Opening Your Hand – The Art of Obedient Surrender
By Barbara Byers
“It is in learning to persevere through the really tough times that we grow in resolve (the masculine will to choose life and wholeness), in moral and spiritual discipline (the feminine wisdom to choose aright), and in the understanding of our own hearts…. True identity is … in our ability to obey and respond to Someone far greater than ourselves.” “It is when man is obedient, when he wills to unite himself with God, that he finds himself to be one person-a person whose choices are continually changing him from the very center of his being into that perfected person that shall be…. infused by the very power of God” (Crisis in Masculinity, Leanne Payne, p. 93 and p. 81).
At a particularly dark time about 10 years ago I was weeping and praying for my children who were suffering from some painful family circumstances. I imagined I was praying in faith, but truthfully I was just crying out in a self-pitying and very subjective way. My heart was not fully engaged and aware, not resting in a place of trust and hope. Expecting the sweet comfort the Lord so often brings, I wanted Him to commiserate with me. Instead, responding to my real need, He said something that seemed abrupt and even stern at the time, but it was so kind because it was so necessary and objective. God said simply: “Open your hand and give each of your children to Me.” I didn’t much like this injunction, preferring to hold on and have some illusion of control over this pain.
Uncertain of the outcome except that God alone was faithful and could be trusted, I pried open my fingers in an act of submission to His living word, for this is where true life and peace always are, in that choice of will to unite with God in listening obedience. Naming each of my children, I gave each to Him. I didn’t feel immediate comfort; I didn’t hear a promise, just that directive much like the one Abraham received over his son. Abraham had waited decades to receive what was promised, his beautiful Isaac, and then was tested. God told him to take Isaac up to a mountain in Moriah and sacrifice him on an altar. Immediately Abraham set out and had three days of what must have been an agonizing journey. His heart was revealed when he told his son, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8 NAS).
As with Abraham, surrender sometimes thrusts us into suffering, into a place we would much rather not go, but which produces the beautiful fruit of maturity. Sometimes suffering is the necessary tool that enables our surrender. As in Hosea 2, we may be wooed into the wilderness, but in that place of relinquishing, a fruitful future awaits us. God does not suppress or control our will; He invites us to unite our will with His in clear and robust choice. “There is all the difference between a will which is extinguished and one which is surrendered. God does not demand that our wills should be crushed out … He only asks that we should say ‘Yes’ to Him. Pliant to Him …we shall never be right till we let Him take, and break and make us” (F. B. Meyer, The Secret of Guidance, as quoted in Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer, p. 247).
“Not my will but yours” was the cry of Jesus just after the plea: “If you are willing, take this cup away from me” (Lk. 22:42 ISV). If He learned “obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8 KJV), how much more must we? When we finally lay down the demand that we must, simply must, have something our way, then life no longer has to be lived on our terms. We live in the obedience of surrender, and as St. Francis de Sales wrote in Finding God’s Will for You: “In obedience everything is safe.” Then De Sales quoted the psalmist: “‘Lord, You have held my right hand, and You have guided me in Your will, and with much glory You have received me. I have become like a horse in Your presence, and I am always with You'” (Ps. 73:22-24). For just as a well-trained horse is gentled and turns easily under the hand of his master, so also a soul that loves is pliable under God’s will.
Surrender, coming to the place of a vibrant unequivocal “yes” to God, unifies our will with His. We have settled that He is good in all His dimensions and faithful in all His ways; so the directed action of His will enables us to live more fully and freely. Surrender may be hard won in the battle, but knowing that Another is in control grants sweet relief. This is what Oswald Chambers termed “reckless abandon.” We may remain uncertain of the outcome, but we are certain of the love of the One into whose hands we have placed the future. “True abandonment is a simple resting in the love of God. It is like a child lying in its mother’s arms” (Francois Fenelon, Let Go). True abandonment is encapsulated in Psalm 131:1-2 (NIV): “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” What a beautiful image of a child at rest in his gracious mother’s arms.
Mature spirituality, the transformation into the true self, involves letting go. But does anyone really want to surrender, renouncing the right to have things his way? “The more we insist on control and the more we resist the call to hold our lives lightly… the more artificial our existence becomes. Our belief that we should grasp tightly what we need provides one of the great sources of our suffering. But letting go of possessions and plans and people allows us to enter, for all its risks, a life of new, unexpected freedom…. How can we live with greater willingness to let go… not clutching what we have, not trying to reserve a safe place we can rest in, not trying to choreograph our own or others’ lives, but to surrender to the God whom we love and want to follow” (Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing). Indeed, how can we live with that greater willingness to let go, to surrender and unite our will to God’s?
