How can we be the best Christians we can be? What does total submission and dependence on God look like? Where do our own efforts come in to play? If being the best follower of Christ means we must focus on religious performance, then how does that square with the fact that Jesus calls us to deny ourselves? Where do you draw the line between serving selflessly and the feeling of spiritual pride in our achievements or performance? How are we to walk in faith?
As the body of Christ, I believe God designs all Christians to fit together and function together as one. The coordination of the body of Christ incorporates our “human” efforts together with the working of His Spirit. So, how do these two forces — the works of God and the works of Man — properly unite in the body of Christ?
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
He went on say in Philippians 3:12-16, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.”
I find this last encouragement interesting: that we should keep living by the same standard to which we have already attained. Much of our efforts should be focused on maintaining or “holding on” to what we already have (Revelation 3:11) as compared to developing new or additional ministry goals.
Paul uses an athletic analogy to describe his motivation for being the best Christian he can be. But where the analogy breaks down for me is in the competitiveness of athleticism today. It is one thing to discipline yourself to maximize your personal performance in order to do the very best you can do. Both discipline and dedication are important. But it is quite another thing to base your best on how many opponents you can defeat.
While being an effective follower of Jesus involves discipline and the honing of skills, it shouldn’t be a matter of out-performing others, or setting goals based on what you see others doing. Walking with the LORD is a matter of putting off the old self and putting on the new self (Colossians 3:9-10), which allows his Spirit to lead us, edify us and sanctify us. But in a practical sense, it doesn’t always seem clear to us at what point we are to put forth more individual effort and at what point we are to rely more more upon God’s efforts.
Some might say it’s a balancing act, because both are necessary. But if that’s the case, we had better be very careful. If I am doing a balancing act, then I am determining for myself not only what my own actions will be, but also when I allow God to act. As questionable as that sounds, I think a lot of us fall into that temptation from time to time. It’s easy to think we know what we need to do, and so we “take charge” in our zeal to get something done.
But the Bible doesn’t teach that. Instead, the word reveals to us that when we receive Christ we become children of God. It is in our loving relationship to him that we discover the limits of our own efforts and the promise of him working through us when we are obedient. Jesus laid it on the line when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 puts it in perspective:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
The examples given of notable religious performance are:
- speaking in tongues
- understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge
- faith to move mountains
- giving away all you own
- delivering your own body as a sacrifice to be burned
But in God’s economy, despite the impressive nature of these human efforts, they have no value unless they come from a loving heart. God is saying he wants all our efforts to be expressions of obedience in love. First, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. Second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Putting forth our own individual effort includes exercising self-control. And yet, we know that even self-control isn’t a product of our own effort, but is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus gives his followers the Helper, who works in our lives to make us more Christ-like (2 Corinthians 3:18). So even while we are putting forth our own efforts, Jesus reminds us, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
So, as we seek to grow in grace, walk with the LORD and serve one another, remember who is in charge. You are a child of God. Hold his hand. He will take you where you need to go today.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)