Striving! The word does not have a pleasant connotation. It brings to my mind several other words that convey equally unattractive concepts: stress, strain, struggle.
For the Christian, the concept seems to belong to the realm of law rather than to that of grace, and it is grace to which we are called. In worldly terms, we think of striving for money, success, or power— goals that seldom bring the satisfaction they promise. Actually, the dictionary defines striving simply as “making a great effort” or “trying very hard.”
There is no negative connotation here, unless one believes that strenuous effort is bad in and of itself. In a culture of remote controls and microwave ovens, we may be approaching this belief, supposing that any strenuous effort required of us is an unjust imposition. But upon serious reflection, a Christian will recognize that to cease all striving would be to sink into the sin of sloth.
We may not hear much about sloth today, but the early church identified sloth as one of the seven deadly sins. To the early church fathers, sloth was more than mere laziness; it included a despair or fatalism that denied the reality of Christ in us, our great hope. For a believer, giving up because of hopelessness is to deny the power of God. It is sloth. In addition to what the dictionary says about striving, all of the New Testament (English Standard Version) uses of the word to strive are positive. We are urged to “strive to enter through the narrow door”; to “strive to excel in building up the church”; to “strive side by side for the faith of the gospel”; to strive “for godliness”; to “strive for peace with everyone”; and interestingly, we are to “strive to enter [into God’s Sabbath] rest” (see Luke13:24, 1 Corinthians 14:12, Philippians 1:27, 1 Timothy 4:10, Hebrews 12:14, and Hebrews 4:11; italics added). As Christians we strive to live as sons and daughters who walk in ways that are pleasing to the Father. We strive to defeat the power that sin has over us. For many of us, this involves a specific striving for sexual purity and against lust. As you might suspect, this striving for sexual purity is the very striving that I want to discuss—and promote—in this article.
Striving Can Be Good
First, let’s affirm that striving is actually good for us. It is a key element in making life an adventure and it is one of the things that keeps us fit—spiritually and physically. When we cease to strive with our bodies (through physical labor or exercise), we become weak and flabby, with possible fatal consequences. Socially within our culture, the more we prosper and the less life challenges us, the more demanding and decadent we become. Likewise, even the church needs to strive. In Scandinavia, where the church is established and subsidized by the government, Christianity is all but dead.
Compare that to the church in China, where Christians must resist oppression daily. The church there (the underground church) is flourishing. One year ago I wrote an article entitled “When Will God Let Up?” (Regeneration News, March 2003) in which I expressed the frustration I’ve felt when God lays out a brand new challenge for me immediately after I’ve finally progressed in another area of spiritual growth. The article was clearly the cry of a seasoned citizen who at times thought he had earned a rest. But God wants me to keep on striving.
Similarly, a younger person might express an attitude that says, “I’ll never be perfect (flawless), so why doesn’t God just let up and let me be? After all, I’m not that bad.” No, God wants us to be more than even we want to be. He wants all of us to keep on striving. It is probably safe to assume that many of you who are striving to live a life of sexual purity have been at it for an awfully long time. Based on your progress thus far, you may shudder to think that this striving will need to go on a lot longer. And you might wonder, “Is this really the life intended for a Christian? Doesn’t the Lord promise us peace? How can striving and peace coexist in the same individual?” Well, they can. Remember Hebrews 4:11 referenced above where we are told to “strive to enter that [Sabbath] rest.” Peace is not the absence of striving. We can experience peace in the midst of striving. In fact, we can lose our peace when we don’t accept that striving is a part of the normal Christian life.
Peace comes as we accept the fact that we have not arrived and as we learn how to deal with our failures by taking them to the cross. When we don’t accept striving as a part of the normal Christian life, we risk falling into a state of mind that can exacerbate the very problem that we are struggling against. If we feel that our need to struggle is an unfair imposition on us, we can easily fall into self-pity for being singled out to suffer, into envy of those who don’t have to struggle, or into bitterness towards God or whomever we believe gave us this problem. As we have said many times in these articles, the painful sins of self-pity, envy and bitterness all readily prompt us to try to find an escape in lust. Furthermore, if we are filled with self-pity, envy or bitterness, we are more likely to justify not struggling against sin when we need to. Viewing ourselves as victims, we think, “What’s the use?” This again is sloth.
How to Strive Well
We, like Paul, are to press on, “straining for the goal that lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13-14). So what does this involve for the man or woman who struggles with sexual sin or a distorted identity? It involves, first of all, that we identify the goal for which we strive. I believe that striving for something is more effective than striving against something. So we may focus on sexual purity as our goal.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
In the process of seeking these things, the old lusts will continue nipping at our tails, and we will have to strive to kill or disable them. But we do not focus on our sin. We focus on the good and pure, we focus on Christ, the source of our goodness and purity. In so doing, we are drawn into the presence of the One who makes it possible for us to be pure and holy.
Because our goals are seldom achieved quickly, striving requires endurance. It also involves trial and error and a willingness to try new things because no one has yet devised an infallible strategy for gaining victory over lust. What works in becoming sexually pure varies from person to person, and often from month to month within the life of a specific individual.
While what works varies, what doesn’t work has a uniform consistency to it. There are some ways of striving for sexual purity that don’t work and never will: What doesn’t work is saying, “I ought to stop” without ever saying, “I will stop.” What doesn’t work is trying to make an external change in behavior without seeking to change the inner man or woman. What doesn’t work is trying to change superficially without moving to change one’s daily spiritual disciplines. What doesn’t work is hoping to change while nurturing a self-indulgent, self-protecting giving up of all striving.
Continue Striving and Waiting
I must qualify the last statement. There is a legitimate “let go and let God” principle, and “admitting our powerlessness” as Twelve Step groups teach can be a great step forward. But we cannot make this happen in a calculated way. Most likely, the true spiritual giving up will happen unexpectedly, either when we are terribly bruised and bloody from our striving, or when we have had a life-changing breakthrough in terms of coming to know who God is and who we are in relation to Him. We can’t manipulate God into making these things happen. They are the work of the Holy Spirit, and they are initiated by Him.
As I said earlier, striving is a part of what makes life a great adventure. For a Christian, to strive is to be on a rigorous journey with God. It can be like scaling a mountain with the perfect hiking partner—One who reaches out to us when we need a hand, who pushes us when we lag, and who tends to our wounds when we slip and fall. Striving inherently involves waiting on the Lord. We do what we can while we await His perfect time to lift us up. “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). But note—they do run.
By Alan Medinger
Originally Published March 2004