We have to have our hearts softened by grace, and often by suffering, so that we are ready to let go. Operating under our own illusions, we try to clutch at what control we believe we may have. Fear drives us to monitor and manage, and may make us wonder: “If I give this up, can I really trust God to bring good?” We may even fear scarcity. “Will I return empty if I give this up?” A friend of mine, in prayer, had an image from the Lord of this fear. She was holding onto the handle of one door, trying mightily to stretch across to take the handle and open the next door, but couldn’t make the connection. Fear kept her grasping the old door handle, but God wanted her to release the old and in faith step across the space to the next door, believing “she knew not what.” Fear can drive our unwillingness to relinquish, and unbelief undergirds that fear. We may be fearful or stubborn at first response, but if we trust the One who is asking, we can “give up” because we are “giving in to” Him. Words from the old hymn “Rock of Ages” says this well: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.”
So surrender cannot be passive, I must take a faith action – I open my hand, collaborating with the Lord’s instructions. Another word for this is relinquishing. It suggests “not the tearing away of treasures but the willing and graceful sacrifice of them” (Goudge, The Bird in the Tree, p. 242). And when we relinquish, we may feel we relinquish into a darkness of we know not what, but our treasure goes straight into the hands of God. And whatever we won’t relinquish has not been purified, and we will clutch it to ourselves in idolatry. So every part of our soul-conscience, emotions, will, desires, mind, imagination, passions-must be surrendered to Him.
Like Mary we must say: “Be it unto me according to YOUR will, O God.” Paul echoes this prayer in Romans 12:1-2 when he urges us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice in a spiritual service of worship so that we may prove what His will is. How is that possible? He gives us the grace to trust Him! His love is always drawing, always making possible our surrender, always making a way. James 4:6-7 (NAS) exhorts: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit therefore to God.” One day every knee will bow, but what an honor to bow in surrender now! To do so is an act of worship, presenting to the Lord all that we are, trusting all that He is.
Remember Moses with the staff in his hand? In Exodus 4 God asks: “What is that in your hand?” God wasn’t asking for information! God was leading Moses to revelation. God tells him to throw it down. Can you imagine what Moses was thinking? “But, Lord, I’ve used it for decades and this is all I’m good at, and I can’t shepherd without my staff! I must have it, I must!” Don’t you know God knew it was time for that staff to be transformed and the desert years to be over? But it would not happen for Moses or for a nation waiting on him, without the choice of obedient surrender. So he opened his hand and threw it down, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran for his life! Then God told him to pick it up, and it was transformed again, no longer the rod of Moses, now the rod of the miraculous, the rod of the sovereign God.
There is no transformation without surrender, nor real power without surrender. If we don’t open our hands at His invitation, our willfulness makes it harder later…and that closed fist can become a clinched fist we shake at God. Without surrender, we haven’t given God the permission and the place for which He is waiting to work on us, in us, through us, and on our behalf. But we can’t dictate the terms of surrender: the how, what, when, if. It’s all given to Him, and He then takes our small staff, that thing that is the most important and seems most necessary for our well-being, transforms what is offered, and what is given back is infused with His life and power. Mary offered her womb, Peter and Andrew their fishing nets, Moses his staff, Abraham his son, the boy on the hillside his fishes and loaves, the widow her bit of flour and oil, and Jesus His body. All was transformed! All was infused with God’s creative presence.
In Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities Dr. Manette had been falsely imprisoned for 18 years and during that long time had only his cobbler’s bench and tools to keep him occupied. Even after his release he continued cobbling shoes, living at times within the traumatic memory. The patient love of his daughter began to draw him out of that isolation. But in times of stress, he would still slip back and occasionally occupy himself that way at night or even for some days, not knowing what he was doing, not remembering afterward that he had dissociated. In a particularly difficult time, after a terrible shock, he reverted to cobbling for a week. He was asked by one who cared for him if perhaps he would release the activity so that the fear would also go. He replied, “You see, it is such an old companion.”
Fear can be such an old companion. The old ways of thinking, reacting and making decisions can feel so natural. Our old way of coping, our old defenses of holding on because we just can’t see any other way, can seem like true friends. But they’re not; they’re just the familiar that captivated our false selves. And when God calls us to pry our hands open, life awaits. He doesn’t want us to manage, He wants us to surrender. But He really does leave us with the choice and will not make it for us. In Deuteronomy 33 He enjoins and invites us: Choose life!
