I’m A Tryer.
Trying too hard. You could use that phrase as a banner for much of my life. Trying hard to do well. Trying hard to be accepted. Trying hard to be strong, to be a good husband, to be a good pastor, to be a good dad, to be more emotional and relational.
Trying too hard. It’s hard work, but it fits with my personality and baggage.
- First child: be the performer who makes everyone proud.
- Adopted child: live up to everyone’s hopes and expectations.
- Pastor’s Kid: be a good representative of the family and a good influence on everyone else’s kid (all the time).
- Smart: keep making good grades and impressing with “wisdom beyond my years.”
- Raised conservative Christian: honor God with my good behavior and religious observance.
I never realized how much of my energy was devoted to this Trying Treadmill until I couldn’t try anymore. A whole host of circumstances in my life came together, starting six years ago, and under all the pressure my carefully crafted system cracked and buckled. And then, when I stopped trying, an enormous amount of pain surfaced. What was this pain? The pain of not measuring up. The pain of fear.
Now that I’m not performing, will I be included? Will I be valued? Will I be loved?
When Legalism Is An Emotional Habit
Theologically I made the shift from legalism to grace sometime in my early twenties, but it turns out that legalism isn’t just an intellectual idea. It’s also a deeply held emotional habit. We cling to it because it offers a clear path to acceptance, both with our community around us, and with God.
It turns out legalism isn’t just bad theology. It’s also an emotional habit that gives us a clear path to acceptance.
I learned many years ago that God accepts me in Jesus Christ. I discovered that God loves me unconditionally with grace that I cannot earn or deserve. But as I began to sort through the shards of my life in the past few years, I kept opening drawers and closets in my heart and finding artifacts of my early legalism that I thought were long gone.
- If only I could meet all my wife’s expectations, then she’s really love me.
- If only I could preach a better sermon, or lead a better meeting, or inspire one more time, then they’d know I was a great pastor, and I’d be secure.
- If only I could be a great dad who never lost my temper and always had time to be patient and present with my kids, then they’re guaranteed to turn out well.
Not only are these ideas not true, not only are they a little bit sick, they are also, every one of them, legalism. Their essence? If I live up to my end of the contract, then they (life, God, my wife, my community) must live up to their end. And that’s where all the “trying too hard” comes from.
Trying to do the wrong thing.
Karl Haffner, a pastor I respect posted this comment on Facebook:
I read this statement from W. W. Prescott (Victory in Christ, p. 25): “For a long time I tried to obtain victory over sin and I failed. I have since discovered the reason. Instead of doing the part which God expects me to do and which I can do and which He cannot do for me, I was trying to do God’s part which He does not expect me to do and which I cannot do and which He has promised to do for me.”
And then he wrote this:
“If anyone is in Christ he is a new creature.” I have been trying harder to be a new creature than I have been trying to be in Christ. Don’t fight sin. Find Christ.
There in plain detail I could see the Trying Treadmill I had been running on. I’ve been trying too hard at the wrong things: trying harder to be a new creature than I have been trying to be in Christ. The first is about working hard to generate certain outcomes and experiences. The second is about settling into a relationship.
My place at the table?
In the course of counseling, I shared with my therapist an image that had surfaced in my heart. I pictured my community being a big dinner table. Currently, the table is the church where I pastor. In the past it’s been other work environments, my circle of college friends, even my marriage. At the table great conversation and relationship is going on. Everyone is eating great food.
I saw myself on the outside, away from the table, wondering what it would take to secure myself a place. All the ideas that come to me were performance-based. If I could be a good enough… then, they will accept me at the table. Essentially, I’ll earn my seat. I’ve done a good job of this over the years.
But there’s a problem. Once you’ve earned your seat at the table, how do you keep it? You can’t stop performing, right? You can’t make a bad decision or disappoint, right? If your seat was earned, it can be unearned. And so the drive to perform never stops because the desire to be included is so powerful. You can’t turn the treadmill off.
In the past two years I’ve seen this drive within me. My therapist, and my wife and close friends, and–it seems–even God, have been helping me see this and step away from it. But the desire to please and be accepted is still powerful.
I think that’s why Karl’s quote struck me so deeply. I have been trying hard to be a new creature. But the Bible says that work is done already. My identity in Christ is already set. That means my seat at the table is already bought and paid for. Now, my work is different. Instead of the trying treadmill, I’m now on another path — the hard work of accepting what God says about me, and what God says about Himself, and living out of that reality.
Are you on the Trying Treadmill today?
It’s time to stop trying too hard. I think that’s why Jesus said in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”