Contemplative Life

A review of “Surrender to Love”

In his book Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality, David Benner argues that surrendering to Divine Love is the key to spiritual growth and genuine transformation.  In fact, Benner goes so far as to say that “the deepest need for all human beings is to surrender to Perfect love” (30) because it is only through this act of surrender that we are freed from our own sinful self-preoccupation and restored to right relationship with others, self and God.

What I found especially helpful about Benner’s book was his emphasis on fear. He devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between love and fear (or, should I say, lack of relationship) and notes that the presence of fear is a sure sign of the absence of true surrender. A soul that has surrendered to love, and at rest in that love, is a soul incapable of fear, for “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 1:18). The experience of fear in a Christian indicates an absence of love and the need for surrender.

In order to silence that fear and truly surrender, Benner suggests that the Christian must come to a fundamental knowledge of God’s love through prayer. He calls this kind of knowledge “contemplative knowing” (the knowledge of God’s love we gain through experience) and argues that it is less subject to doubt than mere “objective knowing” (the knowledge of God’s love we gain through scripture.) For this reason, Benner stresses the need for contemplative prayer practices such as silence, solitude and imaginative contemplation that aim at direct encounter with Christ.

However, coming to a knowledge of God’s love for us is difficult because of barriers to intimacy, and Benner argues that the major barrier is an unwillingness to be vulnerable. Love is transformational only when it is received in vulnerability because God is not interested in bolstering the “false self” but in replacing it with the essential self. For that reason, the only self God will meet is the true self and thus we must bring that true self to God in prayer, especially in silence. In the experience of silence, the Christian is exposed – exposed to herself and to the God who loves her in spite of what He (and she) sees – and it is that experience, of being loved by God in her most vulnerable and shameful places, that transforms.

But ultimately the point of surrender is not so that we might know God’s love in a fundamental way (even though this is a necessary prerequisite); the point of surrender is that we might become that love. Benner hits it on the head when he says that “the point of the spiritual journey is not simply to be received back into the arms of the Father but to become like the Father” (89). We embark on this spiritual journey not only that we might become who God intended for us to but in order that we might become the very presence of Jesus in the world.

Unfortunately this process of becoming love requires a certain amount of un-becoming, too: the unbecoming that is death – the death of the “false self” and of one’s persistently sinful will. And so it’s not surprising that a book about surrender ultimately leads to the cross – the ultimate act of surrender, that was, at the same time, the ultimate act of Love. Benner’s emphasis on the cross is important for it reminds us that “we come to love through sin and failure rather than success and self-improvement” (92). The process of learning love – and becoming love – is not a process of ascent but a process of descent, of dying to patterns and practices and ways of being that war against vulnerability, humility and genuine surrender. It is a process that requires that we daily die to the pride that says we can transform ourselves if we only try harder and to the self-preoccupation that that kind of striving produces. Ultimately, surrendering to love requires that we release our grasping grip so that we might lean back into the wide-open arms of God’s love and grace.

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