The Gospel Turns the ‘Try Harder’ Mentality on Its Head

Ed Stetzer # Faith

It’s that time of year again—New Year’s resolution time, that is. Just as soon as we finish packing up the lights and de-cluttering our houses from all the Christmas cheer, we’ve moved on to our next task: setting goals.

As we reflect on 2017, many of us naturally look for areas of improvement and ask the question: What could be better? Realistically, what we’re asking ourselves is this: What about me could be better? A year of examining ourselves in the mirror across a toothbrush each morning has no doubt left many us wishing that certain things were different.

In light of these longings, roughly 40% of Americans break out their journals and resolve each January to improve themselves once and for all. Some of us plan to read more and scroll through social media less. Others of us want to swap out the carton of ice cream we’ve been noshing on for some carrot sticks. Like a marketing agency of sorts, we aim to build a better personal brand so as to more effectively sell the ‘new and improved us’ to unsuspecting buyers.

The American economy, of course, eats all of this up like a left-over Christmas cookie. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on self-help books alone. Another $60 billion is spent in our nation by individuals trying to lose weight by means of gym memberships, weight-loss curriculums, and diet food products.

Unfortunately, after all the goal setting is said and done, only about 9% of Americans self-described as “successful” with the follow through. You know those gyms that everyone joined on January 1st? Well, 67% of those that purchased memberships never actually made use of them. Americans made promises, but few of them were actually kept.

Christians Are Struggling, Too

As Christians, we too fall into a similar trap this time of year. Many of us make resolutions that look similar to those mentioned above but with other faith-oriented commitments added in.

Maybe we aim to be more generous, less worrisome, or more joyful in the Lord. Maybe we plan to read our Bibles every day or become more prayerful. Our intentions, while good and often righteous in motivation, don’t always pave the way to a successful outcome. Like the rest of America, we start out strong but soon find ourselves struggling to stay committed.

I don’t know about you, but I personally find this predicament troubling. If we as believers hope to make long-lasting, life-giving changes, we need to find ways to keep our word and stick with our goals long past January 2nd.

The Secret: Don’t Just ‘Try Harder’

Americans seem to be under the impression that the solution to every problem is this: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

This mantra, while useful at times, can only take us so far. Certainly, there are occasions in our lives when grit, muscle, and pure determination matter. Looking at the stories of brave biblical leaders like Moses, Deborah, and Paul, it’s evident that a little hustle can come in handy over the course of one’s spiritual journey.

Moses certainly could have thrown up his hands in defeat the ninth time that Pharaoh refused to free the Israelite people. Deborah could have cowered at the sight of Sisera’s 900 iron chariots on the battlefield. Paul could have given up on his ministry over the course of the days he spent in prison for preaching God’s word.

They could, but thankfully they didn’t.

These men and women were courageous and their inner resolve no doubt played a part in their ability to follow through on the tasks placed before them by God. But if we think for one second that somehow Moses parted the Red Sea through his own effort and sheer will-power alone, we’re kidding ourselves.

Paul too could have ‘tried and tried again’ until he was blue in the face, but without help from external forces of a God-sized magnitude, his ministry would have gone nowhere.

Likewise, this New Year’s, if we find ourselves thinking that our own strength is sufficient to carry us to places of greater faith in God or dependency on him, we’re sorely confused.

C.S. Lewis explores these themes in Mere Christianity and writes:

Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.”

Our attempts, as followers of Christ, to grow in faith and ministry are valuable—but, ultimately, they serve to reveal our much greater need for his intervention. Regardless of the spiritual feats of greatness we’re attempting to accomplish in 2018, we must do so in Christ and with the gifting of his strength—apart from him, we can do nothing.