Learn to follow the movements of grace, and thou wilt know how easy is the law of Christ; for it will carry thee rather than thou it.— St. Claude de la Colombière, The Spiritual Retreat
When I was in college, I taught swimming lessons for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Every session with new swimmers would begin the same way. After a hesitant slip into the pool, my beginner students would hold on to the edge with white-knuckled little hands, shivering and scared, but with wide, wary eyes they signaled a great desire to break free of the wall. They wanted so desperately to glide across that pool with their arms outstretched and their legs strong and free. Only one thing held them back: fear.
One at a time, I would coax those little ones out into the water with me, and they would wrap their arms around my neck and cling for dear life. It never failed that the most challenging skill to teach them was to float on their backs. I’d hold out my hand and gently encourage a student to turn over, tilting his head back against the surface of the water, with his legs outstretched, but relaxed, and I would support him gently beneath the small of his back, coaxing him to surrender his fears and his need to be in control, that he might relax upon the surface of the water.
To say that effort was an exercise in patience would be an understatement. But finally, there came a moment, a turning point, if you will. From that point, a student could make considerable progress. That moment came precisely when my student realized that he could get along much better in the water by surrendering his control, by allowing his body to rest comfortably amid the gentle sway of the water, trusting that my hand would stay securely beneath him as long as necessary, until he could begin to work with me toward all the other skills he sought to acquire.
One day when I was frustrated by my inability to make progress in the spiritual life, I realized that those of us who struggle are like those new swimmers I worked with so long ago. This is especially true when we think our environment is out of our control. Rather than trust in God, we believe that in order to find security, we must maintain exacting control over everything in our personal lives. We strain to stretch our legs in precise angles, contorting our arms just so, and we lift our heads to see whether we are doing things correctly. And what happens when a swimmer lifts his head while trying to float? He sinks. That’s what we do. We sink. We try so hard to control every movement, to be exacting and precise. And we forget that we would find everything we are searching for if only we would surrender our control to our Heavenly Father.
It is a mistake to believe that salvation is dependent on human endeavors and that if only we can be determined enough, disciplined enough, focused enough, holy enough, we can, in effect, earn our way to Heaven or buy God’s favor by our efforts. Those who believe this are non-swimmers who spend anxious and frustrated lives condemned to the side of the pool, never knowing the peace, joy, and freedom that come with trust and surrender.
We are not to place our faith in our human nature and our capacity to control our environment, our desires, our actions, or our thoughts; rather, we are to cooperate with God’s grace. It is not about our power to save ourselves, but about His power to save us.
Sacrifice & Surrender
Surrender is the abandonment of our wills to God’s will. It is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable — to trust in His providence. Surrender is about accepting what comes rather than perfectly juggling those balls that are your spiritual, physical, familial, and community obligations. Surrender is trusting God with all the balls, rather than trying to juggle them all by yourself.
So sacrifice, while it may seem from afar to be all about tying your hands and binding your feet, forbidding all freedom and enslaving yourself (in a bad way), in fact, your body and soul will be most free and most happy when you surrender yourself completely to God. Let Him direct your path. Let go of your misguided notions about your control, as these are based in pride, which will not only cause you to fail but will undermine the very gifts you wish to give. God is our beginning and our end; He created us and also, by His grace, will welcome us into His house for all eternity.
But letting go can be hard. Particularly in our fast-paced, hyper-scheduled, jam-packed culture. The fact is that surrender is a concept diametrically opposed to the American spirit.
After all, we are a nation founded on phrases such as Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death.” Echoing heroically in the recesses of our minds are the words of Winston Churchill — that half-American Brit with a deeply American stubborn streak — “We shall never surrender!”
So how do we go about achieving the discipline that allows us to align our wills with the will of God while surrendering our own desires, plans, dreams — in fact, our very lives — to God? That’s a tall order. Surrender doesn’t come cheap — particularly in certain areas of life.
What must we do? We must be open to God’s grace in our lives. We must be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We must prepare ourselves to be ready when the opportunity to cooperate comes along.
But how do we prepare ourselves?
Love: The Great Motivator
Sacrifice is easiest and most efficacious and most authentic when it is a pure gift of love. When we offer gifts for love of Christ alone, whether forgoing a sin that seems to hold our affections or giving up a material good that we enjoy, our sacrifices are best made out of love for God and complete trust in Him.
According to St. Claude de la Colombière, “They that deliver themselves up liberally to God shall renew their strength, they shall take wings, as eagles, they shall fly and not be weary.”
Love makes sacrifice easier. If you have children, just think about how much you would be willing to sacrifice for them. How much do you sacrifice for them already? How often do you cook, clean, comfort, discipline, work, and suffer for your kids without even giving it a second thought? That’s what love does. It causes us to sacrifice as a gift — without even thinking twice about it. We must cultivate love in our hearts in order to be able to surrender all to God.
When everything we do is done with the sole purpose of pleasing God out of love, sacrifice becomes not a chore, not a discipline, but a gift that is just an outgrowth of love. And remember, anything done out of love, no matter how small, is of inestimable value in the eyes of God.
There is no freedom like the freedom of a man who has released the weight of the world from his shoulders. And that is the freedom that comes with surrender. To surrender means to trust God. And in that trust, we need no longer live in fear. Trust breeds inner peace, no matter the chaos or tragedy that might threaten us. Instead of stressing over things beyond our control, we can offer them to God. Just like the swimmer flailing away at summer camp, handing over that control is the first and most important step toward growth. Ultimately, surrender will allow us to grow in holiness. We will no longer need to struggle but will be able to make wonderful sacrifices grounded in love alone. Rather than stress about things that are beyond our control, we can choose to trust God, and we will be free to love — free to sacrifice. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
The Art of Sacrifice
God is holding His hands out to You. He would like nothing more than for you to turn to Him for every need and to seek His help at all times. He desires that you live without anxiety, that, in trust, you unite your will to His, that you might learn to live a life of sacrificial love. Are you ready to surrender? If not, spend some time in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal what is keeping you from complete surrender. What are you holding on to that prevents you from giving yourself completely?
Ask God what He would like you to sacrifice right now. It may be something as simple as setting time aside to spend with Him. It may be as challenging as giving up a strong attachment that you’ve been clinging to. Whatever it is, ask Him to help you make that offering in love. If you can’t quite bring yourself to make the sacrifice, keep trying. And keep asking.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Vicki Burbach’s latest book, The Lost Art of Sacrifice: A Spiritual Guide for Denying Yourself, Embracing the Cross, and Finding Joy. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.
We also highly recommend her previous book, How to Read Your Way to Heaven: A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between.