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Updated: Sep 16, 2023

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor (Pilate), and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:11-14)

Surrender is difficult. My feelings about it are deeply conflicted.

On the one hand, surrendering is giving in. It's to accept defeat. This definition grates at parts of me that are determined, committed, and stubborn. I can see the shadow of toxic masculinity in some of it, but not completely. I grew up with distortions of masculinity that taught me that real men never give in. They don't give up. They never let someone or something conquer them. Taken as a rule, that approach to life can be heroic as well as misguided and wrongheaded.

The positive side of this man-training is not uniquely masculine or limited to masculinity at all. It's human. Stay committed. Overcome. Keep your eye on the prize. Seen that way, the distortions of toxic masculinity lighten a bit. Surrendering a battle doesn't mean losing a war. In less violent and more personal terms, walking the hill doesn't mean I didn't complete the run. Listening to others and changing tactics doesn't mean I surrender my strategy or goals. All the same, pulling back or giving in even just momentarily can be really hard. There's a perfection or purity principle that runs through many of us, makes surrender difficult.

On the other hand, surrender can be absolutely gracious, wise, and beautiful. There are so many things in life that are counterintuitive, for which surrender is essential to success.

Some examples? Grief usually requires that we simply let down our armor and let the pain in. We have to surrender to be vulnerable. It may mean letting ourselves cry. It may mean "stepping down from the plow" and taking a mental health day for yourself. It might mean admitting you lost and letting yourself be angry at God or someone. Grief almost always takes some form of surrender. It's the only way through.

Fasting and running are other examples from my own life. Learning to run and fast, both taught me the wisdom of giving in. With both, I started out naively. I thought that willpower or self-determination was enough to fast from all food for three days or get out and run six miles. I was wrong and my attitude was immature. My body had other wisdom to teach me. Surrendering to my body in order to stretch its capacity was essential to learning how run further and fast longer. Surrender was part of the spiritual and physical discipline.

My feelings about surrender are deeply mixed. They are even conflicted. Sometimes, life overpowers me and surrender is hardly a choice. I have to surrender. Sometimes, life's struggles give me the choice to surrender or fight on.

Studying ethics, I've come to believe that the choice to surrender or fight on is neither right or wrong, in and of itself. What makes the choice I make right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical, depends on circumstances, consequences, and actors involved. Life is tragic, and sometimes surrendering is the wise thing to do even if it's not right. Sometimes, its better to walk away, let it go, or give in to live another day, keep a relationship, or live with the loss and learn a new way.

To me, Jesus' moments before Pilate in Matthew 27 illustrate the same tragic ambiguity of surrendering.

Jesus' response to Pilate is baffling. Pilate asks Jesus a seemingly simple question. Are you King of the Jews? It's actually an indictment. If Jesus claims he's King of the Jews, he rebels against the authority before him. Jesus responds, "You say so."

What kind of response is that? Is Jesus rolling over? His life is handed over to the powers-that-be just by being before Pilate. Jesus' response allows his fate to be handed over, too. Is he giving in or stubbornly silent? His answer is essentially a non-answer. Maybe Pilate, too, has to answer, "Who do you say that I am?"

His actions will decide.

Pilate defers to the crowd next. The crowd makes so many accusations, but they're not explicit. We don't know what they are. They are obviously damning enough that it seems anyone would defend themselves. But, Jesus doesn't answer these accusations - to Pilate's amazement.

Is Jesus surrendering to the crowd? Or, is he stubbornly committed to the crowd answering the question, "Who do you say that I am?" It seems an undecidable question.

Is Jesus surrendering or is he determined to unalive himself?

Theology wants to fill in the blanks with predetermined answers. Theology frequently overexplains to avoid or fill the void that difficulties, struggles, and helplessness open up in life.

Traditional theologies say he's being obedient. Jesus must be crucified for our sins. There's a debt to pay. Jesus is a victim, but for a glorious purpose.

Other theologies are more tragic. They aim to reveal God's work midst the injustice. Jesus is oppressed. His non-answers represent the silence of the oppressed before all worldly oppressors. Jesus' deference to Pilate simply shows the helpless submission every poor, discarded and scapegoated person experiences before the powers. Jesus doesn't die for our sins as much as dies by its power. In Jesus, God takes on the sins of the world as opposed to demand payment for them. In Jesus, God sides with the oppressed. God experiences and bears the injustices of the world.

For me, Jesus' moments before Pilate remind me that surrender is ultimately spiritual. It's not black or white, right or wrong, either/or, victory or defeat. The meaning of surrender depends on what it reveals to us. Its "goodness" or "badness" depends on what happens next...and what happens next even after that.

Surrender is part of nearly every human journey. This moment with Jesus before Pilate affirms that my struggle to surrender and give in or stay determined to my goal may be a false choice. It's also a real experience in which God can be at work. In Jesus, God, too, faces the most difficult decision to stay the course and risk losing everything, or surrender and lose everything to reveal what can't be lost. There's a strange comfort in that.

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