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No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.
It was a warm September evening, twenty-three years ago. I sat quietly on my bed, gazing through my open window at the brilliant colors that lit up the sky as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. It was a beautiful scene, but I couldn’t enjoy it. My heart was heavy and my mind distracted.
Friday night had come and gone, and he still hadn’t called. An entire week had passed and I had heard nothing from him. My mind turned over the possibilities. “Maybe he’s lost interest in me,” I told myself gloomily. “With all of the beautiful, godly girls he’s been meeting, he’s probably found someone else.”
It had been two months since my friendship with Eric had shifted into a romantic relationship. Only a few days after Eric first shared with me that he felt God was directing our lives together, he had left on a previously scheduled trip to spend a year at a missionary training school on the other side of the country. For months he’d felt God prompting him to participate in the training program, and we both agreed that he should keep his commitment to go.
It was difficult to be apart. Just as our relationship was beginning to be cultivated, we suddenly found ourselves miles away from each other with no easy way to communicate. Today it’s hard to imagine life without email or texting, but those mediums of communication didn’t really exist back then. The only way for us to keep in touch was through letters or the long-distance phone calls that Eric made from the payphone at the ministry base where he was staying. Usually he called at least once a week. Hearing his voice always gave me an emotional boost. It helped me feel connected to him and reminded me that he still cared about me even though we were miles apart.
But that week, I’d heard nothing from him. Anxiety began to plague me. I felt restless and depressed. I couldn’t help remembering my earlier romances in which young men had pledged lifelong devotion to me, only to go chasing after other girls a few weeks later. Of course, I knew Eric was different. In fact, our entire relationship was altogether different than the shallow, self- focused flings I’d had in earlier years. Our love story was pure, honorable, and Christ-centered. And yet, whenever something unexpected happened my mind would immediately rush to worst-case scenarios.
I stared at the silent phone sitting on my desk. What had been so important to keep him from our weekly time of talking and encouraging each other? I was agitated and confused. Out of desperation, I began to pray.
“God, why am I feeling this way?” I asked in frustration. “Why can’t You just prompt Eric to call me and put me out of this misery?” As I buried my head in my arms, I began to sense a quiet Voice speaking to my heart. “Do you really want to know why you are so miserable? If you do, I will show you.”
I hesitated. Did I truly want to hear God’s voice right now? What if He spoke something I wasn’t ready to hear? What if He told me to let go of my relationship with Eric completely? The very thought made me cringe with emotional pain. I felt so strongly that Eric was the one with whom I was meant to spend the rest of my life. But then I remembered that my greatest desire was to be in the center of God’s will, even if it was painful. He was more important to me than any human relationship ever could be.
“Yes, Lord,” I finally responded, “please show me what You want to show me. If there is anything I am doing wrong, I want to know what it is. If this relationship is not from You, I want to know.”
Like a patient Father, He lovingly spoke to my heart. “The reason you are so concerned about losing Eric is because you are clinging to him far too tightly. You have begun to build your hopes and dreams around this relationship, instead of around Me. You have begun to find your happiness and security in a man, instead of in Me.”
I was startled as God’s conviction pricked my soul. Hadn’t I already surrendered everything to God a few years earlier? I clearly remembered kneeling in my room and genuinely giving Him control of every area of my life, telling Him that He could have His way with me, even if the path was difficult. I recalled how I had given up pursuits, ambitions, and popularity in order to be completely consecrated to Him.
My relationship with Eric wasn’t something that we rushed ahead with on our own. We had honored Him every step of the way. Our unfolding love story was a gift from Him, wasn’t it? Was God now asking me to give it up? Would God even do something like that?
Immediately I remembered the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. Abraham dearly loved and treasured Isaac as a miraculous blessing from God. God had promised Abraham that through Isaac, his descendants would be established and all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham fully expected to see God’s promises fulfilled as his son Isaac grew up and had children of his own.
And then, something totally unexpected happened. After God had given Abraham this good and perfect gift, He asked Abraham to surrender his son back to Him: “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2).
Abraham’s mind must have reeled in confusion. Why would God ask him to sacrifice his only son, after all that had been promised concerning Isaac’s future? And why would God give him a miraculous son in his old age, only to ask for him back again? How could a loving God want him to do something so heartbreaking?
Yet Abraham obeyed. Like Mary of Bethany who poured out her most precious possession upon the feet of Jesus, Abraham willingly raised the knife over Isaac to sacrifice what was most precious to him as an act of surrender and obedience to God.
What prompted such unfathomable obedience? Quite simply, Abraham had his priorities straight. Isaac was important to him, but God was more important. Abraham demonstrated his complete consecration to the Father by his willingness to give up everything that was precious to him in order to put God first.
God spared Isaac’s life and provided a ram in the nearby thicket for Abraham to use as the sacrifice in place of his son. He told Abraham: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Gen. 22:12).
