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Why Striving is NOT Legalism

There’s a cooperation happening.

Apostle Paul writes about that divine partnership to the Colossians: To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. Paul also writes to the Philippians: Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

At times, we embrace a reactionary theology that only piles on guilt to relieve guilt. “Pharisee bad! Yay faith, boo works!” But effort is not wrong, and you are built to reach Jesus a little differently than the next guy.

If reading the Bible on a three-times-per-day schedule is what brings you to a real relationship with Jesus, go for it. It’s okay to have a quiet place in the woods with your notebook and sharpie. But if that’s your chest-out, chin-up, look-at-me boasting, then you’re hitting Pharisee Land.

Just don’t let anyone ever tell you that pursuing hard after Jesus is some kind of “works-oriented religious activity.” Hey: Our hearts were made for God. There’s a kind of striving that runs to Jesus while also relying on him to run. We need him for every step; but it does mean that you need to make some steps.

The Christian life is almost always pictured in the Bible as a walk. If you could name every step out loud, it would sound like: recharge, reload, serve, reset, rest, give, recoup, restore, move. God’s love empowers us to submit to His Spirit, so that His fruits will flex through us. Some of that is probably a mystery, but it’s always going to be you plus Him.

The preconceived assumption is that someone who works hard before God must also be doing it for himself — and a lot of times, that’s true. We can easily attempt this spiritual game in our own flesh and build an entire ministry on man-made ideas. We should certainly be wary of that.

But the fruit of a true legalist always ends in snobbery, superiority and moral exhaustion. That sort of ministry collapses in on itself when the celebrity preacher is gone. And the people there are uppity, measuring their spiritual progress by insane parameters that would make no sense to the disciples in the Bible.

Your effort under God’s loving power will always give birth to humility, gratitude, joy and service. Not perfectly, but passionately and increasingly.

If you feel the devil attacking hard, it’s not legalistic to consider throwing away that laptop and limiting your travels. If you have a Bible-In-A-Year-Plan to get you started and organized, get on that. Don’t feel bad if you fall off; that happens too. If you stray and backslide and go prodigal, God has grace for you. Jump right back on, because God still loves you and He’s not going anywhere. The moment of defeat matters less than the moment right after.

What God really cares about is not so much how you look, but where you’re looking. Every Christian is empowered differently because He wired us individually, and every Christian will run towards the same one who saves. Be free to run after Him the way that God has made you.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. Ephesians 2:10  

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Former atheist/agnostic, fifth degree black belt, recovered porn addict, and youth pastor in Tampa, FL. B.A. in Psychology from USF and a MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Have a German shepherd named Rosco, can eat five lbs. of steak in one sitting, and gave away half my salary this year to fight human trafficking. I blog regularly on my main site and my Tumblr for struggling Christians.