If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again. This little maxim is all well and good until you run into a Yoda follower – Do or do not, there is no try. What if they’re both wrong? What if we need to embrace a mentality that starts with two simple words – Stop Trying!
I don’t think anyone would tell an alcoholic of some years, just stop drinking. No responsible friends would tell a drug addict, “Try harder. If you just try hard enough I’m sure those withdrawals will be easier?!?” If that is the way you are attempting to help a friend, let me invite you to stop that for a moment. If you are someone with an addiction to food or your mirror or scale or websites or whatever and you’ve found yourself exhausted by “trying harder,” let me invite you to stop too.
There is a terrible epidemic that has moved through too many churches. In an effort to answer the question, “How should we live?” well meaning Christians tend to go one of two ways: 1 – a new set of rules to replace the old ones or 2 – forget the rules and just be who you’re created to be. The latter is an obvious overreaction to the perversion of the first. I grew up in churches that championed a God who forgives the masses for breaking the rules and no sooner have we been forgiven, we’re introduced to a whole new set of rules. Don’t break them or God’s love disappears. And don’t expect to keep them unless you’re the second coming! N.T. Wright in his work After you Believe, says it this way: “Jesus came to bring forgiveness for our rule-breaking; but once we’ve grasped that, we have to go back to rule-keeping again!”
That is not good news and I do not believe that is the Gospel message. That message is a new way of whitewashing tombs and does nothing about the brokenness inside. That message leaves people in a terrible limbo – “you’re terrible and broken – I forgive you for that – but there’s nothing you can do to be any different.” I tried for years to be better, to be holier, to be Christian, and I was left disappointed and alone. How many of us try to diet? How many of us try to stop looking at porn? How many of us try and try again only to fall harder and harder on our face?
I don’t think the Gospel’s response is to try again. It’s not just about trying harder to follow the rules. Jesus adamantly opposed any form of self-righteous legalism. Nor – and this is crucial – was Jesus instituting some sort of radical, self-determined freedom. He was introducing the world to a new character that plays a role in the metanarrative of redemption. I cannot pretend to unpack what it means to have a transformed character in one blog post. It took Wright almost 300 pages (which I would highly recommend reading)! We can begin the journey of transforming our characters together.
Wright tells this story to begin the journey of transforming our understanding and it is fitting here: “A famous preacher had a friend who was well known for his temper. One day at a party he asked this friend to help him serve some drinks. The preacher himself poured the drinks and deliberately filled some to the very brim. He passed the tray to his friend and as they walked around the room, he accidentally bumped into his friend causing the tray to move and the drinks to spill. ‘There you are, you see. When you’re jolted, what spills out is whatever is filling you.’ “
When we are put to the test, our true selves come out. What is filling us? If you are hoping rules will change you or that if you just try a little harder things will be different this time; if you’re hope lies in your ability to pray harder or mean it more this time, then let me invite you to stop trying. Stop trying to follow the rules. Stop trying to set your own rules. Start asking how’s my character. What’s on my inside?
My favorite show by far is AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” As fascinated as I am by this infection and the social struggles of humanity in such a crazy world, I hope and pray I am not infected by the pandemic sweeping our religious groups; I don’t want to be walking dead frustrated by my inability to do anything but try harder. I want to live. I want to follow the One who came to bring life to the fullest.
Wright, N.T. After you Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne: New York, 2010.