There is a saying that goes like this, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” The meaning of course is it is easier to use something good or sweet to motivate than something sour or negative. We apply the same principle with using positive reinforcement in motivating people, in particular children to conforming to a particular set of behaviors.
Last week I shared about how being discontent can motivate us to draw closer to God. The truth is, the right kind of discontentment works. It exerts effort. Discontentment moves us from laziness to growth. It produces an energy in us that seeks rest in Christ and the gospel. That when Paul’s “one thing” comes to the forefront.
Again, Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13-16: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”
This motivation moves us to work on what God has worked for us through His Spirit. We do this by forgetting anything behind that might rob us of our current pursuit. This is the “Aha” moment many Christians experiences. Yes, I am in Christ! Yes, I’ve found Him! Yes, He’s found me! Yes, I belong to Him! Yes, I have Him… but I want more of Him! If there is always more of Him to be had, then I need to keep moving. The Christian life isn’t just ambling along aimlessly wandering. Rather, like Paul, I am straining forward and I’m pressing on like He’s the only prize there is.
Paul uses this kind of language throughout his letters. He loves it. In 1 Timothy 4:7-10, he says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”
Notice Paul’s words here: “Have nothing to do with irrelevant, silly myths.” In other words, don’t play games. Don’t mess around. Instead, train yourselves up to be godly.
Now check out Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:23-27: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Whenever I read this, it reminds me of the greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali. He once said, “ I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”
Paul is saying that nobody runs a race to lose it. Ask any Olympic athlete about competing in the Olympics. They don’t go to win the silver or the bronze. They don’t go to get a participation ribbon. They go for the gold! Why would you run if you’re not running to win? So Paul’s exhortation is to win, plain and simple. Now we know that winning isn’t an option without training, without disciplining your life.
This is where grace comes in. This is the revolutionary message and the essence of Christianity. This is the truth that makes biblical faith unique and distinct from every other religion and philosophy. But isn’t the idea of grace removes the talk of striving, toiling, training and disciplining?
One of the best ways to get grace wrong is to believe it means we don’t work in the Christian life. But as Dallas Willard says, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.”
Godliness isn’t something we stumble into or gain by osmosis. It simply doesn’t happen by coasting on autopilot. We never see people in the Bible growing in godliness by coasting along.
In the Old Testament, we see how after people experienced the power of God expressed in miracles, how they begin to take God for granted. Moses led God’s people out of Egypt after a series of plagues and miracles. Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the 10 Commandments and what do the people do? They make a golden calf. They totally turn their backs on God. After all, they saw and experienced, they move from worshiping the God of the universe to a golden calf.
Where there is no striving, toil or pursuit of holiness, miracles and encounters with God become nonchalant. God becomes “less than”. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls a life of laziness and apathy about the gospel is a belief in “cheap grace.” Grace means we are saved apart from any effort from ourselves, but it doesn’t negate our pursuit of God. We no longer have to work for God’s approval. Obedience is not about being accepted, rather obedience occurs because we are accepted.
It is good to want to know God. It is good to know the Scriptures. To not desire God is the opposite of grace and is a false understanding of the discipline of straining forward and pressing on. The further we grow in grace, the further we understand the pursuit of God. Works are not grace, but works are not incompatible with grace. John Calvin said, “We are saved through faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” This is confirmed in the book of James. In 2:26 we read, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
For some, grace and striving are seen as opposites and while we are not saved by our striving and in fact saved from our striving, we are also saved to our striving… striving after Christ. Too many Christians today avoid the commands of God and the pursuit of holiness, instead settling for apathy and complacency. There is a tension between grace and effort. Straining and toiling are a part of the Christian life. As Paul writes, “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if any of you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
So, as we grow in grace and the knowledge of God, let us not forget the pursuit of everything God has for us. Grace at work is transformational and happens as we pursue Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.