Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Get a Grip

Stretch out your hands to God, the Great Catcher.

Editor's Note: This sermon was given from an empty gymnasium. To prepare for the topic and really connect with the idea of "letting go," John Ortberg actually took trapeze lessons. You can see the video of this sermon, including clips of him in class here.


Today we're going to learn how to surrender. Today we're going to learn how to let go. God wants to free us from destructive habits, addictions, brokenness, and sin. This is a three step process. The first step: We admit we are powerless over our fatal attraction to doing the wrong thing, and that our lives are unmanageable. We're all in the same boat. Instead of starting: "Peace be with you"—"And also with you"; our liturgy is: "I'm a mess." And all the people said: "Me too."

The second step: We come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This means I recognize I need to be restored to sanity; that apart from God I am not in my right mind. Both of those steps are foundational; really important; they both involve primarily our minds.

Today we are going to talk about the third step. This is an action step. This is a choice. It looks like an act of great weakness. But it turns out to be the step that put people in touch with a great power. We make a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God. There's an old phrase to describe this; it's used a lot in Alcoholics Anonymous, but it actually goes way back before AA ever started: Let go, and let God.

Let go of my fears. Let go of my resentments. Let go of my need to be in control of people and traffic and the weather. Let go of my image. Let go of what I did yesterday. Let go of what might happen tomorrow. Let go of my demand to have my own way. Let go of my life; and let God do for me and in me what I cannot do for myself. Letting go does not come naturally to us.

Rick Warren is a pastor who has taught a lot on this. He said his favorite story is about a man who falls over a cliff and grabbed a branch on his way down—he's 500 feet down with another 500 feet to the bottom. He yelled out: "Is anybody up there?" The voice of God answered: "I'm here. Trust me. Let go." And the man yells: "Is there anybody else up there?" There is nobody else up there.

Trust in the outstretched arms

Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways submit to him, and he will direct your paths." In other words, let go of your need to have your own way, and let God direct your paths. Job 11:13 puts it like this: "Surrender your heart to God; Stretch out your hands to him." Surrender your heart; stretch out your hands—Let go, Let God.

There was once a writer and priest named Henri Nouwen who became fascinated, in the last years of his life, with a group of trapeze artists called the Flying Rodleigh's. There was something about their courage, soaring, trusting, and their dependence on one another that inspired him—like a parable for life with God.

One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, talking about flying. He said, "As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump." "How does it work?" I asked. "The secret," Rodleigh said, "is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar." "You do nothing!" I said, surprised. "Nothing," Rodleigh repeated. "The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It's Joe's task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe's wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him."

My part is to trust, surrender, give up my life; God's part is to catch, to hold, to do in me and for me what I can't do for myself. This is what folks in AA found—as a literal fact. When I try to stop drinking, I can't. It's critically important that the decision in step three was not a decision to stop drinking. When I surrender my whole life, my whole will to God—I am ready to receive the power to do what I can't do.

This is what the apostle Paul found. He wrote in Romans 7:15-25 where we can find God.

(Read Romans 7:15-25)

Where can I find God? At-The-End-Of-My-Rope.com. This step doesn't involve thinking about surrendering. It's about actually surrendering. I can understand about God; even say I believe in God, and still shut God out of my life.

'Letting go' school

Recently I decided to attend "Letting Go" school. There is a place called Circus Center; they actually have trapeze classes. I tried to sign up for one to get ready for this message; to see what it actually feels like to let go. They told me that I'd have to be on the wait list because the class was full. But when I came up, one of the women on the list looked at how high the trapeze is and said, "I have an emergency at work" and she left and I got in.

In this class the most important person to me is the catcher. He gives me a whole set of instructions. He tells me that when the moment comes to get caught I am to look for him, to stretch out my arms toward him, and then to hold my hands perfectly still; with my thumbs as far from my fingers as I can. My only job in that moment is to give him a good target. I am placing my life in his hands. I am trusting that when the moment comes he will want to catch me, and he will be able to catch me.

This isn't just theory. I will do what he tells me to do. I will be with him in order to learn from him how I might begin to do what he does. I will be his trapeze disciple. It's a funny thing—when I stand and watch other people on the trapeze, it looks easy. When someone tells me that the trapeze is a perfectly safe place to be, I believe them. But when it's time for me to climb the ladder, when it's time for me to step out on the platform, something happens in my mind. My mind generates a hundred reasons not to climb up and not to let go. I say I believe, but in the moment of crisis my heart is pounding so apparently it doesn't believe, and my hands are sweating so apparently my hands don't believe.

When I am up on the platform and the trapeze comes toward me the catcher tells me I must lean out; he tells me to not worry that he's got me. I don't want to lean out into space. Leaning out sounds like a stupid idea. I want to lean back. I want to lean on my own understanding. I want to lean on my own two feet. And then he tells me to take the leap of faith. Suddenly I am flying through the air; and I'm exhilarated, scared, excited, and fully alive.

My catcher is giving me directions: arch your back; point your toes; swing your feet up but keep your arms straight. My job is to listen and to wait and to trust and to do what he tells me to do when he tells me to do it. Letting go and getting caught turns out to involve more learning and more practice than I thought. I have a long way to go. But that's ok because my catcher is not in a hurry. Then comes the moment.

