Why the “Try Harder” Solution Fails

Weight Lifting

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So much social media interaction is shaped by conversations about what people should or should not do or how people should or should not think. This seems to be even worse within Christian social media. What impact does this have? Do our exhortations change things? We know that we are to reflect Christ, but do things like “seven steps to being more loving” actually make us more loving? And if not, what is the alternative? 

These are the questions that Greg raised and answered in his award-winning book, Seeing is Believing. The following is an excerpt that challenges what he calls the “try harder” solution to following Christ.

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“You ought to.” “You need to.” “You’ve got to.” “You’re supposed to.” “You better.” Do these sorts of exhortations sound familiar? … They reflect the prevalent American-Christian belief that a person’s character can be made more Christ-like, more fruitful, simply by trying harder. They reflect the frequently held assumption that any lack of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, any deficiency of love, joy, peace, or patience, is primarily the result of a lack of effort on our part to work at producing the fruit. They reflect the misguided view that the problem in people’s lives is their behavior.

The “try harder” solution is popular because it’s simple and seems so commonsensical. Just let people know what they’re supposed to do and motivate them to do it. It’s that simple. Not only that, but the “try harder” solution often seems to produce immediate results. If exhorted in the right way, using the right motivation, many people will respond by changing their behavior, at least in the short term.

In the long term, however, the “try harder” solution rarely works. … While willpower plays a role in overcoming behavioral problems, it cannot itself change fundamental aspects of a person’s character. For example, willpower alone cannot make an unloving person into a loving person or a depressed person into a joyful person. …

Another way of saying this is that trying hard to fulfill an ought cannot in and of itself produce the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot simply will ourselves to be genuinely loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. We can try to act this way, but we cannot simply will ourselves to be this way. The fruit of the Spirit is not first and foremost about how we act; it is about how we are. It is not about our behavior, it is about our heart, our soul, our innermost disposition. As such, the fruit of the Spirit is not something we can or should strive to produce by our own effort. The fruit of the Spirit is not a goal we can and must seek to attain. Indeed, it is called the fruit of the Spirit precisely because it is the fruit of the Spirit and not the product of our own effort.

So, how do we “grow” in the fruit of the Spirit? The answer is that we can’t. Rather, the Spirit grows the fruit in us. Again, it’s the fruit of the Spirit. So how does the Spirit grow his fruit in us? … [It] happens when we cease our striving, learn how to rest in Christ, and allow the Spirit to transform us by his grace. As we rest in the love, joy, peace, and patience of Christ toward us, and as the Holy Spirit makes all of this real to us, we become more Christlike, more loving, joyful, peaceful, and patient. As we behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we are transformed into this glory (2 Cor. 3:17-4:6). (Seeing is Believing, Pages 22-23)

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