by Steven Norris
“I am not in control of your life, but it seems to me that you are going to have to make a choice. You cannot continue to do two full-time callings. You are going to have to surrender control to one or the other.”
I can still remember that day very clearly and the friend who was having a painful heart-to-heart conversation with me. Like many, I have long struggled with wanting to maintain control over the varied circumstances of my life. I have found surrender a difficult path to walk.
The same might be said of the hymn writer, Judson Van De Venter. Born on a farm near Dundee, Michigan in 1855, Van De Venter wavered back and forth between competing desires as to his vocation and life’s calling. Perhaps his most well-known hymn reflects on this tension, containing these lines: “All to Jesus I surrender / All to Him I freely give / I will ever love and trust Him / In His presence daily live.”
Reflecting on the circumstances that led to these words, Van De Venter wrote: “The song was written while I was conducting [an evangelistic] meeting at East Palestine, Ohio…For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life. I became an evangelist and discovered down deep in my soul a talent hitherto unknown to me. God had hidden a song in my heart, and touching a tender chord, He caused me to sing.”
Van De Venter went on to travel extensively throughout the United States, England, and Scotland doing evangelistic work. In 1923, he moved to Tampa, Florida and began teaching hymnology at the Florida Bible Institute. Even after retirement, he would come to the school from time to time, investing in students’ lives, and inviting them to his home for an evening of fellowship and singing. One such student in the late 1930s, William “Billy” Graham, would go on to a celebrated career as an evangelist himself. One can only imagine the difference in the world had Van De Venter not surrendered all at that fateful turning point in his life.
Letting go of control and choosing to surrender all to God can be a difficult task. We want to do the right thing, even if we don’t know for certain what the right thing is. I have found that surrendering to God is rarely about the heroic moments or life-altering decisions. Instead, it is more often about being faithful in the little things — doing what you can with what you have — and trusting God to do for you what you could not do for yourself.
One of my seminary professors would capture this same spirit with his regular blessing: “Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Pray daily. And then leave the rest to God.” Isn’t that what surrendering all is truly about?