As we progress in prayer, our prayers gradually begin to look more and more like those we see from Jesus and Paul and others. The prayer of relinquishment moves us from struggling in always asking God for what we want to releasing our will to His.
Side note: When I first taught this, this form of prayer was foreign to me. Since then, it has become one of my favorites.
Jesus. praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, laid down his human will. Christian theology says that there is one person, both fully God and fully human, Jesus Christ, who had two wills. To believe that Jesus only had one will is heresy. Jesus’ human will submitted fully to his divine will. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden displayed his human will asking for God to let the cup pass from him, finding his prayer unanswered, and submitting his human will to the divine will.
Obviously, you and I only have one will. But it still must be transformed and surrendered to the will of God.
Richard Foster describes this prayer with the image of a person sitting in the hot summer sun who falls into a swimming pool for relief from the heat. There is a sense that a thirst has been quenched when a person falls into the arms of Jesus with this kind of prayer. I agree with him, at least at the end. But at the beginning, this prayer is a struggle.
Struggle is a necessary feature of this prayer. Jesus struggled in the garden to the point of sweating blood. Foster writes, “Struggle is important because the Prayer of Relinquishment is Christian prayer and not fatalism. We do not resign ourselves to fate.” Instead, we surrender our wills, crucify our wills, knowing that day by day, as we face the decisions in front of us, God will be faithful to see us through.
Andrew Murray writes,
“The Spirit teaches me to yield my will entirely to the will of the Father. He opens my ear to wait in great gentleness and teachableness of soul for what the Father has day by day to speak and to teach. He discovers to me how union with God’s will is union with God Himself; how entire surrender to God’s will is the Father’s claim, the Son’s example, and the true blessedness of the soul.”
The prayer of relinquishment may happen more easily by changing posture. Kneeling to pray and lifting your hands to God symbolizes your surrender. Wrestle with God in your words. Don’t simply start the prayer by telling God that you want His will to be done. Tell him what you really want to happen. And be careful not to assume that just because you want something, it is at odds with what God wants.
You might lift up in your arms people: your spouse, children, and close friends. Then give God your future, hopes and dreams. Give him your angers, enemies, and desire for revenge. At the end, pray something like, “Lord, crucify in me what needs to be crucified. Bring back to life what will please you and advance your kingdom. Let it come in whatever form you desire. Let it be in your time and in your way. Thank you for resurrection.” Some things will stay dead, and that’s good.
So, what do you need to relinquish? And what might your life look like if this became a regular part of your prayers?
Too often we approach besetting sin by trying harder to conquer it. We determine never to do it again, we pray for God to deliver us from it, we set our will against it. But the struggle is in vain as we eventually fall back into the same patterns of sin. Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (NASB).
What he’s saying is that observing the rules of not handling or tasting things may sound great as far as trying to beat our bodies into conformity with God’s will, but in the end, they have no power. Willpower will have a show of success for a time but cannot produce lasting change. Jesus alluded to this when he spoke to the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:34-36, NASB). The will, originating from the heart, is what matters. If the heart has not been circumcised, been given newness of life by God, then we can try as hard as we want to do good, but in those careless moments, who we truly are shines through. If we are full of compassion, that will shine through; if bitterness, that will shine through.
Richard Foster quotes Heini Arnold, “As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever” (Celebration of Discipline, 5). Foster also writes, “When we are dealing with heart work, external actions are never the center of our attention. Outward actions are a natural result of something far deeper, far more profound.” It is quite ironic that the very thing that seems like a good plan–confronting sin head on–is what entangles us all the more.
There is a difference between attempting to continue on a journey of spiritual formation alone, by forcing change by your own will, and joining God, who can begin to help transform your will so it aligns with His.
Now we turn to a transformation of the will. The will is something that God gives humans so that they might create new things. The will is what makes each person unique. It is our capacity to create new things, concepts, events. It comes from us alone. It is part of being made in God’s image for us to have a will. It is the nature of the spiritual to be self-determined. Without elevating our will to the sinful place Americans give it–freedom being the ultimate right–we must recognize that God created us to have free will, un-coerced by outside wills to some extent.
N.T. Wright says that people tend to focus on outward behavior rather than on the will. In doing this, they opt for one of two things:
- Obey rules imposed from the outside
- Discover the deepest longings of your heart and try to be true to them.
Neither of these is a valid approach to life. The will must be shaped and aligned with God’s will. Both of those options are shortcuts to a life of character and virtue. They want what virtue offers without the hard work–yes, I said hard work–required to become a person of character.
For example, the person with a rules-based mentality knows what to do but does not have the power to follow through. Wright says, “We must search for the larger framework within which appropriate rules may play their proper, though ultimately subordinate, part” (After You Believe, p. 45). Maybe the rules are only signposts pointing us to a larger purpose, a grander end, that God wants for us. Maybe we need them but not in the way we’ve been taught to need them.
For those who choose option 2, the problem becomes when the longings of one’s heart are wicked and cruel. What if one’s “true self” really just wants to steal? To have an affair? What then? The more they choose to be “authentic” in this way, the more they will become this person in habitual ways and their wills will indeed be shaped inwardly. The heart cannot transform itself by looking inwardly; the answers to life’s deep questions about purpose and meaning are never found by simple meditation and authenticity, no matter how well-intentioned the thought.
“Certainly the will of a spiritual being is the one thing in his creation that God chooses not to override and force to take on a specific character…. It has its choice–though it does not have its choice of the consequences of choosing what it wants. And one of the consequences of choosing what one wants without regard to God’s will is enslavement to one’s own self-conflicted will. On the path of self-will people eventually come to the place where they cannot choose what God wants and cannot want God” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 146).
Willard is saying that the effects of habitual choice of what you want are only being able to choose what you want. You eventually lose sight of God and are unable to do what He wants.
Before this happens though, most of us live lives of duplicity. Our wills are fragmented. If we think about the choices we make in a given day, we have varied motives and thought processes that go into making them. Our duplicity begins to manifest itself in deception, where we pretend to feel and think something when we really don’t. We do what we want to do but hide it because we’re afraid of being found out.
We don’t exercise our wills unless we’ve first used our minds. The mind and will are connected. The will or heart can change the thoughts and feelings that are available in our future choices. But we must first have those new thoughts and feelings through new information.
In John 8:28-29, Jesus says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”
Jesus’ will was aligned with His Father’s will. It was not that He did not have His own will–Jesus could have sinned against God just like any one of us. But He did what pleased His Father. “Single-minded and joyous devotion to God and his will, to what God wants for us–and to service to him and to others because of him–is what the will transformed into Christlikeness looks like” (Willard, p. 143).
But how do we go from self-will or duplicity to being aligned with God’s will? According to Willard, it means…
- Surrender. We begin by surrendering our will to God’s will, telling God that we really want Him to be God. We stop asking God to bless us while still living life as we wish.
- Abandonment. We move beyond surrender to abandonment when we not only want God to be God, but surrender to every circumstance of life as happening within God’s permission. We do not gripe and complain when bad things happen to us, but remember that there is no suffering that God cannot use for our good. We choose not to fight against God when we suffer but embrace God (and even the suffering) for we know He is working in it for our good.
- Contentment. We are grateful and rejoice in our “lot in life.” We are content with surrendering to God, and so duplicity becomes a thing of the past.
- Participation. Somewhere along the line, we choose (or we have chosen) to participate with God to see His will played out in the world. “The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 152).
What do you think?