I’m reading another Elisabeth Elliot book. I find her insights helpful and quite practical in the struggle to do God’s will in daily life. This one is Keep a Quiet Heart. I came across a short passage a while back that seems like it might be what it takes to ascend from the daily quagmire of mediocrity to a higher level of conformity with God’s will and hence with more authentic and fruitful life. She writes:
“Sometimes I am asked to speak to young people who are toying with the idea of being missionaries. [She herself was a missionary in Ecuador when she was younger.] They want to know how I discovered the will of God. The first thing was to settle once and for all the supremacy of Christ in my life, I tell them. I put myself utterly and forever at His disposal, which means turning over all the rights: to myself, my body, my self-image, my notions of how I am to serve my Master. Oswald Chambers calls it ‘breaking the husk of my individual independence of God.’ Until that break comes, all the rest is ‘pious fraud.’ I tell these earnest kids that the will of God is always different from what they expect, always bigger, and, ultimately, infinitely more glorious than their wildest imaginings.
“But there will be deaths to die. Paul found that out—daily, he said. That is the price of following the way of the cross—of course… This scares people. Yet what is there to fear when Christ holds first place in our lives? Where, other than in the will of the Father, shall we expect to find significance, security, and serenity?”
I don’t suppose there’s anything radically new in what she writes, but if it seems only like standard Christian fare, perhaps it is because we are familiar with the concepts but haven’t actually taken the plunge—settling it once and for all, as she says.
The thing that grabbed my attention was “turning over all the rights.” As Christians we tend to give God a fairly substantial share of our time and attention, and usually (if we’re not utterly lax or apathetic) the Lord’s words influence our world-view and the way we live our lives in their practical details. But turning over all our rights? Aren’t we getting a little fanatical here? Modern Americans seems to be obsessed with their “rights,” and they’re not afraid to sue anyone who would dare infringe upon them. Some even demand rights to grossly immoral acts like abortion and sexual perversion, so we know that this “rights” business has gotten way out of hand. Solzhenitsyn lamented the fact that everyone is always clamoring for their rights, but they don’t demand legal protection for their duties; they don’t insist on their own obligations to society. They want to put demands on others for their own benefit, but no one may put demands on them for others’ benefit.
Anyway, let’s bring this back to our relationship to God. Are we willing to hand over the rights to our own lives to Him? Do we trust Him enough? We shouldn’t worry. It’s all right to hand over all rights. If we really are people of faith, we can only come to the same conclusion that Mrs Elliot did: “What is there to fear when Christ holds first place in our lives? Where, other than in the will of the Father, shall we expect to find significance, security, and serenity?” This is what St Paul means when he says: “I have forfeited everything… in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). He turned over all his rights—and earlier in the same chapter he listed some of these, the prerogatives and benefits he renounced—because of the “surpassing worth” of knowing the Lord Jesus and gaining eternal life.
We may in principle accept this as the best way, but we still ought to take a closer look. First, we have to make sure that Christ really does have the first place in our lives, and that we really do see that the fullness of life and blessing is only in the Father’s will. Once we manage that (and I realize it’s a huge step for most of us), we have to see how it applies in our daily lives. We’ll have something of an ongoing examination of conscience as we notice how much we really think is owed to us, what “rights” we explicitly or implicitly insist upon every day.
Mrs Elliot lists a few things, though they cover a lot of ground: the rights to ourselves (remember that Jesus said, “Deny yourself… and follow Me”—that’s handing over our rights to Him), our own bodies (abortion advocates, beware!—your rhetoric falls flat before the face of Christ), our self-image, and even the way we think we should serve the Lord. If all is gift, then we don’t have rights to anything. We are but “stewards of God’s varied grace” (1Peter 4:10). We also need to hand over to the Lord the following “rights”: the right to have things go the way we think or plan them to go; the right to a comfortable income, pleasant surroundings, obedient children, friendly in-laws, etc; the right to good health, good reputation, and even to happiness as we may conceive it; the right to a disaster-free life in general. We have a prayer in our Liturgy in which we ask for “a quiet and tranquil life in all piety and dignity.” I pray this with special fervor (it’s not usually answered in the affirmative), but now I have to give up my “right” even to that! It occurred to me today, having forgotten something else I was supposed to do, that I also need to relinquish my right to a working memory. All rights. Oh, all right.
But let me hasten to add that relinquishing our “rights” to all of the above (you can add your own) does not necessarily mean that we are going to be denied all these things, or that they will be taken away from us if we surrender all to God. Remember that you have placed your “right” to these things in the providential hands of the Father who loves you, and in the pierced hands of Jesus who died for you, bearing your sins in his own body (He relinquished the rights over that to his Father!). What we are saying is: I’m not going to decide on my own what’s best for me, when and how I am going to squeeze all the best juice out of life. I hand it over to the One who knows best what I need and when and how much, and allow Him to direct my life and circumstances—because even if my vision becomes a little too earthbound at times, God is always safeguarding my salvation, my heavenly inheritance. Therefore his arrangement of things will always work towards that end, and if we can trust Him enough to put all things in his hands, we’ll find that we’ll be eternally grateful—even though there will be those “daily deaths” in the meantime.
This will actually take some of the pressure off of us, even if we don’t get what we want all the time. We’ll actually detect a hint of serenity deep down in the soul, an abiding sense of the rightness of things when the Lord is Lord of our lives. Sure, it will cost us something in the way of delayed gratification, of choosing the way of forgiveness and charity instead of venting our spleens at everyone who irritates us, of allowing events to unfold without coming under our direct manipulation. But everything of value costs something, usually a lot. The Lord is trying to tell us: Trust Me, it’s worth it. Someday you’ll thank Me—really, you will! You’ll be so happy you gave up the right to bollix up your own life and lose your soul—which is how having your own way usually ends up. I won’t let that happen if you surrender your rights to Me…
All right. All rights. I’ll put God first. I’ll settle it once and for all, break the husk of independence from God. Somehow that feels right.