Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. — 2 Corinthians 5:17
Striving for self-improvement is a dead-end street.
The temptation to fix yourself, better yourself, feel good about yourself by cleaning yourself up — that temptation is real. We aren’t alone in this; there’s a long line of religious folks and self-help gurus selling the power of hard work and achievement. And truth is, hard work and achievement are commendable, but they lack power as sources for true change.
My goal has been to show you that striving in our own strength to attain any form of worth, approval, assurance, or comfort will never deliver on the promises it makes. But now that we agree — regardless of how similar or different our stories look — that we are by nature strivers and self-improvers, I want to show you this: that
self-righteous striving is more hopeless than you want to believe, but grace is more life-transforming than you realize.
There isn’t merely good news for our bad news; there’s a way forward and a way out of the cycle of anxious hustling, self-condemnation, and proving ourselves.
Here’s where I want to draw out our coffee date and ask you to stay awhile. Right here is where I believe so many well-meaning Christian women get stuck and feel powerless along the way to understanding the gift of grace. Too many of us hear the hard truth that we aren’t enough and don’t know what to do in response.
Do we, then, sit idly by and wait for the Lord to do whatever He will in His sovereignty?
Do we just read our Bibles and hope change will magically come about?
Do we give up on the idea of improvement altogether and accept our sinful patterns and habits?
Do we keep hustling anxiously but pray that we will do it with God’s strength?
Where does striving end and trusting begin?
I have asked all of these questions and, at times, defaulted to believing wrongly that the gospel is powerful enough to save me from hell but not powerful enough to save me to something greater than self-improvement.
I’m guessing you relate to one of the following:
- You’ve been worn out trying to be a better version of yourself.
- You’ve felt guilt or pressure about doing more, being more, accomplishing more.
- You’ve struggled to understand the place for good works if grace saves us.
- You’re tired of trying to measure up to other people’s standards.
- You can’t decide if God is pleased with you or disappointed in you.
- You want to grow and change but don’t know how it really happens.
I just want to voice these things out loud because I see you. I’m with you. And, listen, sometimes I wish change and becoming were a quick and easy formula too. Sometimes it’s easier to subscribe to a twelve-step program than to submit to a lifelong process known as sanctification. But God promises us:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people, and I will be your God. — Ezekiel 36:26-28
The prophet Ezekiel voiced these words from God that wouldn’t be fully realized until the arrival of Christ, the Savior, but sometimes I wish our spiritual transformation truly happened like a heart transplant.
Some of you reading these pages may remember when our family walked the unknowns alongside Troy’s younger brother who needed a new heart. His had failed, and he was placed on the top of a heart transplant list. I’ll never forget receiving word that he had been matched and was due to go into surgery within the next day. Another family’s deep and painful loss made life possible for my brother-in-law.
Troy and I flew out to meet with the rest of the family and the doctors who would operate on his brother. The whole family was called into a stark hospital meeting room to hear from the surgeon after the lengthy, mind-blowing procedure. (I still cannot wrap my mind around it!) We watched as the doctor drew diagrams and labeled ventricles. We listened and held our breaths as he described what they removed and what they placed in an empty cavity in my brother-in-law’s chest.
His broken heart was literally removed, and a new and healthy one was put in its place.
And it was now beating. It was pumping his blood. It was giving him new life.
It’s no surprise that, as an artist, this visual is stunning, if not arresting, for me. How clear does God have to be about our utter need for new, not better — self-replacement, not self-betterment. The heart represents the center of a person’s soul, the control center of one’s desires, motives, spiritual being. God isn’t in the business of replacing qualities, giftings, and perspectives unique to you; He’s all about the lifesaving eviction of a diseased control center and replacing it with one that can make you operate and fulfill the purposes for which He created you.
That’s why the gospel isn’t a recipe for self-improvement.
It’s not a mix of working with what you’ve got, sprinkling in a little religious effort, adding in discipline, strategy, and a healthy dash of likability. But this formula isn’t entirely a recipe for disaster— if it were, we’d all have jumped ship like it was a bad fad diet we realized we’d taken up in a moment of weakness watching late-night television. No, unfortunately, this recipe sometimes yields results. It sometimes rewards those who keep on pushing, keep on hustling, keep on perfecting, keep on striving. But the fruit isn’t lasting because the control center that’s keeping us keeping on in this way was broken to begin with. It’ll only run for so long in its terminal condition.
So, it’s worth revisiting this key passage of Scripture that resets our operating system. I want you to know how important it is that you not miss what I’m about to say. This is what changes everything:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:4-10
This passage begins with two little words that become the hinge of history — the moment where all the impossible becomes possible in our longing to be enough:
In the same way that all that comes before Ephesians 2:4 declares our alienation from God, the first half of this book is about our inability to save ourselves. But in steps God. Paul didn’t tell us here in Ephesians that God fixes everything, makes us feel better, or gets rid of our deficiencies. In fact, Paul didn’t say much about us at all. Instead, he made sure we would know all about God…
- who is rich in mercy,
- who greatly loves us,
- who intercepted our waywardness,
- and made us alive with Christ,
- who raised us up,
- and shows us the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness,
- who saves us by His grace,
- molds us,
- and makes us first to do good works.
If there’s one passage of Scripture that fully summarizes the benefits of grace, it’s this one. Paul succinctly declared all that is fundamentally changed because of the grace of God. The words but God are our reminder that
we can’t, but God can.
For all of history, man was unable to meet God’s standards, face the true consequences of sin, or answer for His lack of holiness before a righteous God. We were all found utterly and completely not enough. That nagging feeling we’ve had all along — that feeling of imperfection, ineptitude, or insufficiency? The world offers endless ways to stuff it down, cover it up, numb it out, compensate, and overcome our inadequacy, but Jesus offered — and still offers — the only true solution that wasn’t temporary but eternal.
No sacrifice could solve the problem.
No amount of right living could make us whole.
No religious effort was enough to save a sinful heart.
Both the messy and broken, the pious and pretty, were equally incapable of loving the Lord with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. The most foundational command to love God above all else was broken in the garden; how could we possibly fix ourselves and make ourselves fit for God’s approval if we aren’t even able to love God wholly as we were made to do?
You see, the gospel is the good news because the bad news is without hope. And I can’t help but wonder: If we really considered how bad the bad news is, and how good the good news of Jesus is, would we still feel as hopeless as we tend to feel when change doesn’t happen fast, easily, or in the way we expect? Would we turn to self-help and self-improvement if we fell wholly on God’s promise to sanctify us through grace?
Excerpted with permission from When Strivings Cease by Ruth Chou Simons, copyright Ruth Chou Simons.
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Trying to be a better person just won’t work. We can’t do it long-term. Placing our change in God’s hands as we do our best, though… that’s a a grace recipe that will work. Where we can’t. He can! Jesus is our hope! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full