In the coming months, we will occasionally feature student reflections on books they've read in class or other aspects of their life and studies. In the following essay, Matthew Baugher explores surrender through the writings of medieval authors Erasmus and Augustine.
What must a man do to receive the most valuable possession possible?
According to Christ, the answer is simple: surrender his life to Him (Matthew 16: 25-26). Although the answer might be simple, living it out is quite hard. To help people understand "surrender," Desiderius Erasmus wrote a Handbook of the Christian Knight in 1503. Knights in Erasmus’ day trained to win battles and obtain coveted treasures. Interpreting the paradox that Jesus sets out in Matthew 16, Erasmus explained that when one gives up the pursuit of worldly glory and material pleasures to follow Christ, he actually gains a much better prize. In the Handbook of the Christian Knight, he encourages humanity to put away the attractive pleasures of the flesh and seek after the nobler treasures of Christ.
Erasmus intended the Handbook for a French knight who spent his life chasing after carnal pursuits such as drinking and reveling in hunting parties. This knight’s wife expressed concern for her husband’s lack of piety. Erasmus addressed her concern in his manual, filling it with advice to her husband on how to be a Christian knight by fighting the spiritual battle for his soul. This advice also applied to other Christians, encouraging them to be more vigilant, like a knight, in guarding their lives from temptations. As a soldier for Christ, how do you prepare for battle?
In the Handbook, Erasmus writes about replacing “bad” company with “good.” What does this mean? First, the Christian must step away from friends who practice sin and draw others along with them. After surrendering to Christ, Christians will find there are better friends than those: friends that encourage and build up others, directing their thoughts toward noble things. Second, Erasmus encourages Christians to stop surrounding themselves with the sensual pleasures of the body but rather fill their minds with the purer pleasures of the Word of God. This involves turning one’s focus from material possessions to eternal treasures, that which thieves cannot steal and moths and rust cannot destroy (Matthew 6:19-20). The peace of mind one will receive cannot be lost. “Good fortune,” Erasmus writes, “usually comes to those who are not looking for it, and certainly if you are attached to absolutely nothing at all, what comes your way will be beneficial.” Medieval knights greatly valued camaraderie within their corps. After putting aside earthly-minded friends, the Christian knight will see the worthlessness of worldly possessions and realize that Christ is a better companion than all of them.
With this advice, Erasmus echoes Augustine’s call for friendship with God. In his Confessions, Augustine states,
“The life which we live in this world has its attractiveness because of… its beauty and its harmony… Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls. Yet sin is committed for the sake of all these things and others of this kind when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law.”
As Augustine recognizes, even something that is good can turn into something detrimental if it distracts us from seeking God. “What does ambition seek but honour and glory? Yet You [God] alone are worthy of honour and are glorious for eternity.”
Although Erasmus wrote in the sixteenth century, his exhortations apply directly to Christians today who yet pursue the pleasures of this world. Are Christians in the twenty-first century willing to surrender their possessions and pleasures to follow Christ’s commands? Today, more than ever, we need to embrace this idea of surrender. Erasmus addresses a battle that all Christians have faced and always will face: the decision between chasing worldly pleasures or seeking Christ.
I believe surrender is the most essential idea a Christian must learn. In my own spiritual journey, I have wondered, at times, whether God’s way really was the most fulfilling. I can affirm with a definite “Yes! It is.” When I chased after worldly trivialities, I found them worthless and disappointing. When I put my focus on God, surrendering these pleasures, I gained peace and joy. I am continually learning that rejecting earthly follies and walking the “straight and narrow” is truly fulfilling. When one decides to follow Christ, joy will fill the soul.
I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said:
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16: 25-26).
Erasmus helped me to visualize what this looks like by using the imagery of a knight learning to surrender his battles for earthly prizes and devoting his life completely to Christ. Through that surrender, one will receive an eternal peace that only comes from knowing Christ. Even though surrender is challenging, it changes one's life and impacts eternity.
As a pre-med student at Sattler College, Matthew Baugher has enjoyed his transition from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to the streets of Boston. He finds college to be a stretching experience and loves the challenge of cultivating his academic stamina, his relationships with others, and most importantly, his relationship with God.