Try Harder or Rest Harder?

When we consider the divine process of sanctification, we often fail to realize the unique and necessary tension that the Scripture presents in walking in truth and obedience. Individuals and groups routinely find themselves pitting two necessary truths of the Christian life one against the other and taking sides in the issue. It has been said that ideas have consequences, and they do, most notably in the practical outworking of living the life of faith as a result of an idea.

One particular idea that has been a part of the thinking and teaching of evangelicalism (including all strains of evangelicalism, even fundamental strains) is that in order to progress in Christian growth, one must “try harder.” Trotting out Daniel as having “purposed in his heart,” this idea purports that the path to fidelity and purity lies in setting standards, goals and guidelines and making every effort to reach those standards. Faithfulness is attained by will-power and determination to serve God, to go to church, to read the Bible and to pray (and many more guidelines are needed in order to attain the necessary holiness). If one is struggling to be obedient in a walk of faith, then what is needed is more effort to read the Bible an hour a day and pray for thirty minutes. If lust seems to be working overtime in the mind, then the mind and eyes need to work overtime in spiritual disciplines–take a walk, breath deeply, pray a prayer over and over again, quote Scripture. . . just try harder and at some point, you will gain that spiritual victory and be able to live the victorious Christian life.

To the devoted disciple, some of this sounds good and well, but a lot of it just does not satisfy what we know is a walk of faith. It loudly smacks of a works-based sanctification and growth dependent upon my effort and will. Quickly to our mind rushes the text of Galatians where Paul is condemning the saints for being “bewitched” into thinking that grace saves, but works sanctifies. Therefore, there arises an idea that throws out the “try harder” mentality and embraces an idea that says, “Don’t try harder, just rest harder.” Verses that emphasize faith spring to the mind and then a familiar phrase we heard years ago seems to be the answer, “Just let go and let God.” So this idea suggests that the path to holiness and growth lies in doing nothing, just loving God and trusting that God is going to work it out. A person or group with this mentality shies away from Scripture that talks about action and work and emphasizes rest. You are having trouble with lust? Rest more in Jesus. Are you struggling to love your wife? Then rest more in Jesus. Habitual sin is beating you, it is because you are trying, stop trying and let God take over. Often those who are “trying hard” in sanctification are called legalists by the “rest more” side. And those who are not trying but “resting” are called antinomian by “try harder” side.

Having existed in an environment where “try harder” was commended more readily than “rest more,” I find myself attracted to the “rest  more” side of things, but that is a mistake. It is a mistake because there are ideological tensions found in Scripture that God intended to remain taut. The union of God and man in Jesus’ one nature is one such tension. The responsibility of man to respond to God’s sovereign will is another. In the work of sanctification, there is a tension that we must be careful not to allow to slacken. Philippians 2:12 provides the most well-known discussion of this tension in Christian growth. The text tells us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” meaning to put into practice by working at the ramifications of justification in sanctification with the hope of glorification. This working includes fear and trembling, which is more than an emotional response but seems to include effort. The next phrase says, “For it is God who works in you both to do and to will of his good pleasure.” Here is the rest of the tension, God is working in you as you are working out his work of grace. We have many commands in Scripture to work and provide effort in sanctification. “Be holy as I am holy,” Peter references God as demanding. “Do good unto all men,” Paul says. James says that faith is characterized by work, and the author of Hebrews describes effort in resisting sin “unto blood.” Ephesians and Colossians say to “Put off the old and put on the new.” Probably the most obvious text that speaks of the effort needed and the work in sanctification is Romans 6. Many times in this text on sanctification, the command rings clearly to “put to death the deeds of the flesh.” But then we also find several Scriptures that teach us to rest in Christ and could seem to some to imply no work at all. “Faith is the victory” Paul says. Classic Ephesians emphasizes that salvation (all of it, including sanctification) is by grace through faith. Hebrews says, “Strive to enter into rest.” Jesus says, to “abide in me.”

I cannot pretend to understand the mystery of sanctification fully, but I do understand that God intends us to rest in him fully for our sanctification while at the same time exerting holy effort to walk in the Spirit through discipline and labor. A passage of Scripture that has helped me understand this tension better is Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Prior to Jesus speaking these words, he prayed to the Father thanking Him for hiding the mysteries of repentance and faith and the gospel from the worldly wise and arrogant, but has revealed them with childlike dependence and humility. He reaffirmed for everyone’s hearing that only the Father truly knows the Son and only the Son truly knows the Father, but also those whom the Son chooses to reveal to the Father. Jesus was expressing what he says in many different ways. The only way to know God the Father is through the Son and if the Son should make this possible to you, then you are most blessed having the opportunity to truly know God in a way that Jesus eternally knows him. Then comes the famous invitation to “Come unto me.” This helps us understand that the invitation is not a call to come and get your needs met, or to have your burdens lifted, or to have a better life. It is a call to come to know the Father. Jesus is saying, “If you want to know God, I am the way to know God, so come to me and I will give you rest.” Rest from what? Rest from your constant searching to know God, but your inability to know him because of your sinful nature and wicked heart. The call to salvation is ultimately a call to know God, therefore in giving this tremendously encouraging promise, Jesus says, “If you want to know God, come to me, I will provide rest for your weary souls. It will not be without pain and effort even on your part (take my yoke upon you), but that effort is not “trying harder” it is “learning of me.” The yoke and burden that Jesus promises to put upon all who come to him in order to know God is learning of him. This is a light and easy yoke, not because it is without effort, but because it is a delight and rest for the soul. This is what I believe to be the path to spiritual victory and the balance of the tension of effort and rest in sanctification. Make effort effort (do not forget that all effort is a gift of the grace of God anyways) to learn of Christ, to know God by knowing Jesus, and you will find rest for your soul. Practically, the idea is this, the grace and discipline we need, the effort we must exert is not one of primarily resisting sin, nor of trying to be righteous, nor of trying to rest more, but the “effort” (although I understand the reluctance to use this word) is in knowing God and delighting in his person and work so fully, that we are preoccupied with the perfection, beauty and worth of Christ. This will produce by God’s gracious willingness and Spirit a growing hatred for sin, a growing downward in humility and a growing appreciation and adoration and obedience in the commands and principles found in the revelation of God, the Bible. This is how the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and fleshly lusts, but making us so enamored with the person and work of God as fully revealed in the entirety of the Word of God, that we have no longing for another. This knowing God creates in  us a hunger and thirst after righteousness. This knowing God demands our absolute allegiance and we willingly will present our bodies as living sacrifices if we truly understand who this God is. This does not mean that our flesh will go quietly into the night, but it does mean that we are no longer under the bondage of sin and self and that we can know God in a way that is only spiritually and supernaturally known.

The commands like “put to death the flesh” flow readily from a desire to bathe in the beauty and splendor of a holy, righteous, gracious, priestly, loving and perfect God. So today, are you loving God more than you are loving anything or anyone else? Are you struggling to obey God’s holy and perfect will? Bask in the beauty of Christ in the Word and commune with him. Make it your ambition to know God to walk in his presence, ask God for the grace to know him more. Overcome evil with ultimate good, and there is none better than God. This is simplistic, but I have discovered that I can trace all of my treasonous thoughts and rebellions since being regenerated to a failure to “learn of him.” When I am meditating upon the beauty of Christ, the glory of God, the perfections of his character, obedience flows, but when I am “trying harder” and making every effort to not sin by shear will, or trying to “rest more” by putting out of my mind the struggle and fight, I am losing and sinning. May God give us the grace, to understand this tension and in the midst of the struggle, to   “learn of him.”

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