Q&R: Longing, Striving, Struggling & Surrender? Brad Jersak
I see folks around me working really hard to “press into” doing good works for God, having more time with God, etc, etc. “If I only did A, B or C more, it would all be better.” Their longing drifted towards striving. My question as a faith leader is how to address this. I love people who long for more. But how best might I shepherd and steward that longing?
In other traditions, I see people asking for “mercy gifts.” Instead of striving, they actively do something with their longing. They pray for a gift of faith, or boldness, or whatever. Or they even pray to receive a certain longing they are lacking.
This is such an important question, difficult to answer briefly, but perhaps I can work with four key terms that might bring clarity: longing, striving, struggle and surrender. I will define each in a particular way.
I believe every one of us was made for love—we’re born to receive and experience God’s love. In a Messianic Psalm (42), the composer speaks of his hunger and thirst for God:
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
That longing expresses the cry of every human heart, even when misdirected to “false tables” that can never satisfy our deepest spiritual hunger. And it IS meant to be satisfied. Jesus said to the woman at the well, “… whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14).
It’s important that we don’t make the longing itself a carrot-on-the-stick mark of superspirituality. Some revivalists exhort their people to “get hungry for God!” But Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 55:11, saying, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Take special note of the end: he sates thirst and satisfies hunger “without cost“).
“Striving” in this context describes a fleshly pursuit of our longings rooted in the flesh. In contrast to Isaiah’s invitation, it supposes and imposes a condition, a cost—a transaction—required to experience spiritual satisfaction. In my experience, the preacher and the congregant were co-conspirators in this striving. The preacher could make an industry of re-erecting the veil to the holy of holies (to recreate a craving), then tearing it down at the end of each service (to simulate the spiritual fix). Notice that I’ve reframed this activity from longing to craving and from satisfaction to a ‘fix.’ That’s because striving creates spiritual addicts who flock to spiritual pushers who dispense short-term fixes.
But I would suggest that congregants also need to own the problem. The problem with Jesus’ gospel of grace is that you can’t earn it. Why is that a problem? Because it doesn’t feed our spiritual egos (the flesh) with self-satisfaction or self-righteousness. We can only come with open hands and open mouths to receive the gifts God has for us. And yes, longing is one of those gifts, but only because it keeps us in the posture to continually receive God’s grace.
The old revivalist dynamic was, “God is not here. But he’s waiting just outside the door. So cry out for him, press in for a breakthrough until he shows up.” That sounds too much like the prophets of Baal to me. Instead, we proclaim the message of Jesus, “God IS here! In you. Among you. Open your hearts with gratitude and enjoy God’s presence!” The presupposition is that the wedding banquet has begun and the reception (there’s a metaphor!) features an “open bar” (the Canadian tradition of free drinks).
Now to the realities of our spiritual journey. In our longings for deeper communion with Christ, I recognize that we do experience struggles. Ironically, striving can lead to apathy because it simply wears you down. And so does life, for that matter. We get tired. We get distracted. We stumble. Our hearts wander or become hard or get entangled in worry (all those issues we see in the parable of the Sower and the seed). I get it. I live it. And I want to say that “striving” never gets us out of those pits. It’s the shovel that digs us deeper into trouble, further from communion and rest.
An elderly Jewish Christian I knew and loved told me long ago, “Brad, your biggest struggle is that you struggle.” He saw that my problem was not the need to dig harder to make my way back to God. He saw that I was the one tripping myself over and over. The real struggle I needed to face was how to get out of my own way… how to stop striving and make the lateral move to surrender.
As I mentioned in A More Christlike Way, I have learned a lot about God’s loving care (grace) from 12-step recovery programs. And my biggest takeaway by far has been the principle of surrender. We learn that we are powerless to save ourselves, but there is a loving God who is able to lift us up and restore us. Our part is to cease striving (oh, what a struggle that can be), to be still, and to know that God is able (Psalm 46:10)… in their words, “to surrender our lives and our will to the care of God.”
Surrender means opening our hands to “let go” of striving, to receive and experience the love God has for us (in a myriad of ways), but also, with full hearts, receive whatever commission Christ offers us. That is, surrender is not apathy. It is an orientation to the God whose divine life is given to be shared “for the life of the world.” Jesus said, “Freely you have received. Freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) In modern terms, “pay it forward.”
That said, there is also a someone tricky truth: “It is in giving that you receive.” It can be hard NOT to hear that as a transaction, but Jesus did say, “Blessed are the merciful. They shall receive mercy.” But we won’t mix this up if we remember:
- 1. Before all else, God IS merciful and we don’t need to earn it.
- 2. Knowing and remembering with gratitude that God IS merciful, we offer mercy to others.
- 3. And in paying forward God’s mercy, we experience anew (in that act) the mercy that is already ours.
No striving. It’s just sharing from Christ’s full table. Are you longing for God? Hungry? Thirsty? Come to the Good Table (Jesus). And experience his Goodness, we share it with others. Share what? The invitation to receive and experience God’s love as we are. What does receiving God’s love look like in the real world? And what does sharing God’s love look like in our actual lives? Stay tuned. I’ll follow up in due time.
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