One of my proudest accomplishments this semester, and of my Swarthmore career, has been collaborating with other students for the publication of Swarthmore College’s first journal of Christian thought and discourse, Peripateo. Originally the dream of a friend of mine, with the help of many students it became a reality this past week. Last Wednesday we released a couple hundred print copies, as well as an online version of our journal.
Below is my article which was published in the first edition. If you are interested in seeing the online version of the whole journal (and you should because all of the pieces are great!!) click on this link. If you are interested in seeing other journals from the Augustine Collective, the collective of undergraduate Christian journals that we are a part of, click here.
Note: Because this piece was written for a college journal, it is a bit longer than a normal blog post.
More than Words: A Reflection on “He Wants It All” by foreverJONES
You can listen to the song here.
This is not an aspect of Christianity that Christians like to talk about. We mask it in more savory phrases like “giving your life to Christ.” We sing about it, read Bible verses about it, and even listen to sermons about it. But we are slow to talk about it, slower to give thought to its implications. I’m talking about, of course, the idea of human submission to God.
If I had paid more attention to the songs I sang growing up I might have realized sooner the depth and complexity of the concept of submission. Surrendering to God is more than a song, but for many years I did not allow the message to penetrate deeper than the words I sang. It was not until I was in college that I began to feel the full impact of these lyrics.
Music itself plays an important role in the way the Christian tradition promotes these ideas, and within the black church gospel music has developed its own unique style. I love gospel’s style; its riffs, runs, and big voices shaped so much of my childhood. For me, my faith and gospel music are so intertwined and connected that I cannot imagine what my faith would be like without the experience of the richness of gospel music. Still, for too long I allowed myself to enjoy the experience of gospel music without being captured by the truth of its words. Enthralled by the music, I did not learn to appreciate the message until much later.
By reflecting on the lyrics to one of my favorite gospel songs, “He Wants It All” by Forever Jones, I hope to pay homage to the music that played an important role in my spiritual formation and development. This is a song that I’ve consistently turned to since first hearing it some years ago. Its lyrics continue to have meaning for me, and are a constant reminder of how much God desires of me: He does not want a part of me, but rather all of who I am.
The song opens with a depiction of a God walking along the earth, crying out, searching for children who will love him completely—a striking image that echoes Jesus’ words in Luke 19:10¹ and those of the Apostle John in John 1:10-13.² What is particularly poignant about this image is that God is not remote, distant, or emotionless, but actively searching for those who would love Him. This is a God that chose to step into the world, to seek, and to do what it took to save those he created. Furthermore, God wants it all. All means all: our lives, thoughts, words, emotions, choices, dreams, education, relationships—everything. The Bible exhorts us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”³ and to “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.”⁴ Our lives are to be presented to God as living sacrifices, meant to be continual abandonment of self to His will. With these words, God has laid claim to all we are.
The song gives no reason or basis for why God asks for so much, and assumes the ultimate goodness of God’s desire. But the truth and goodness of God’s request for everything, even for a Christian, is not obvious. In fact, I spent most of my life believing that God wanted little more of me than that I be happy. I’d sat in church my whole life singing lyrics such as “I surrender all,” and “I owe it all to You” countless times without giving further thought to the implications of those words. The message of surrender, submission even, had never truly, deeply penetrated my mind: I had completely missed one of the most central and key aspects of Christianity. It is a chilling thought: you can sing words about relinquishing your whole life to Christ, and even feel that you believe them, but when you examine your life you see that you really aren’t surrendering much at all.
For me, this process of examination really began after I entered Swarthmore. I first heard “He Wants It All” the summer after my freshman year of college, riding in the car with my parents listening to our favorite gospel station. The song’s lyrics did not immediately strike me; rather, it was the beauty of the music itself that first grabbed my attention. But as I heard the song a few more times over the summer I began to pay more attention to its words. That summer in general was instrumental in my spiritual development, as I began to ask myself what it meant to be a Christian and to develop a relationship with God independently of my parents’ faith. I questioned what it meant to call myself a Christian, and what it meant to say that I had “given” myself to Christ. In effect, I was beginning to take seriously the words of the song, that God in fact wanted more of me than I had previously been willing to give.
Though the theme of submission to God runs throughout scripture, in some sense these concepts seem so remote to life at Swarthmore, and certainly in the U.S. at large. We value independence, self-determination, and self-sufficiency. We are told and we tell others that when something wants all of us it’s a scam, cult, or just dangerous. When friends give too much of themselves in a relationship we worry about the toll it takes on their emotional health and social lives. All of these things make it hard for us to conceive of how a god could justly require all of a person’s life. And anyone who claims to be completely led by a god must surely be “naive” or “insane” not to recognize that “God wanting it all” is simply a proxy for your church or religion wanting it all from you.
But the beauty of God is that life with him is meant to be a reciprocal, loving relationship. He wants everything because He has first given everything, in creation, in sacrifice, in dedication. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.”⁵ The action of love was first taken by God; we are not meant to make the first step in the relationship, because God has eternally taken those steps for us. The appropriate response to love is love, and as we give love, love is given back to us again. The proof? After telling us to seek first the Kingdom of God, the Bible promises that “all these things will be given to you as well.” ⁶ The reciprocity of the relationship is more than merely edifying for me; it is fulfilling in the most wonderful way, because it gives purpose to everything I do. Submitting to God’s will is not about giving up things in life; it is about allowing Him to take over and infuse life with purpose, and yes, to realign priorities.
It is with this understanding, then, that I began to let go of my “idols.” The word “idol” might bring celebrities to mind, the idols our culture reveres and emulates. But this song illuminates so much more than our misguided choice to idolize celebrities. My idols were those things that kept me from giving all of who I was to God, those things that I continue to look to over and above God in determining how I make decisions. Idols can take the form of the things in life that we love the most and mold our lives according to. They are the things that get in the way of us acknowledging God fully. Again, it goes back to our values. As an American I have been taught implicit and explicit lessons my whole life on what to order my life around, from family, to education, wealth, acceptance, etc. And while all of these things are good things, they all miss the point. God is, or should be, the point of what I aim for, while the rest are just points along the journey. When they become my main focus, then they become idols. And for most of my life my main focus was anything but God.
Whether religious or not, it is a useful exercise to examine our lives and to contemplate what exactly our actions point toward. Why do we do the things we do? What do our choices say about what we value? I think we all live more for our personal enjoyment than we choose to admit. Personally, for a long time I claimed to keep Christ “first” in my life, but in reality I had not learned that true submission does not place my personal enjoyment above all else. My personal enjoyment of life is fine, but should not be my main aim in living. Instead, submission to God should be a realigning of my life in such a way that my priorities become second to His. I have come to the conclusion that if the words I sing point towards God and surrendering to his will then surely other areas of my life should equally point in that direction as well. Of course, this is an ongoing process; I’m still growing and learning and falling short of my ideal.
From there, our next question should be, what should we be living for? What are those ideals outside of ourselves that are worth submitting to? For me, I found my answer in the words of this song, to love God with my whole heart and to serve him with my life. It was almost a relief: after giving so much of my time, emotional and mental energy, and money towards everything else in life, I finally figured out that is so much better to direct these things towards a relationship that gave purpose and fulfillment in return. I found that as I submitted to God I did not lose, but instead gained so much more.
1 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10 (NIV)
2 “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” John 1:10-13 (NIV)
3 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)
4 Romans 12:1 (NIV)
5 Jeremiah 31:3 (NIV)
6 Matthew 6:33 (NIV)