Hanging in the air from the bar by my legs; I surrender my heart. I stretch out my hands, and look for the catcher, he tells me to let go of the bar. I don't want to let go. The bar—the trapeze—stands for my life. My old, ego-driven, willful life. I'm afraid if I let it go I will die. And of course I will. Die to that old self-centered, mess-up life. So I can be given a new life.

And those big strong hands come out of nowhere to grab ahold of mine. His palms are not sweaty. His arms are not short. His grip is not weak; and I am caught. I did not know how good it would feel to get caught. It's just the best. That's how it works, in the school of letting go. Fear, decision, surrender, getting caught.

Now, I want to ask you if you have ever done this; ever made the decision to turn your life and will over to the care of God through Jesus? If you haven't, and if you'd like to, I want to invite you to do that today. This doesn't mean saying: "I'm going to clean up my life." It means saying: "God, I invite you to clean up my life. I actually can't do it on my own. I keep clutching on to what I need to let go of."

There was a story online that a mother of eight from Darlington, Maryland, had been visiting next door. When she returned home she went into the living room where she saw her five youngest children huddled in the center of the floor—on her new carpet—very much involved with something wiggly and squirmy. The perplexed mother looked closer. To her total dismay, she discovered that the children were gathered around a family of skunks. In her horror she screamed, "Run, children, run!" They did. Each child grabbed a skunk and ran. I grab my selfishness and run. I grab my resentments and run. I grab my ego and run.

Deeper life change

Half measures and self-improvement will not do the job. I must let go. It is very interesting that in AA this third step is not: Made a decision to stop drinking. You can't stop drinking by aiming directly to stop drinking. You have to aim at a deeper life change. This is sometimes called the principle of indirection. But that's not true only of alcohol problems. Many problems besides alcohol will not yield to a headlong assault powered by the individual alone. I can't stop being proud by trying hard to be humble. I can't defeat lust by trying hard not to lust. I can't stop lying by trying hard to stop lying.

I surrender my life, and my will. To surrender my life means that I commit to following Jesus no matter what the particular outcomes are. Often people want to negotiate a deal with God where I am still in charge but I get help from him when I need it for my little project. That's pseudo-surrender. "I tried trusting God—but I really wanted a spouse and he didn't give me one so it didn't 'work.'" "I tried trusting God, but he didn't take away my anxiety so it didn't 'work.'" In AA, anyone who says that today will be drinking tomorrow.

I will keep following these steps—doing fearless moral inventory; confessing to God and another person, asking God to remove my shortcomings; meeting in fellowship; serving others—that's where we're going with our lives one day at a time. Not to earn brownie points with God but because it is through this way of life that Jesus taught that I receive the power from God to do what my will cannot do.

I surrender my life, and I surrender my will. That means I seek to make my will conform with God's will. In each situation I ask: "God what is your will for me here? Who can I serve? How can I be my best self?" I surrender my need to have my own way. I surrender my demand to be in control and my attempts to run the world.

I was worrying over some task this week, a friend came into my office for about 60 seconds. Mostly to just connect and say "love ya." As they walked away, a thought entered my mind, That's a tiny little bit of the light of the Kingdom of heaven. That's a gift from God coming into my life. John, you can set down your worry. I realized—my worry about how this situation is going to turn out—it's not a lifeline. It's an anchor. Let go.

I just literally stood up at my desk, raised my hands in the air, spread my thumbs to give him a good target—"Catch me Jesus. I'm tired of worrying how things will turn out and what people will think of me." I felt so good—until I noticed someone looking through the window at me like I'd lost my mind. Then I thought—I need to lose my mind, and get a better one.

One last observation before we close. We made a decision to turn our lives and wills—not just over to God, but over to the care of God. How do we know God cares? Because Jesus said he does. Some of you know—at certain AA meetings to this day they will end by saying the Lord's Prayer; the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Why? All 12 steps are right there.

Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed by your name. You kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Because we admit we're powerless over sin and our lives our unmanageable. We come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us—"Our Father." We made a decision to turn our lives and wills over—"your kingdom come; your will be done on earth." We did a fearless moral inventory, admitted to God the exact nature of our wrongs—"forgive us our debts."


Jesus is the one who shows us the way. Jesus actually did step three perfectly for us. When he was facing the Cross, where he would die for our sins, he prayed to his Father: "Not my will, but yours be done." Have you abandoned your life to him? These are the words that haunted Henri Nouwen, the flyer does nothing, the catcher does everything, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.

"When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus on the Cross flashed through my mind: 'Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.' For us it means trusting in the catcher. Don't be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust."

Now I want to give you the chance to take make this decision. If you have never done this before, I want to invite you to make the decision—to turn your life, and turn your will, over to the care of God through Jesus Christ.

If you want, as an expression of this decision to surrender your heart, I want to invite you to stand up; stretch your hands out to God; spread your thumbs out wide to give him a good target. Say in your heart: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. I trust you to catch me. I abandon myself to your care today."

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

Related sermons

Trusting in God's Process

God Is the Only Healer

Welcome to the Pearly-Gated Community

What Jesus requires to be a neighbor in heaven
Sermon Outline:


I. Trust in the outstretched arms

II. 'Letting go' school

III. Deeper life change