Pray! If not to God, then to a god. Admit that we are defeated, because this is the first step towards victory.

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These are the words of a military doctor fighting for the lives of COVID-19 patients in Suceava, Romania. The city was struck so hard by the disease that it had to be completely closed, along with its surrounding towns, with quarantine enforced by military order.

“All the dead are just numbers now”, the doctor wrote on his Facebook page. “But the time will come when names will be public. We will all have gone through losses. You will look for a shoulder to cry on, but you will not find it, because everyone will have someone to mourn. It will test our essence; it will shake all humanity within us…”.

Conflict, power, and self-determination

Recognising defeat is not easy for us. We are endowed with a survival instinct which helps us identify, even on the brink of a decisive confrontation with death, multiple strategies which help us to avoid danger and triumph over adversity.

Humans are born to fight, to win, to possess, and control. Whether we realise it or not, what guides us in this life is the need and the instinct to fight, and win. If we can have control over those around us, over the surrounding world, and over our own lives, we believe that this guarantees our safety in the face of the unknown. It is in the name of this fierce will to survive that people have fought, from antiquity to the present day, often at the cost of their own life. We fight to conquer, to rule, to have power, to earn rights, to advance our own ideas, and to be happy.

Therefore, in countless places in the world, and at different times in history, defeat has been considered infinitely more shameful than death itself.

Self-determination seems to be the goal of every being who draws breath on earth. This self-determination is unconcerned by the rejection, even the annihilation, of others. I assert myself, to the detriment of others, and thus, I emerge victorious, alive, and successful. In an article entitled “On the gifts of humiliation”, Costică Brădăţan, professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University, wrote that a clear example of self-determination is power, which, in the common opinion, must be “manifested, felt, displayed and absorbed”, otherwise “it’s null”. Power is not believed to truly exist unless it leaves a mark on other people’s minds and bodies. Thus, without any moral or spiritual education to check raw power, the theatre of human interactions will only ever be, in essence, a battlefield.

Meetings between people, Brădăţan continues, “usually turn into orgies of self-determination. Our struggle for power shapes the way we act and behave, the way we think and feel. And, during this process, it corrupts us—easily, imperceptibly, becoming more and more alluring. Given the deceptive nature of power, even its most delicate touch can prove fatal to one’s integrity. In the long run, like life itself, power is like a deadly disease. To become human in the true sense of the word, we need to oppose both.”

Today, more than ever, a major challenge we face is the acceleration of change everywhere: in economic life, in our private or social lives, in our thought patterns and behaviours. The need to adapt quickly is crucial to keeping up with society. Therefore, a man’s strategies to assert himself honourably in the world are intensified and diversified. The strategy of personal development teaches one how to fight, not with an enemy on the battlefield, but with internal enemies, generated by modern Western life: anxiety, relativization of values, and so on. In any case, no matter what adverse forces he faces in life, man remains a fierce fighter, not wanting to let go of the reins of happiness, fulfilment, and success. From birth to death, perseverance is the indelible imprint of human nature.

“If we do not humble ourselves, we will lose this war”, confessed the doctor who foresaw the terror of defeat in the midst of his fight for his COVID-19 patients. However, in the heart of this battle, this medical hero identified a path to victory—the most unusual and unpopular of paths.

Self-abandonment, self-renunciation, and self-denial

What if perseverance, strength and self-determination are not the real paths to success? What if they are just the expression of a human nature alienated and fooled by its own ambitions? What if true success is achieved in a completely different way?

Although it seems difficult to accept, Christianity proposes, as the ultimate success strategy, the exact opposite of perseverance, power, and self-determination. Instead of conflict, it proposes surrender. Instead of power, humility. And instead of struggle, giving up and ceding control. This is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching—foolishness in the eyes of many. For others, His teaching has proved too difficult to understand, both in past epochs where survival was everything, and today, in this era so obsessed with success and fulfilment. Can humility or loss of control over one’s life be a path to success, or at least, a step toward success? Is our ambition and our obsession with success and fulfilment an obstacle to true success?

