily experiences and our life to God. Notice the key elements: (1) The prayer is addressed to the Father; (2) Jesus urges us to surrender, to commend, to let go; (3) Jesus specifies what is to be handed over. He gives what little is left, his spirit and last breath.
In the daily minor or major surrenders of our own pilgrimage, we can pray in the spirituality of either the twelve steps, Ignatius, or Jesus. Specify in the “Let go, let God” mantra and the “Suscipe” whatever needs are to be named and yielded: “Let go of addiction and manipulation. Let God in.” “Take, Lord, my dishonesty, my hurts, my doubts and sinfulness.” God can handle and work with these blighted areas quite well.
Adapt the prayer of Jesus to your immediate concerns: “Father, into your hands I commit my grief, my sense of failure, my disappointment, my pettiness and vulnerability….”Commend these regions of brokenness to the higher compassion and understanding of God.
It is clear that not only our joys but also our sorrows must be offered to God. Our ability to be powerless allows God to meet us and tenderly heal us on our journey, embracing us as we truly are. Moreover, the art of surrendering involves a lifelong process. Some days we succeed better than others. If we postpone learning the spirituality of surrender, we will face it unprepared at death, when the surrender is sudden. Perhaps we can learn to surrender to the care, to the heart, of God in advance.
(1) For more information on this topic , see Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 162-181.
(2) Ernest Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, Minn.; Hazeldon, 1991), pp. 37-57.
(3) Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1952), p. 21.
(4) Ibid, P. 25.
(5) Ibid, P. 34.
(6) The New Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1985).
(7) St. Ignatius’ Own Story, trans. William J. Young SJ (Chicago: Henry Regnery co., 1956), pp. 7-27.
(8) David L. Flemming SJ, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980), p. 141.
(9) The New Jerusalem Bible.