I often tell my guitar students that the only way to get better at guitar is to actually play the guitar. Head knowledge has its merit, but it must be applied for the learned content to be valuable. The results aren’t immediate, obviously. That’s why I reward them with cookies.
But sometimes, after a week of sincere practice time on the instrument, they return terribly frustrated. Without question, they leave the studio determined to perfect the assigned task, but they come back with complaints that it all sounded terrible, or that they felt like they couldn’t quite get it right.
“Stop trying so hard,” I tell them. Guitar is an instrument that requires patience and finesse. A furtive approach produces the equivalent result of grating cinder blocks – lots of unpleasant noise, cramped hands and a big mess. Playing guitar with fortissimo all the time leaves no place for pianissimo. There must be balance and precision.
Likewise, Christians throttle it when it comes to being archetypes of goodliness. We polish our smiles, edit our Facebook posts and tune our tone of voice to make sure everyone recognizes benevolence when they see or hear it. Don’t get me wrong; many are quite sincere, and I frankly don’t understand it — or maybe I’m just jealous. But do you ever get the feeling that, even between Christians, there’s this competition to appear more spiritual, more loving, more good?
It’s nauseating. It’s tacky. And it’s completely wrong.
If you randomly open the New Testament, you’re statistically likely to land on Paul’s prose. He wrote letters to various churches communicating Jesus Christ, exposing God’s tremendous grace, and admonishing believers to live for holiness.
Scholars often crown Romans as the king of his letters, both in terms of its clarity and incredible depth. But in this letter, Paul says something that we don’t want to believe about the man who wrote these holy texts:
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.
It’s baffling; wouldn’t someone completely controlled and surrendered to God, be constantly compelled to do the right thing, and actually do it all? But in this text, and a group of others in this chapter, he proclaims that he cannot. Even more so, he believes it’s impossible.
Disappointing, isn’t it? We’ve arrived at an abysmal reality: we can’t do it.
But if this effort were merely of ourselves, achievable through our own devices and means, where would Christ be in the equation? His influence, let alone his death, which we die alongside to be fruitful people, would count for nothing.
There are several references in the Bible to striving for God, or chasing God, or following Christ. Throughout the period of a Christian’s life, a pursuit exists. But the pursuit is always after God.
It’s not chasing perfection, or striving for excellent behavior, or following lofty standards of obedience. It is impossible to achieve this; the pursuit must always be Christ, and the pursuit, in this case, should always be relentless. Perfection is only attainable through the death of self, good behavior by leaning upon Jesus, and the obedience solely through the Spirit, and not by any other means.
So stop trying so hard. I know, it’s weird. Your Christian friends and fellow church folk might start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you, because you’re not acting all cheery all the time, or whatever circus act you put on to make it perfectly clear that you have life quite together. And something interesting will happen — you’ll feel free from the shackles of anxiety, and the Holy Spirit will take over and you’ll do things because God compels you, not because people expect it.
Please, try. Practice, every day. But take it easy. Finesse it, baby. You’re only going to get better.