Can we “fulfil our humanity not only by self-determination (which would only get a hold of us and tie us up even tighter), but by self-denial”, as Professor Brădăţan suggests?

What is this self-denial, this surrender and loss of control, that seems to involve making ourselves so vulnerable to adversity? It is neither passivity, nor negligence, nor helplessness. This is not a call for resignation, indifference, or weakness. Christianity does not render man insignificant or worthless, does not ask man to be an insignificant and worthless being, degrading him under the sin his teachings had sanctioned in the flesh. On the contrary, Christ placed the highest value on man, and did not recommend a life devoid of meaning, value, and brilliance. He showed us another strategy for success: a strategy completely opposite to the one to which humanity has always been wont to try, in which the very notions of value and brilliance have been corrupted.

“He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30), said the revolutionary prophet John the Baptist, after he came to understand the unique significance of Jesus’ mission. It is not easy to admit that another is better and more competent than you, but it is honest, and it is humble to do so, and it is also a step towards success.

Surrender means admitting that your perspective on things, while it is often the best one you can come up with, may not be the only or most appropriate one. It means accepting that someone else may have a better vision than yours. If you do not accept this, remaining rigid will lead you nowhere. If you do admit this, it is a step towards success.

Abandoning your own selfish perspective means giving up your fears, accepting that “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20). If you don’t, you will stay scared and unable to grow.

Surrender can also mean moving outside of your comfort zone, understanding that sometimes you have to act against the limit of fear, just like the apostle Peter when he walked on water (Matthew 14:28-31). Otherwise, you will stagnate. Surrender is a step towards success.

Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob, who had to pass through the dungeon (Genesis 39-41) on his way to becoming prime minister of ancient Egypt, is a beautiful example of how self-denial sometimes means sitting in the dark, not in the bright light of the sun. But it is in the dark, beyond the decor, that hidden and subtle things begin to take shape. Success can be found here, too.

When Jesus, in His divine nature, accepted death on the cross for a nation of ungrateful people, He surrendered Himself. Taking up your cross means abandoning yourself.

According to Christianity, the road to success is found, paradoxically, in the taking up of one’s cross. No matter how great the temptation to avoid it, there is no victory outside of this. Each one of our crosses—our trials and struggles—are personal, depending on the dilemmas and turmoil in each of our lives. But they are real.

In psychotherapy, it is held that being unable to accept situations that we do not like and resisting them leads to problematic thoughts and behaviours. Anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive attitudes, and addictions mark this way of thinking. Self-renunciation, or self-denial, brings freedom. This means a deep anchoring in the spiritual life, and a detachment from the material one. We live in two worlds, one of which is the reverse of the other: a material, physical, present world, and a spiritual world.

Most of the time, we inhabit both worlds without any problem. Sometimes, however, one will have to prevail over the other, and this is the time when serious choices need to be made. Then we will have to let go of what our senses tell us, accepting that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Let us give up consuming whatever seems right to us and instead accept the food of God’s Word—which sometimes plainly means ‘giving up’. It might be the greatest step we can take towards success.

When we fight hard for ourselves, we are in fact fighting against ourselves. Taking control over oneself is not recommended by Christianity. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).

In reality, we are only left with what we have given to others. In the words of the military doctor: “Admit that we are defeated, because that is the first step to victory.”

Regarding the COVID-19 crisis in which we find ourselves, let us remember that our weakness can be strength. A time of helplessness in which God is recognised and called upon is a time of victory. When we learn to depend on God’s grace, human weakness surpasses any success that man can achieve through his own resources and coping mechanisms. The sincere and heartfelt testimony of the our military doctor friend shows how we are in a particularly difficult situation, with major implications on many levels. But there is a way to prevail: to give up oneself in these conditions, allowing God to take control, to lead us, and for us to cry out even louder to Him. We must understand that our strategies are limited, but God’s are infinite. This is the first step towards success.

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Laura Maftei, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Social Sciences at Adventus University.