On one hand it is all grace. We should not “try” because we cannot save ourselves, we can never try hard enough or be good enough, and that is not even what God requires. Grace teaches us to stop trying and instead accept that Jesus accomplished everything for us. We humbly get to accept the grace offered to us and find ourselves right with God not because of anything we have done, but because of what he has done. Even after accepting Jesus as Lord, it is not about trying to be transformed, but about letting the Holy Spirit work in us.
However, on the other hand, there are many places in the Bible that indicate there is definitely a part we play in our own spiritual growth and that it takes a great deal of effort even. We’re told to “continue to work out your salvation…” (Phil 2:12), to press on and strain towards our goal (Phil 3), and in various places it says to “make every effort…” This does not sound like sitting back and letting grace do all the work.
I was reminded of this tension recently while I have been taking care of my newborn son. Both with my first baby and again now I experienced a similar thing. After giving birth, while still in the hospital, I was given a great deal of information of what needs to happen and what the baby should do. Mostly in the first week this all surrounds eating, urinating and bowel movements (My apologies to any non-parents reading!). The baby should pass the meconium within the first few days. By a week the baby should be having six wet diapers a day. The baby should have this many bowel movements a day, and they should be at least this size and this certain colour, texture, etc. etc. Both times I’ve had newborns there has been a moment of panic thinking I am responsible for making these things happen. Yet both times within a few days, I realized that I cannot actually make my baby’s body function how it should. What I can do is focus on caring for my baby properly – feeding him often enough and ensuring it is a full feeding, keeping him clean, helping him rest, loving him. The things I was so worried about happening properly thankfully happened naturally on their own. I needed to monitor these things, but I did not need to make them happen.
How does this relate to growing in Christ? Our effort does not go into trying harder. Our effort goes into filling ourselves with Christ. Occasionally we can take stock of our growth as well, to see how Christ living in us is working his way into our lives as we listen to and cooperate with his Spirit.
If I have a struggle with not being patient (or self-controlled or kind or loving or any other godly characteristic), trying harder and harder to be patient likely will not help, but will result in frustration and discouragement. On my own I am not able to force myself to be patient. However, if I am making every effort to root myself in Christ, to take in his Word and meditate on it, to spend time with fellow Christ followers, to listen to and chew on solid teaching, to spend time obeying the Spirits leading in my life – if I make every effort to fill myself with Christ, it is likely that over time I will realize I have become more patient. As I strive to fill myself with Jesus, I will naturally grow to be more like him. Luke 6:45 says “…For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” On our own, our hearts are not good, but broken and selfish. Jesus makes our hearts new. As we work to fill our hearts with more of him, our lives will reflect it.
It is not about trying harder, for it is true that in our own strength we cannot become holy. But it is also not about doing nothing, as if we will be transformed without any effort. Allow God’s Spirit to fill you, feed your soul with his Word and presence. Focus on building your relationship with Jesus so that your life will begin to be the overflow of that relationship.