Intimacy and EternityBeyond Striving
Part Two, Chapter Eleven
I have seen everything that is done under the sun;
and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind —
Then I considered all that my hands had done,
and the toil I had spent in doing it,
and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind —
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil
and a striving after wind.
(Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:11; 4:6 KJV)
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
IF YOU ARE INCLINED TO SUPPOSE that everyone else is much better integrated and more ‘together’ than you are, then you will be able to identify with these sombre verses from the book of Ecclesiastes. The Ascent of Toil exposes many imperfections in our hearts: frustrated strivings as well as the harmful desires which rob us of the peace of heart the Lord is longing to give us.
The New Testament does enjoin certain kinds of striving on us: for instance, that we should make every effort to share the good news with others, pray at all times, develop our spiritual giftings and maintain the unity of the Body.1 I am more concerned in this chapter to help us avoid the kind of striving which makes people slaves to demonic forces or to lose their health in their quest to gain power, position and security.
Striving is a particularly deadly enemy of intimacy with God. Our desperate attempts to please others leave us feeling worn-out, not least because the pressure of our concern to know how we are doing robs us of any chance of experiencing true restfulness.
As Herbert Swope wrote: ‘I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try and please everybody!’
It is not our striving that God rewards, but our obedience. Many of us are so preoccupied with our own self-image that we know all too little of this inner freedom. If we are strangers to God’s humour, and approach life so seriously that we can never laugh at ourselves, it is a sure sign that our hearts are still striving.
In one of C.S. Lewis’ delightful Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan has just created the talking animals. As they get used to the sound of their voices, a jackdaw says something which embarrasses him, and makes the others want to laugh. At first, they try to repress it, but Aslan encourages them:
Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice came in with speech.2
I often feel heavy and weary in spirit after a demanding time of ministry. My physical reserves are low, and I find it hard to settle to any sustained work. Once, when I was troubled about this, the Lord reminded me (and by no means for the first time) that there are seasons in the life of the soul, just as there are in nature. Even the Lord Jesus found that there were occasions when the Spirit’s power was particularly strong on Him. We should not expect to be able to experience the same high level of blessing day after day.
‘Striving to enter God’s sabbath rest’ as the Book of Hebrews exhorts us sounds like a paradox.3 Many of us find it difficult to allow ourselves these ‘fallow’ times because we are afraid of being left behind or being considered lazy. We saw earlier how these times of rest can make it easier for us to discern the Spirit’s leading. Although it may feel as useless as leaving a field unplanted, vital nutrients are being replenished in our soul through these quieter times.
The trouble with chasing great visions is that we often miss the opportunities that are right in front of us. This does not mean that we should not have clear goals and visions to aim towards: it is simply that we need to cultivate a restful, rather than a competitive attitude of heart. The more open we are to what the Lord has for us from one day to the next, the less we will feel the need to compare ourselves with others.
God loves to use the humble. Their intellects do not get in the way, and the glory goes where it truly belongs. Not that it is easy to be humble: the very act of seeking it can make us profoundly self-centred! Humility tends to develop as a joyful by-product of doing something for someone else.
What a joy it is when we know what we are called to do, and to be at peace about all that we have not been called to do. It may take time, experience and the counsel of friends to bring us to this point, but it is a great relief to discover that we do not have to act (or to hold back) because of the fear of what other people will think or say.
Freedom in Christ
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
The Lord Jesus is giving us the freedom to do the specific things He has called us to do. The principal thing that can stop us from achieving this is our own instability. Many of us are so filled with self-loathing that we pass judgements against ourselves which, in turn, fuel self-destructive tendencies. At any moment, these lethal charges can be set off like high explosives, bringing all manner of disquiet not only to ourselves but to all who come too close to us. It is no wonder that publishers are falling over themselves to bring out books on self-acceptance!
Jesus died not only to save us, but to lead and care for us. So much of our striving stems from not believing this, or from trying to be other than we really are. Some of us need consciously to thank the Lord for making us the way we are, lest otherwise we merely feel resentful or envious of others. It is tempting, but not wise, to wish away the circumstances of our life. What good does it do to run away, or to wish that we were someone or somewhere else? Are we not effectively rejecting the Lord if we reject ourselves?4
In one of the ‘Barbar’ cartoons, the elephant king had been feeling his responsibilities so heavily that he wished he no longer had to be king. He was allowed to experience the lot of a commoner, but then watched with horror as another king imposed a tyrannical reign on his kingdom. The elephant’s influence had been far more beneficial than he had supposed – just as our own so often is. The script writer was merciful: Barbar was restored to his throne just in time to save the kingdom!
It is no use worrying that we are not converting the world or gaining rapid promotion if God has not given us the ability or the platform to do so. John the Baptist reminds us, A man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).
True, the ceiling of our faith ought to be increasing from one year to another, but if our epitaph matches that of Mary, who poured a jar of perfume over Jesus’ head, then we have lived well. Of her it was written, She did what she could (Mark 14:8). What a phrase that is to ponder! As we offer God the things we most desire, so He begins to set us free from our emotionally exhausting fears and strivings.5
One man, who knew that he was dying, prayed that he might lead at least one person to the Saviour before he was taken home. Not only did he do so, but the man he helped was D.L. Moody, who himself went on to lead thousands into the Kingdom!
At one period in his life, Moody was barred from being a member of his church on the grounds that he would ‘never amount to anything much.’ Billy Graham was likewise forbidden to preach at his seminary, because he was considered too poor a communicator for such front-line work! We can all take heart as we ponder what God has done through people whom the world, and even the Church, branded as failures. The Lord can pick us up one more time than we can fall – and there is no limit to what His grace can accomplish in our soul.
Here are some keys to set us free from the strain of striving:
• A gracious attitude is pleasing to the Lord.
• People matter more than projects and seeking God is more important than winning fame.
• Contentment is an attitude to develop, because it keeps resentment and envy at bay.
• Try to see yourself as the steward, and not the owner, of your gifts and possessions.
Sovereign Lord, we cry to You that You will set us free from the sin of striving.
May our hearts be filled with praise and gratitude, and be empowered to live in peace and freedom.
Guide and direct our efforts; renew and strengthen us in Your service, so that we can give You our best.
Help us to look for Your hand in the circumstances that hinder us, and in the people who irritate us.
Grant us discretion in the way we discuss these people and these situations, and the love that bears and conquers all things.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. See Romans 15:30; 1 Corinthians 14:12; Colossians 1:29; 1 Timothy 4:10; cf 2 Timothy 2:24 (KJV): The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient.
2. C.S. Lewis The Magician’s Nephew (Fount) If you have not yet had the pleasure of discovering The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of six books for children, I heartily commend them to you.
3. See Hebrews 4:9-11.
4. We can trace this cycle with alcoholics, who drink to make themselves feel good, only to plunge into a further sequence of shame and guilt which compounds the original problem – their low self-esteem. Many fall into sexual immorality, or some other serious sin, out of a desire to escape from this crippling sense of inadequacy. By seeking happiness and safety in some other direction – usually in the mistaken hope that it will involve fewer commitments and responsibilities – all they end up doing is inflicting endless suffering on themselves and others.
5. John and Paula Sandford have excellent wisdom on the whole subject of what they call ‘Performance Orientation’ in their book The Transformation of the Inner Man (Bridge).