Thursday, January 15, 2009

When Trying Harder Doesn't Work

All serious Christians are concerned about the strength of their faith in God and the level of their commitment to His purposes. The shelves of Christian bookstores sag with the weight of books purporting to guide and encourage the believer in developing a stronger faith.

And no wonder. The Scriptures and the history of our faith are laced with the accounts of men and women of God who serve as examples of deep spirituality and unshakeable commitment. Consider, among others, the perseverance of Abraham, the unrelenting vision of Moses, the tenderness toward the Lord of David, the determination of Nehemiah. Consider the single-mindedness of the Apostle Paul whose “this one thing I do” resulted in the establishment of the gospel of Christ across the Mediterranean world. The Biblical “heroes of the faith” are joined by others: Augustine, who could find no rest till he found it in God; Luther, whose “Here I stand” thunders through history as the battle-cry of ecclesiastical reform; Wesley, who logged hundreds of thousands of miles on horseback to evangelize England.

In the last century we can point to such figures as Pastor Martin Niemoller and the ten Boom family, who endured Nazi concentration camps and suffered death because of their determination to maintain a Christian witness; to Joni Eareckson Tada, who overcame depression to build a ministry of encouragement to thousands despite her paraplegia; or to theologian-philosopher Francis Schaeffer who, emaciated from cancer, stood in the cold to picket a hospital that performed abortions just three weeks before his death.

And then we come to you and me. Where is our faith compared to that of the spiritual giants of yesteryear, or even of today? Admittedly, comparisons may be inappropriate; the Lord has called each of us to serve in his own way. Still, when we consider the great examples of what can be done through faith, many of us stagger along on a guilt trip because we haven’t been so spiritually motivated, or haven’t accomplished more for the kingdom of God.

Once we set out on that guilt trip we can go one of two ways. We could just become indifferent or resigned to our lack of spirituality, and perhaps give up any effort to change. Or, we could try harder. Maybe we should pray more regularly and read the Scriptures more intently. Perhaps we shall set ourselves to participate more actively in worship, schedule a daily “quiet time,” read more of those Christian self-help books, or try witnessing to our unsaved friends. Or, if we are convicted about some habit or personality quirk that doesn’t honor the Lord, we steel ourselves to “kick it” and to amend the manner of our life. With a little more effort, maybe we too can become a “spiritual giant.”

The trouble is, if we aren’t spiritual it’s usually because, at heart, we aren’t motivated to be spiritual. A battle rages within ourselves; our inner being becomes what Joyce Meyer calls “the battlefield of the mind.” In traditional terms, our flesh is at war with our spirit; we want to become infused with “the mind of Christ,” but we want to do it on our own terms or by our own devices, in that self-assertion the Bible calls “the flesh.” So when we try to be more spiritual than we really want to be, the effort to change can just make us more resentful and discouraged with our lack of success.

Such effort also makes us a prisoner of what Paul calls “the law of sin and death,” since any “success” in becoming more spiritual boomerangs. It builds up the very ego whose self-preoccupation kept us so unspiritual in the first place. If we really aren’t motivated, trying harder doesn’t do it. Unspiritual people “don’t have a prayer” — or, maybe, the only genuine prayer for such a time is, “Lord, make me willing to be made willing.” A Scriptural version of the same prayer might be Paul’s utterance: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

When trying harder doesn’t work, the only thing to do is to quit trying in our own strength and fall back on Christ alone. I like what John and Paula Sanford wrote years ago in The Transformation of the Inner Man:

Paradoxically, we are healed by being taught to put no confidence whatsoever in our own flesh, simply to rest in Him...A self-image is something we build, in which we falsely learn to trust. A self-image necessarily sets us into self-centered striving—to live up to it, to make sure others see and reward it. . . . Christian healing comes then not by making a broken thing good enough to work, but by delivering us from the power of that broken thing so that it can no longer rule us, and by teaching us to trust His righteousness to shine in and through that very thing. . . . We do no good thing. He accomplishes all. For the soul, there is in that sense no healing— only death and rebirth. . . . The Lord wants us to accept ourselves as we are, rotten and unchanged, and then let Him express His goodness and righteousness in us through His Holy Spirit.

Not being a spiritually inclined person, I find myself too often feeling like a “phony” when trying to pray, to worship the Lord or to instruct in Christian truths. I am overwhelmed by my inner awareness of what the Sanfords call “the unbelieving heart of the believer.” For me, trying harder doesn’t do it; I only despise myself for passing myself off as a real believer. Yet, in facing this truth about myself, a strange thing has happened. The less of the phony me there is in my worship and Christian living, the more of the Lord there seems to be.

Spiritual giants of the past endured their own struggles, till the Lord set them free. Their examples are always before us. But if you’re not a spiritual giant yourself, it’s living death to strive to be one. Better to “hit bottom,” face the truth about yourself, and begin to pray, “Lord, make me willing to be made willing . . .”