Grace and Effort

Going to bed last night, it occurred to me that, though I’m doing my best, my best isn't really good enough.

Grace and Effort

Bedtime routines were frightful ... fighting over the toothpaste; selfishness mixed with purposeful provocation; two children crying their way to sleep, disheartened and discouraged with their choices and actions. How much of life goes like this even when our best intentions would have it otherwise? So after addressing the issues, speaking the truth in love, giving reassuring hugs and encouragement to the duly repentant, I started to mull over the fact that I’m never really sure I get it quite right. My best isn’t really good enough ... and this helplessness reminds me afresh that I absolutely need God’s grace. I read a post once that said: your strengths aren’t enough to save you, and your weaknesses aren’t enough to damn you – God’s grace is necessary for all our Christian living. And I realized this morning in my reading that those two little words, grace and peace, are exactly what I would order off a full menu of options.

There’s a song that repeats the line “never enough”, and how this resonates with our efforts in this life. Biblical ideals are so otherworldly that we can never quite reach them. But our effort and God’s grace aren’t at odds - they are allies. Mark Buchanan notes this from 2 Peter 1. After invoking grace and peace in abundance, Peter states that “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (verse 3), and then goes on to tell us in verse 5, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith ...” (NIV). Grace and earning are opposites. Grace and effort are allies. God asks us to step forward and put every effort into our Christian lives. But he asks us to depend on His power at every turn, and trust that He will work on our behalf by His grace, especially when things don’t look particularly promising. Why this interplay? Why this dependence on the grace of God to overcome our shortcomings? And why does God still call us to do our best instead of just leaving it all to His grace without our interference?

Consider the story of Gideon. Gideon not only lacked confidence and faith that God could use someone as insignificant as him (least in the family and from the weakest tribe), but, in addition, God sent him out with a crew of fearful men, shrunk his army down to give him a very legitimate handicap, and armed him with unorthodox weaponry. Why? Why remove all the props, take away all the supports? Why make Gideon so worried that he needed an enemy dream to reassure him that his God was big enough to do what he couldn’t? And why use Gideon at all? Why not rout the Midianite army without any human contribution? God could have easily done this. What is God’s purpose in this dance?

God asks us to make every effort so He can grow us, share with us, and include us in the victories of His unfolding eternal drama. He has arranged it so that we have a part to play in His work in this world. We operate as His hands, His feet, His body (1 Corinthians 12). But remember Mordecai’s words to Esther: “if you [do not step up to the plate], salvation will come another way” (see Esther 4:14). How infuriated the Lord was with Moses’ reluctance to be His mouthpiece to Pharoah! The fact that He includes our weak and faltering efforts to accomplish His purposes, is as much grace as anything else. It is an honour and responsibility He expects us to embrace.

But what of the weakness and dependence that is woven into these efforts? Why the thorn in the flesh, the stumbling speech, the unconventional equipment? Why the feeling of utter weakness and failure time and again? Why not a slam dunk and immediate gratification, a battle won on the spot, the slaves sailing out free without the need for 10 long plagues? What is the purpose of this dependence on His grace?  

God told Gideon early on in Judges 7 that the handicap of a small army was necessary, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’”(ESV). One of the most important reasons we are made dependent is so the credit and glory for victory land squarely where they belong. Pride is so close to the surface that any success lacking this quality of dependence is quickly transformed into self-glory. And we’ll take the credit too, thank you very much. But where there is obvious human weakness, the fact that the glory and credit belong to God is unmistakable. 2 Corinthians 4:7 elucidates this Gideon truth: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (ESV). Gideon knew the Lord had accomplished the great victory over Midian. Moses knew that Pharoah required the mighty hand of God to break him. Jonah was all too aware (and unimpressed) that God had brought about repentance in the hearts of the Ninevites. Pride is deadly, and it is the kindness of God to wrench it from our grasp. Things are in proper alignment when we glorify and bless Him (Romans 11:36) – this is what we were made for! In reality, our weakness is for our blessing. Paul realized this when he said he would glory in his weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So the factors are real: feelings of inadequacy, the look of all being lost, the carnage of hard-fought battles, fear, discouragement and dismay ... but “is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 puts it this way: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (ESV). We might only see a regular clay pot, a hidden torch, a smudged trumpet, and two children crying themselves to sleep. But the Lord sees victory. He says: “[I] ... will fight for you” (Deuteronomy 1:30) “… so step forward, lean hard, and trust Me”.