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Self-Discipline or Human Striving?

by Brian Flewelling on August 23, 2022

“Make every effort to enter into his rest.” Hebrews 4:11

Our church has recently been discussing the idea of taking extreme ownership over the responsibilities God has entrusted us with: our choices, success, relationships, career, character, family, etc. How do we then balance that truth with the scripture that says, “not by works so that no one can boast?” The Lancaster County culture of hard work can so quickly sink into relying upon self and self-sufficiency with a hyper focus on works and duty. Let me start with a parable.

A Parable of Three Sailors

Three men wanted to journey by ship across the ocean. The first worked very hard to row his boat, thinking it was all his effort to achieve. After he had gone only a little distance he was overcome with exhaustion. The second man, being a little wiser said, there is no way it is within my power. So he secured a sailboat. But after many weeks of feasting and merriment and celebration of freedom from the enslavement to hard work, his boat still drifted idly in the harbor. He exclaimed how much more contented he was than the man who had worked himself to weariness, but he didn’t seem to notice he had made no progress in his journey.

The third man, like the second, perceived that it was not his own power but the power of the wind that would sail the ship. But he also knew, like the first man, there was work involved. He well knew that he had to rise early, and tend regularly to the diligent work of arranging his sails and catching the wind and mending the lines. His discipline and perseverance was not in the effort of self-sufficiency but in the effort of harnessing the power of the wind that he could not live without. Here is the import: if we tend to the sails, God will tend to the wind.

The Free Power of Spirit and the Costly Effort to Catch It

Certainly human efforts cannot purchase God’s grace, approval, affection, love, or transformation, but they are needed to enter into them and enjoy them. Salvation is a free gift. We could never deserve God’s favors, and that’s why he offers his friendship extravagantly free of charge. Yet his friendship cannot be realized without earnest and sacrificial pursuit on our part. It’s possible to have discipline that doesn’t lead to God, but you'll never have God without discipline. Henry Nouwen once said that discipline is “the effort to create some space in which God can act.”

Leaning on human effort does not produce within us the life of Christ any more than the sailor who tried to row the ocean. Nor does lack of effort provide the rigging enough to catch the wind of God. The follower of Jesus needs to learn how to rest from their own self-reliance, yet train diligently to remain in the life and power of Jesus. This is our paradox. Entering into relationship with Jesus is the easy part. He has made it easy by removing every obstacle. Remaining in a relationship with him is arduous. It requires “every effort.” It is difficult for us because it demands discipline and training and severe life reprioritization.

Our effort is in lifting up the sails. He provides the wind. We turn our eyes to him and he fills our minds. We study his laws, and he changes our decision making. We fill our minds with truths, and he changes our hearts. We fill our mouths with his praises, and he fills our lives with his blessings. We fill our lives with his wisdom, and he fills our lives with the fruit of healthy choices. We say yes to his commands, and he is faithful to his promises. We spend time in prayer and he trains our ears to hear his voice. It takes every effort to keep our sails fixed in Jesus when the side winds of distractions, fears, weariness, hardships, temptations and excuses blow against us.

The Renovation of Our Lifestyle

Our life in Christ is filled with hard work. Discipleship is costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer so tersely defined it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” A believer in Jesus must develop new habits. Those new habits open the pipeline for God’s living waters to run through the sand and heat and chaos of our deserted and fruitless lives. The habit does not provide life. It is only the aqueduct that connects us to the person of Jesus. Jesus provides the life. "The activities constituting the disciplines have no value in themselves,” Dallas Willard says. “The aim and substance of spiritual life is not fasting, prayer, hymn singing, frugal living, and so forth. Rather, it is the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind...”

The work of the servant then is to build the pipeline, and keep it open. The work of the master is to supply the free and abundant life that flows through it. “Remain in me and I will remain in you” (John 15:4). See, our effort is to remain. Then his fruitful and vicarious life will produce fruit in us.

The warning is not to believe for a split-second that our efforts have any value in themselves. They are dead without Christ. The Apostle Paul chastised the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort” (Galatians 3:3)? So, the habits, though carefully cultivated and exacting a heavy toll on our lives, must always and only point us in humble dependence on God and his infilling life. We rest from the labor of self-reliance, but we make every effort to enter into his rest.


Tags: discipline, discipleship, trust, life, holy spirit, rest, connect, duty, hard work, wind, diligence, remain, effort, spiritual discipline, self-sufficiency power

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