As I meditated on this story, I began to understand. Even the good and perfect gifts that God had given me — like my love story with Eric — needed to be continually surrendered back to Him. Instead of selfishly clinging to the gifts He had given me, I needed to constantly hold them with an open hand. Otherwise, the blessings I received in life would become more important to me than the One who had given them to me in the first place. No matter how beautiful and good something might be, it should never take precedence in my heart. That position must be reserved for Him alone.“
“God, forgive me,” I prayed. “I surrender my relationship with Eric back to You. I let go of all my hopes and expectations. Do with this love story as You will.” I rose from my knees with a newfound joy and freedom in my heart. Yes, I still deeply cared about my relationship with Eric. But no longer did I become anxious and depressed when things didn’t flow exactly as I wanted them to. My romantic future was laid at the feet of Jesus. “Lord, have Your way in this love story — I surrender it back to You.” This became my heart’s declaration each time the phone failed to ring or the mailbox was empty.
As the months went by and my relationship with Eric grew stronger, my insecurity began to fade into the background. Yet it wasn’t merely because I was getting to know and trust Eric at a deeper level. Rather, it was because I was learning what it meant to have a surrendered heart — to let go of my tight grasp upon my own hopes and expectations and let God have His way. I began to realize that there was no safer place for my cherished hopes and dreams than at the feet of Jesus.
Jim Elliot once said, “Open my hand to receive the nail of Calvary, as Christ’s was opened. He thought Heaven, yea, equality with God, not a thing to be clutched at. So let me release my grasp.”
Surrender isn’t a topic that Christians usually like to apply to the area of romance and relationships. It’s one thing to offer our money, time, and future to God, but when it comes to our romantic dreams, we often cling to our own desires with a death-grip. And we often spend a great deal of time and energy trying to justify our self-gratifying romantic pursuits rather than truly surrendering them to God. (For more on this, see my devotional called Cross-Centered Love Stories.)
In order for a love story to be truly God-honoring and Christ-centered, we must continually hold it with an open hand. Our relationship with God must always be more important to us than any earthly relationship.
Women throughout history — and in persecuted countries around the world — have willingly risked their lives and their families for the sake of the Gospel. Elisabeth Elliot risked her life by returning to live with the Auca Indians in order to reach them with the hope of Christ — despite the fact they had killed her husband and several other missionaries. Sabina Wurmbrand allowed her husband to be imprisoned for ten years in order to protect the glory of Christ’s name. Corrie ten Boom and her family put each other at risk in order to protect Jews during the Holocaust, and many of them died in the process.
What an amazing testimony our lives can be to this world when the glory of Jesus Christ matters far more to us than our own life or our personal dreams and desires.
Cultivating a Surrendered Heart
One of the most baffling statements Jesus ever made was, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26). The same Bible that tells us to “honor our father and mother,” “respect our husband,” and “love our children” seems to be saying that we cannot follow Christ unless we “hate” our own family members. So what is this all about?
Once again, God is reminding us not to place anything above Jesus Christ — even the good and perfect gifts that He gives us, such as marriage and family. Though it is obvious from the rest of Scripture that He does not desire us to hate our family members in a spiteful, sinful way, it is also clear that we are never to put a higher priority on marriage and family than we do on Jesus Christ.
During our single years, it’s tempting to both idolize and idealize our marriage hopes and dreams, thinking that we’ll finally be happy once we meet Prince Charming and settle down. But this is a dangerous mindset because it keeps us from finding the perfect satisfaction in Jesus Christ that He intends for us. And if we expect marriage to solve the deepest needs within our soul, we’ll only be placing unhealthy, unrealistic expectations upon our future husband and harming our marriage in the process.
Remember, when we are in relationship with Christ, we have everything we need for happiness right now, whether we are married or single. As Corrie ten Boom wrote, “Marriage is not the answer to unhappiness. Happiness can only be found in a balanced relationship with Jesus Christ. When you belong to Christ, you can be happy with or without a husband, secure in Christ alone.”
Of course, God puts a high value on marriage. It was, after all, His idea in the first place. The majority of us are called to be married. And there is certainly nothing wrong with desiring to be married, preparing for marriage, or taking steps toward a romantic relationship with someone as God leads. The problem comes when we place our marriage dreams on a pedestal, putting contentment on hold until that season of life finally comes.
When we are already in a relationship or marriage it’s often tempting to cling tighter to our significant other than we do to Jesus Christ. God calls us to love our husbands and children (see Titus 2:4), but He calls us to love Jesus Christ even more (see Luke 14:26). Our security and identity must come first and foremost from Jesus Christ rather than from our marriage and family.
How can you tell whether you are clinging too tightly to an earthly relationship or romantic dream? Here are a few warning signs:
If marriage (or the hope of marriage) has claimed more of your affection and focus than Jesus Christ, ask God to change your heart. Freshly surrender this area of your life to Him, and remember where the deepest source of fulfillment is truly found: in Him! Remember, there is no better place for your most precious dreams than at the nail-scarred feet that were pierced for you.
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