Is there a difference between letting go of someone, or something and giving up on someone, or something? The initial emotions of both of these might feel the same, but they are very different. Both feel like loss and are hard to accept. Knowing the difference and choosing the healthier of the two, letting go, can be a powerful tool for emotional and spiritual growth.
A Father and his son. “I give up!” is a refrain I remember my oldest son saying when he was younger and frustrated at losing a game of one on one basketball with his dad. I would tell him, “Son, the game isn’t over yet.” He never did like that but he would always continue to play until the end. My son had to accept the reality that he was not able to beat me (unless I let him of coarse), this is letting go. Giving up would have looked like him deciding to never play with me again. Nowadays he is able to beat me and I’m the one who feels like giving up. Likewise, now I have to accept the reality that he’s better than me. Giving up is form of quitting and a sign of immaturity, while letting go can be a form of surrender and a sign of maturity.
There is a famous story of a father and son that Jesus once told. You may recognize it as the story of the Prodigal Son found in the gospel of Luke chapter 15. The son makes a rash decision to give up on his family and his future. He asked his father for his inheritance up front, which would have been the equivalent of wishing his father was dead. The father sadly agreed and gave him what he asked for. The son ran off and we are told he spent all of his money on lose and reckless living. The son finds himself broke, broken and eating out of a pigs trough.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:17-20 (NIV)
Two observations from the verses above. First it says, “When he came to his senses…” This is true awareness, rather than forced awareness. Sometimes it takes losing and destroying everything before we come to our senses and wake up. While we are living in selfishness it is almost impossible to recognize our destructive behaviors and attitudes. We don’t see how our behaviors have affected the people who love us and so we stay stuck in that pig trough until we wake up. Although some people never do wake up. His awareness causes him to remember how much he had lost and what he was missing back home.
The second observation is the father’s response. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” This isn’t exactly what you would expect after someone betrays and rejects your love. The father was filled with compassion and ran to him. No judgment or bitterness, no grudges, just joy at his return home. This was only possible because he had not giving up on his son. He had let him go – entrusting his son to God’s love and discipline. He had to even let go of the possibility that his son would ever return. This is why he was so overjoyed when he finally showed up.
The point of all this is that the father had to let go of his son. After all the son had done to him and the family, he let him go. As hard as it was, the father did not chase after him or force him to stay. Even when word of a famine in the land spread, the father still did not go out and look for his son. The father had to let go not only of his son, but also the pain he caused him by wishing him dead and the possibility of never seeing his son again.
If we are honest with ourselves, people and most situations are completely out of our ability to control. People hurt us, take advantage of us and sometimes even abuse us. We have to be willing to let go of our pain and that person. We have to process our pain and grieve the loss of that relationship. This doesn’t mean giving up on them, although there may be good reasons to do so. It does mean that we entrust God to do what only he can do with our problems.
So how do we work on letting go instead of giving up? In a really helpful article written by Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D. called Important Tips on How to Let Go and Free Yourself she gives 12 tips on how to truly practice letting go. Ilene identifies the heart of the issue when she says, “Some people have trouble letting go of their pain or other unpleasant emotions about their past because they think those feelings are part of their identity. In some ways, they may not know who they are without their pain.” The longer we stay stuck in our pain, the more likely that pain begins to define and control us. We must be willing to process our pain and losses in order move on to our passions and greater health.
The longer we stay stuck in our pain, the more likely that pain begins to define and control us. We must be willing to process our pain and losses in order to move on to our passions and to greater emotional and spiritual health.Tweet
How different would your life look if you practiced letting go instead of giving up? How do you practice letting go? What situations or relationships have you given up on rather than practicing letting go and trusting God?