Surrendering to God’s Will: Essential to Authentic Spiritual Life?
I have a question that might seem obvious to many but not so to me. The question is this. Is the surrender to the will of God the fundamental perquisite and non-negotiable attitude, to have an authentic spiritual life?
This is a great question. Basically, it’s one way to ask about the relationship between prayer and action, between spiritual growth and the daily grind of real life. Without a bit more context, I can’t be sure to get at the concern that prompted you to ask this question. But I do have some thoughts that, I hope, may be of some help.
It’s All about Relationship
All the Catholic spiritual masters agree that our attitude towards God’s will has a direct effect on the quality of our spiritual life. And that makes perfect sense, because from a Christian perspective, the “spiritual life” is nothing but our relationship with God, our friendship with Christ. And that relationship will certainly run into problems if we are not willing to trust in his wisdom and love by accepting and embracing his will for our lives. That faith-filled, loving obedience is, in Jesus’ own words, the foundation of everything we do as Christians. Without it, our Christian life is just a mirage:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
So, the short answer to your question is that an attitude of “surrender”, or faith-filled obedience, to God’s will is indeed a pre-requisite for authentic spiritual growth. But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that this attitude is not static, nor does it exist in a vacuum, so it may be an exaggeration to claim that it is THE (as in “the only”) fundamental and non-negotiable attitude. Here’s what I mean.
Feeding Our Faith
The more we get to know God, the more we come to understand and experience his goodness, wisdom, power, and love, the more we will trust him. And the more we trust him, the more fully we will be able to embrace his will for us. In other words, in the early stages of our relationship with God, our faith may be weak and our surrender hesitant. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a spiritual life yet. It just means that we have room to grow. Prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual reading can help us grow in our knowledge and experience of God, as can small acts of trust and obedience themselves. And as that faith in him grows, we will find our attitude of faith-filled obedience being strengthened as well.
I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Otherwise, experiencing our own weakness and faults in relation to God’s will could throw us into a tailspin of unhealthy discouragement. There are levels of surrender to God’s will. Right now, our docility to God is probably greater than it was five years ago but weaker than it will be five years from now. So, what the Catechism says about the relationship between our prayer life and our attitude towards God’s will is completely true: “We pray as we live because we live as we pray” (CCC 2725). And yet, at the same time, we need to remember that we are pilgrims on our way to our heavenly homeland, and when we discover left-overs of our fallen nature at work in our lives, seemingly impeding our spiritual growth, that shouldn’t dishearten us.
And if you are wondering about how to discern what God’s will for you really is, you may find it useful to read some of our earlier posts, like this one: https://spiritualdirection.com/2016/01/25/what-is-gods-will-part-i-of-ii-his-indicative-will
God bless you!
In Him, Fr John
Fr John Bartunek, LC, SThD
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Art for this post on Surrendering to God’s Will: Christ and Saint Mina [or Menas], iconographer unknown, 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; Still life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh, 1885, PD-US, PD-art; both Wikimedia Commons.