Surrender. My mental image is a white flag. It is the universal symbol for surrender and signifies the desire for a truce. Woven into the fabric is a connotation of weakness, frailty, quitting, losing, of giving up the fight. Those cheering for a white flag aren’t the ones waving it.
In our competitive culture we prize the athlete who finishes the game in spite of a broken limb or the student who overloads with hard classes and extracurricular commitments or the rescue worker who goes days without sleep when disaster strikes. The applause is for the individual who triumphs over the odds and never gives up.
In the first half of my life, this “don’t quit” attitude worked well. It does for most: study hard, get good grades, the best education possible; work long hours, climb the career ladder; buy a place, marry, have kids, and settle into life. If you’re a parent, you’ve spent time instilling these patterns of thinking and acting.
Richard Rohr in Falling Upward calls this “the loyal soldier” mindset .This mindset helps restrain impulses and provides the boundaries necessary to shape “dignity, identity, direction, significance, and boundaries” (46). But for all these positives, “the loyal soldier cannot get you to the second half of life” because there you need to lose.
Unlike the straightforward, black-and-white, first half, the second half is marked by subtlety. Unlike the first half where you battle to win and prove your loyalty, in the second half you battle with God (47). In the first half, Rohr opines, you’re shaping the ego, in the second, the “battles defeat the ego because God always wins” (47).
For years I’d exercised faithfully, eaten a healthy diet, and watched my weight. I was proud of following the rules, and thought I was in control of my health. Then in 2007 I learned open heart surgery was necessary to repair a congenital heart defect that could suddenly end my life. With one phone call from my cardiologist, God knocked self-sufficiency out of my hands. For several hours I fought, wrestled and wept trying to get it back in my grasp.
I’d done everything right, how could this be happening? Why wasn’t it discovered before? I needed heart surgery? You’ve got to be kidding. My acquiescence to the truth that my life was in God’s hands, not mine, now exacted complete reliance. While lying on an exercise mat on the basement floor, I reluctantly waved the white flag and accepted my human frailty.
Treasonous at first, surrender became oddly comforting. The code of control and confidence in victory over circumstances that had carried me through decades now had to be abandoned. Only then could my weakness could spotlight God’s strength, my mortality his immortality, my dependence his sufficiency.
After the challenge to surrender my health, God and I keep meeting on battlefields. The battle may rage for hours or months as decades of ingrained training make me loathsome to choose to lose–even to a holy opponent who perfectly loves me.
In the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15), the loyal elder son battled with his father, but the outcome is unrecorded. The younger son, admittedly not terribly loyal, hit bottom and waved the white flag all the way home. While he enjoyed a fine feast and celebration, we don’t know if the elder brother joined them.
Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to prepare to lose, to even make it their aim (Mark 8:34-37). In a culture bent on winning, the choice to surrender seems wrong. Yet the road to Christian maturity calls for it and demands it; white flags are required.