A man wandered too close to the edge of a cliff and slipped over the edge. Fortunately, he was able to grab a tree growing out of the rock, saving him from a fall to certain death. Unfortunately, it was all he could do to hang on, and it was only a matter of time before he would lose his grip. So he started calling for help. When no one answered, in desperation, he called out, “God, please help me.” Suddenly, a voice spoke out from above.
“This is God. I will save you, but you’re going to have to do exactly what I tell you to do.”
“Anything you say, God.”
“Good. Now here’s what you need to do. Let go!”
After a long moment of silence, the man called out:
“Is there anybody else up there?”
“Let go? Are you crazy?”
Much of the time letting go isn’t that dramatic and doesn’t require a leap of faith. We all encounter situations when continuing a course of action doesn’t make sense because it’s either not helping or even making things worse. Consider an owner of a failing business who is about to go bankrupt or someone fretting over a situation they can’t control. While the right course of action is straightforward, making and acting on the decision is another matter. The Serenity Prayer succinctly expresses what we need to do:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
In the spiritual life, letting go is also driven by the best course of action, although now its supernatural wisdom, and not natural rational thinking, that guides us. What should we let go? Attachments, or the things that come between us and following God’s will, such as possessions, recognition, power, or pleasure. Actions, thoughts, or objects that interfere with our vocation to holiness or our state of life (i.e., married life). We need to get rid of anything that leads to sin. Judging by secular cultural standards alone, we might not recognize what is unhealthy for us.
Other situations may be less clear and require a step of faith. We sense the Holy Spirit leading us to change careers or to help someone in a hazardous situation. We may discern God’s hand in the leading, but it means leaving a secure path behind and stepping into unfamiliar and life-changing territory. Entering a relationship with Jesus Christ is like this. The wisdom and strength we need often comes through prayer.
Things Are Never as Easy as They Seem
When it comes to letting go, two things frequently get in the way.
First, it’s not always easy to know when it’s the right thing to do. Like the Kenny Rogers’ song, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” (The Gambler, 1978). That’s especially true when we have mixed messages. The approach that’s failing could be something we find rewarding. It could be a relationship that we want to work, but it isn’t. Or we feel responsible and don’t want to admit defeat. We’ve heard many stories of how perseverance won the day, and we don’t want to be a quitter.
If letting go is a response to God’s wisdom, then that’s what we need to seek through the Sacred Scriptures, Church teaching, prayer, and wise counsel. God never leads us to sin, to disobey Him, to act uncharitably, or to break with the Church. When we are on a healthy course, we better have a good reason to deviate from it. And if we seek the Spirit’s guidance, He will give us peace with the right course of action.
Second, we have to come to terms with losing control. Have you ever had to walk away from something knowing that when you did, things could get worse once you’re gone? I have, and I don’t like it.
I once led a group of students that had really come together as a community and was enthusiastic. Circumstances were such, however, that I could not stay in charge, and I had to turn it over to someone else. In six months, the group had disbanded. Could I have saved it if I had stayed? Probably. But should I have? No. It’s times like these I have to remind myself that I am not the world’s savior. We don’t make such a move lightly, but sometimes we have to accept that we can’t control everything.
It’s always possible that the obstacle to letting go is our ego. We like the attention, recognition, and sense of power or value we feel when we think we’re in control. “Why,” we ask, “does the abused person continue to stay with her assailant?” There is an ego need crying for help and they’re willing to put up with awful things just to receive the few small crumbs occasionally thrown their way.
Letting Go = Surrender to God
Letting go is more than just stopping something; it’s surrendering to God and choosing a different path that leads to Jesus. Jesus told us what it meant to be His disciple in the Gospel of Luke:
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Lk. 9:23 NABRE
Denying yourself means going against our natural desires and inclinations when they oppose Christ’s kingship over us.
Take up your cross.
Our “cross” is not other things or people outside of us. The cross is what we embrace when we let go of the flesh and follow after Christ.
Letting go is more than self-denial or asceticism. It is following after Jesus, who is the Lord of Life. We are to do what He says and become like Him. In this, we can never go wrong.
Letting Go is part of a series on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.