Objectively speaking, there is little chance of success if someone attempts bench press 300 lbs and has never lifted weights. There is also little chance of success in attempting a marathon without having trained. Even though I know these things, I also know I have a tendency to just grit my teeth and attempt to muscle through the struggles in my own life without letting anyone help me.
This strategy doesn’t work well in life in general and definitely isn’t helpful when one is on a journey where the endgame is holiness – especially during the times when the place we begin and the place we hope to end seem ever so far apart. But I still find myself attempting to do the spiritual equivalent of lifting 300 lbs or running 26.2 miles relying on my own strength far too often.
I recently asked my two year old to clean up a play-doh mess. To me, his mother, the task looked to be an easy one. For my two-year-old son, it was overwhelming, paralyzing even. He stood, staring across the room at the table strewn with containers, cookie cutters, and lumps of play-doh, and said, defeated: “It’s too much.” I could tell in his voice that he wanted to please me, but he couldn’t even make a move in the right direction.
I asked him if he would like some help, and he nodded. We held hands and approached the table, and I stood him up on a chair next to me. I worked with him to put the play-doh away, cap the containers, and place all the accessories in a basket. With my help, he was able to accomplish the task.
He still didn’t do it perfectly, but I know, over time and with continued help and age, his muscles will be better able to secure the caps on the containers, and he will be able to stack things up so they won’t tip over.
Was I mad at his imperfect efforts? No! As his mother, I was pleased to see that his heart desired to do the right thing, and that he was so willing to accept my help in doing the work.
An Example for the Spiritual Life
I think this says a lot about our own personal struggles with sin. It can be tempting, when faced with a struggle that seems insurmountable to say “Forget it! It’s too much!” and give up. But the answer isn’t to give up on sainthood.
If I’m feeling too weak to make the decision a saint would make, I am also sometimes tempted to grit my teeth and try to muscle through it. But when I do that, I am closing God out. It’s as if I’m saying to God, “Hold on a moment; let me handle this thing. I can be a saint, just you wait and see.” The answer isn’t to try and push through our weaknesses on our own.
Becoming a saint is about letting God so much into our lives that all of our sin burns away. Anytime we try and muscle through something without God, we are actually blocking His work in our hearts. When I’m too busy trying to be “holy” in my own power, I am actually being counterproductive because all my efforts are going toward the appearance that I have enough strength. That isn’t holiness: it’s pride.
The answer, I think, is to take a lesson from little children, and realize we need God’s help. We also have to realize that our journey to heaven will be marked by times when we accept that help and still don’t reach perfection right away. That’s one of the joys of Confession: God knows sainthood is a process. One doesn’t become a saint overnight. He doesn’t make us wait until we are perfect before he loves us.
And there will be other times when we grow stronger and can accomplish the task. We can hope that over time, in the areas we struggle with, we will find ourselves one day able to lift another five pounds before the load is too heavy to bear. Or run an extra mile before we stumble. But, whereas my son will someday learn to clean up play-doh on his own, we will never, ever, outgrow our need for God’s help in growing us in holiness.
In His Strength
I think the true transition begins when we realize that when we were able to lift that extra weight or run that extra mile, it was never in our own strength at all. Our progress wasn’t our Trainer simply helping us to get better, but it was actually our trainer imbuing His strength into our own bodies and souls.
Thus, we attain sainthood not through any strength of our own but through realizing that any sin we overcome, any sanctification we undergo, is actually God’s grace within us.
C.S. Lewis writes:
“Make no mistake,” He says, ““if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through… I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect — until My Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.“
(Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1960, 172)
God will make us perfect. We will not make ourselves perfect. This is not even close to possible. We can cooperate with God, but we are utterly powerless on our own to accomplish the task. It is, in fact, too much.
There’s a lot to be learned from little children. And there is nothing left for me to say except “Yes, God, this is too much for me, and I need your help.” I then need to keep my heart willing and open to His work within me and not to close my heart off in those moments I still fall short. I need to be humble enough to be thankful that God, my heavenly Father, is always ready to take my hand because He knows I am not strong enough to do any of it on my own.