And as we choose life and release what’s in our hands, our hands are then open to receive; they are clean but empty. It’s a beautiful sight to God when our hands are open and extended to Him in expectation. And He responds: “Abraham, I see you haven’t withheld your only son.” “Jesus, I see that You have chosen to drink the cup; now come sit at My right hand.” “Esther, I see that you will risk death for such a time as this; so I will deliver a nation.” “Mary, I see that you have offered your womb for Me to inhabit; so I will come into the world.” “Child, I accept your loaves and fish; now I will feed thousands and demonstrate My power.” God is now given the freedom, by us, to move as He will. With our open hands, able to fully receive, His will is imparted to us along with the grace to move forward in it. And we mysteriously also find our desires are fulfilled in His will.
Once we have surrendered what we have been clutching, He wants to transform it! In Exodus 14:15, 21, 22 (NAS) the Lord spoke to Moses: “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. [That is, stop praying and go!] As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it…. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land….The sons of Israel went through.” And as for Abraham who didn’t withhold? We see a ram caught in brush, God’s provision for sacrifice. Abraham receives the ram, God receives the sacrifice, and Isaac is free to eventually become a great nation.
At this stage of surrender we need to be “patient and strengthen our hearts” (Jas. 5:8) to trust that the Lord will act on our behalf and not leave us standing empty-handed. This is where our scarcity mentality, our orphan attitude, and our fear are revealed. At this juncture we may need to see what is blocking our journey of faith….perhaps sin, regrets, fears, and disappointments. If we ask the Lord, He will be faithful to show us any hindrances. This time of the “open empty hand” is an interim season, a time of testing. It’s as if God asked Joseph, “Will you serve me faithfully in Potiphar’s house, even in prison? Will you wait with open hands of faith, expectant until the dreams can be fulfilled?” The temptation at this point is to grasp back, to falter, to become disappointed and to close our fists again. Yet we are exhorted to persist, to wait, to trust as those “…who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12 NAS) As Eugene Peterson wrote, this faith and surrender journey is indeed “a long obedience in the same direction.” But if we demand to “… know the entire journey, instead of trusting in God… our road is lengthened and our spiritual affairs get behind. Abandon yourself as absolutely as possible to God and continue to do so until your last breath. He will never desert you” (Francois Fenelon, Let Go).
Faith is a necessary element, but it isn’t just a faith that says, “God please give me what I need.” It is a faith that says, “I trust You and surrender to Your will because I know You are good and I know You do good! I simply trust You and You don’t have to do it my way. You will release the good things to me in appropriate time.” Psalm 145:16-17 (NAS) declares: “You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His deeds.” And again in Ezra 8:22 (NIV) His word joyously proclaims: “The gracious hand of our God is on [over] everyone who looks to him.”
Our hands are now open to receive, but above them are God’s hands, now opening to release! We see this in God’s dealings with Abraham who opened his hand, even to the offering of his only son for whom he had waited a lifetime! And God responded: “Because you have done this thing…. Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:16-18 NAS). Abraham obeyed and God’s hand was over him to fulfill every promise. Do you see God as good, as giver, as one who delights in giving to you?
We must willingly accept what God brings, how and when He brings it, and relinquish our grasping demands. It is a chilling warning to consider Israel’s fate in Psalm 106:15 (CJB): “He gave them what they wanted but sent meagerness into their souls.” There is a carnal part of us that demands, and refuses God’s way. It results in leanness rather than abundance. But, oh, God intends abundance. And if we surrender, He knows how to keep, enlarge, and transform what we have offered to Him. “When God has begun the work of absolute surrender in you, and when God has accepted your surrender, then God holds Himself bound to care for it and to keep it” (Andrew Murray, Absolute Surrender). God is able to then work His good pleasure in those who have made this choice.
God will never, never fall short of His promises. He will always fulfill His side of what He has promised. As we unlock our hands and truly give God permission to have what’s there, He will see and respond. As we stand with open hands, waiting with anticipation and endurance, then He opens His hands over us to bless and create fruitfulness. So what is that you are holding in your hand? What are you most attached to? He doesn’t want us to manage, He wants us to surrender. In that movement of surrender, from clutched hands to opened, empty hands, to stretched-out hands, God moves. Will you open your hand in trust? Will you now hold your hand open to receive what the Lord gives back, transformed and pure? Will you declare that, even if you have to wait for that good thing, the one who has promised is good and you will experience a robust fruitfulness as He completes that desire?
Once we surrender, there is one more foundational step that we need to take to stay anchored in trust. We need to be actively practicing giving thanks. Gratefulness is an essential partner of surrender, keeping us God-directed and shielding us from our need to return to control. By maintaining gratitude, by thanking Him no matter what comes our way, we are surrendered to His will: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thess. 5:18 NAS). Do you want to know and do His will? Keep thanking Him in everything, keep being filled with the Spirit and praise (Eph. 5:18-20). He is worthy of our praise, of our obedience, and of our surrender as we are infused with joyful expectancy. So let us look to Him with our hands raised in praise, open to all the ways He desires to open His hand and fill us.