One of the beautiful and frustrating things about biblical Christianity—about following Jesus—is the tension that we face between seemingly incompatible things. I say incompatible in the sense that we try to make sense of the ways of God while applying worldly wisdom and habits. It doesn’t work well and leaves us scratching our heads.
Only through the life and love of Jesus can we make any sense of a statement like, “If any of you wants to be great, you must be a servant. If you want to be first, you must strive to be the last.” Taking our cue from Jesus, we can discover that this is true by practicing it for a while. But it takes letting the wisdom of God run up against our egos and expose the innumerable ways we put ourselves first and don’t even know it. Believing comes through obedience. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only believers obey; and only the obedient believe.”
The greatness-is-servanthood paradox isn’t the only way of Jesus we have trouble believing until we begin practicing it by faith. Another way this tension plays out is the mysterious partnership between surrender and self-control. Worldly wisdom makes it seem that our future is in our hands, if we just exercise enough mastery over our situations. Yet Christ presents us with a paradox of self-control through surrender. Think about the strangeness of this arrangement:
- Surrender – the release of self into the hands and will of another.
- Self-control – the mastering of our own self-will against the temptations or appetites that battle within us
In the life of a Jesus-follower, which is it? It must be both.
“Christ presents us with a paradox of self-control through surrender.”
Let me illustrate with a story.
In 1995, my wife and I were in our first ministry in a church in Ohio. We were young, inexperienced, and immature in so many ways. One of our youth volunteers at church was a guy about our age who was a firefighter in town. He also was a self-taught welder and a bicycle enthusiast. His name is Rody Walter. You can read about him and his continued work in this magazine article.
One spring day, Rody came to our house and gave me this invitation: “If I build a trail bike for you, will you let me teach you to ride?”
I was floored. I knew a project like this would take him multiple hours and at least a couple hundred dollars in parts. But his smile was infectious. I knew he wasn’t just wanting to give me a custom-made mountain bike; he was inviting me into his life, into something he felt very passionate about.
I accepted the offer.
I don’t remember how long it took him to build it, but one morning he called me and told me he was about to deliver it. He showed up at my house with this 21-speed mountain bike and said, “You ready?”
“I knew he wasn’t just wanting to give me a custom-made mountain bike; he was inviting me into his life, into something he felt very passionate about.”
The beautiful mid-sized town of Wooster, Ohio, sits in the foothills of the Appalachians. In the countryside around town, there were miles of hiking and biking trails to be explored. In the days and weeks that followed, Rody taught me how to navigate rough trails, jump over obstacles, and climb a steep grade using speed, low gears, and lots of endurance. He was heavy on encouragement, but light on compassion. He was serious about having fun.
One day, he thought I was ready for another challenge. It was a downhill ride, steeper than any I’d ever attempted before. I looked down and considered how much pain I’d be in once I flipped over the handlebars. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “You’re not going to be in control of the bike for a few seconds. Point it in the right direction, lean as far back behind the seat as you can, ride the rear brake when you have to, and just go for it.”
My heart was in my throat at those first words: “You’re not going to be in control…”
Do you know how much self-control it takes to not be in control? How much self-control it takes to surrender?
If I was going to do what Rody said, I had to surrender a lot. Everything in me wanted to turn that bike around and ride back to my car. But my teacher had told me I was ready. He had faith that what I had learned had prepared me for this. My time with him had taught me to trust him. He always thought I was ready for more than I felt I was. I chose to surrender my will to his.
“Do you know how much self-control it takes to not be in control?”
Then came the self-control I needed to kick in. It was up to me to master my fear of heights, crashing, burning, and broken bones. As I remembered to breathe, I pushed off the top of that ledge, extended my arms, leaned my center of gravity back as far as I could reach, and when I squeezed the rear brake, my wheel locked up and started to skid.
Rody yelled, “Let go!” I did. I let gravity take me and rode it out. It probably only took three seconds, but in slow motion, it felt like my life flashed before me. Before I knew it, I was leveling out, straightening up in the seat, and the brake was working. I was in shock. I didn’t crash, burn, or break. I got the bike stopped, looked up at Rody, and he let out a whoop and a holler. He was clearly happier than I was about what had just happened.
And then he mounted his bike, pivoted, and pitched the front wheel down the hill and rode down like he had done it a thousand times (which he had), and stopped in front of me. His smile was bigger than mine, which made me smile all the more. I learned something that day.
Surrender and self-control go hand in hand. Surrendering to Jesus means giving him our trusting obedience. And obedience involves a mastery of self, a saying no to ungodly appetites and impulses that will hold you back from giving more of yourself to the will of your Teacher. It means saying yes to better things that will help you conform to the will, the character, and the joy of your Lord, Master, and Friend.
“Obedience involves a mastery of self, a saying no to ungodly appetites and impulses that will hold you back from giving more of yourself to the will of your Teacher.”
There’s nothing better than to look up at Jesus and see him smiling from ear to ear—whether you’ve nailed it or failed it. The more you surrender to God, the more you’re free to exert the kind of self-control that trusts and honors Him.