As it is summertime, my flock and I have been frequenting the beach and the bay. In the rare moments when every child is accounted for and has two feet firmly planted on the sand, I look up out upon the water to watch the sailboats. From my vantage point, they seem to cut through the still water of the bay or the choppy water of the sea effortlessly. They are beautiful, even breathtaking, to watch.
However, I imagine that if I were on board these vessels, what appears effortless from the shore would be exposed as hard, albeit rewarding, labor.
Many of us, myself included, have a deeply ingrained (often unspoken) presupposition that the Christian life should be effortless and easy like the smooth sailing ships on the sea. While many of us would never admit this publicly, this erroneous way of thinking is exposed when following God and continuing in the disciplines that keep us vitally attached to Him get uncomfortable.
We love the idea of consistent time alone with God until we have to give up an hour of sleep or a workout or a favorite past time in order to secure it. We love the notion of life-on-life ministry until we have to take a phone call to minister to a hurting soul at an inconvenient time or bear the burdens of another’s sin or situation during our vacation or family time. We love supporting worldwide missions until it starts cutting into our Starbucks budget or keeping us from keeping up with the Joneses. We love the idea of discipling our children until that requires us to have hard conversations or to be consistent to the point of altering our schedules and preferences.
What appears effortless from far off is shown to be incredibly challenging as it gets closer to our hearts and homes. Grace, one of the key distinguishers of Christianity, does not mean that the Christian life is effortless.
In his book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster captures the place of effort in the Christian life beautifully.
“Holiness is a ‘striving to enter in,’ as Jesus tells us. Effort is not the opposite of grace; works is. Works has to with merit or earning, and the effort we are called to undertake has nothing whatever to do with meriting or earning anything. In fact, the classical disciplines -fasting and prayer, for example- have no virtue or merit whatsoever in and of themselves. They merely place us before God in such a way that he can begin building the kingdom-righteousness within us.”
Paul, the Apostle who so beautifully and resolutely spent his life contending for salvation by grace through faith, was no stranger to effort. Rather, his life was one marked by striving to abide, wrestling to rest in God and working out, sometimes painfully, what God had wrought in him. To such an end, he exhorted the Church at Philippi.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13.
Notice, they are not to work to become the beloved. They are the beloved already. There is nothing to earn, as the position of children of God and the power of the Holy Spirit are theirs through Christ. However, Paul commands them using the Greek word katergazomai, which is an intensified verb from the root word ergon which means labor, toil or work. Energeo (from which we derive the word energy), the verb that Paul uses in regards to God’s work in us, derives from that same root word. However, this verb has a slight but significantly different range of meaning that puts the emphasis on energizing, effecting, putting forth effectual power.
Essentially, Paul tells the Philippians to take care and effort to work out, to actualize, that which God has already worked into them by grace through faith. We are able to work, to exert effort, because He has already worked into us an effectual power.
Effort will and must be exerted if we are to take seriously the call to become like Christ. We have a part to play. Through the disciplines, we posture ourselves as those who abide in the vine and derive much-needed strength and power to accomplish that which is impossible to the flesh.
In the words of Amy Carmichael, “We have not to make the Wind or to beseech it to blow. We have nothing to do with the wonder of it. Our one work is to set our sails and to catch the least whisper of it. ‘Blow, blow, O breath,’ really only means, ‘O breath, my sails are set; according to the promise of my Lord, fill them now’.”
We must daily set our boats upon the water and send up our sails. Some days this will seem effortless, but other days just to get the boat from the dry dock to the water will require mammoth amounts of effort and energy, sweat and toil. Hoisting up sails in a blistering wind or trying to stay afloat in a choppy sea will require resolve.
Yet, the reward of more of Jesus in us and through us is well-worth the effort. And grace is not opposed to effort.