Let me tell you, few things can mess you up as badly as trying to do your best. For the tender heart, the earnest heart, it is so discouraging to give all you have trying to do what you think Jesus would have you do, and find yourself falling short, sabotaging your own efforts at every turn. Discouragement and shame settle in like a long Seattle rain.
And this is what most Christians experience as the Christian life. Try harder; feel worse.
I spoke of cunning traps that replace the simple priority of loving Jesus. Here is a very surprising one—the trap of integrity. What I mean by this is when our attention turns to maintaining personal righteousness. This seems noble and right. Jesus told us to keep his commands. But this can be a trap because most Christians interpret this as “Try harder; do your best.”
I find myself slipping back into this weekly. A handful of symptoms tip me off. Exhaustion, for one. I’ll just find myself wrung out again. Or an unnamed internal distress; my insides all twisted up. Discouragement, that old nagging cloud of “I’m totally blowing it” back over me. Irritation with needy people. These symptoms—and a host of others—are the collateral damage that results from trying my best. They let me know I’ve fallen back to thinking that to love Jesus is to give my very best in living for him. And this is a sticky business. Because on the one hand, that’s true—to love him is to obey. But out of what resources? From what fountain of inner strength?
I thought it was my faithfulness. My integrity. A willingness to sacrifice, to fight well. And of course we are involved; of course our choices matter. But didn’t Jesus warn, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)? The good news is this—you were never meant to imitate Christ. Not if by that you mean doing your best to live as he did. It ought to come as a great relief. Something inside me says, Well—that’s certainly been my experience. But without understanding that I was never meant to ”do my best”, I feel awful about it.
In a biography of Christ which is good in many aspects, I ran across this terrible snare. The author describes the mission of Jesus as,
a spiritual revolution, the replacement of the unreformed law of Moses by a New Testament based on love and neighborliness, which could be embraced by all classes and all peoples. ... Life on earth was to be devoted to a self-transformation in which each human soul strove to become as like God as possible, a process made easier by the existence of his son made man, thus facilitating imitation.
It is an evil and crippling distortion. Jesus didn’t start the Peace Corps. The secret of Christianity is something else altogether—the life of Christ in you. Allowing his life to become your life. His revolution is not self-transformation, but his transformation of us, from the inside out, as we receive his life and allow him to live through us. Vine, branch. Anything else is madness.