We are capable of a lot. We’re born with talents and develop skills and strengths. “You can do anything you set your mind to” is mostly true. The human race got as far as the moon with no computers as sophisticated as the average pocket calculator. Patience, time, and sheer determination are all it takes to achieve extraordinary things.
And drive ourselves to ruin in the meantime.
So many slogans: Seize the day! Shoot for the moon! Follow your dreams! Dream big! Never stop believing! Anything is possible! Be all that you can be! Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it! Some of us hear an unspoken “or else” on the end of these. We cut the chains that tie us down and hold us back only to find that there are chains just as terrible dragging us on.
“Self-Help” is a sizable section of any bookstore. There are hundreds of thousands of books out there with proven advice, with a long list of testimonies to back it up. Follow this, do that — if you’re unhappy, it’s because of a), b), and c), for which the cure is doing d). Could be a course, or a diet, some kind of prescribed regimen with little check boxes. Check them all off and you will officially be a good person.
Winners never quit, and quitters never win. Never give up. Never stop trying. Never settle. No pain, no gain. Give it your all. Give until it hurts. No time like the present; don’t put off until tomorrow; today is the first day of the rest of your life—
And I’m just gonna stop right here and observe that none of these are found in the Bible. Not even close.
The Bible says, if you can work, work. Pleasure in work and its wages is a gift from God. The Bible says, be wise, get wisdom, the beginning of which is the fear of God. If you go so far as to ask how to be a good person, how to succeed, how to be the best that you can be, well and strong and whole, the Bible uses the weirdest little word:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-17)
Jesus could have said, “Shine your light.” He didn’t.
Let brotherly love continue. (Hebrews 13:1)
It doesn’t say, “Continue brotherly love/loving in a brotherly way”
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4)
If anybody would have written about making ourselves perfect it would have been James, he who wrote “faith without works is dead.” But that’s not how he put it.
Paul put it this way:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)
My pastor tells us that one of the things we lose in translating the Bible into English is that Greek has “voices”. So does English, but they’re not as clear. That “put on” at the beginning is in the passive voice. It’s possible you could translate that as “Have it put on you” — the word (enduo) refers to slipping or settling into clothing. There isn’t effort involved, just a handover of will.
Synonyms for “let” are “allow”, “permit”, “assign”, “authorize”, “enable”. An archaic meaning is “abandon (to)”; you know, like in the phrase “let himself go”. Any way you put it, it adds up to the same thing: we’re not the ones doing the work.
We bear persistent echoes of what we were meant to be, of strengths and beauties that linger in us regardless of who we are. I believe that, as a Christian, these are also teasers of what I will be. But all the good we’re capable of, all the strength we have, is limited. It’s flawed. Like the universe, it’s fundamentally out of tune. At some point it runs out, and what are we left with? We lack what it takes to become perfect.
That word sits at the source of everything. If you don’t “let”, none of the rest is possible. If you don’t “let,” the rest is a dead end. If you don’t “let”, the rest will chew you up and spit you out.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. (1 Corinthians 7:17)
Let God do the calling. Let God direct the path. Do, but only what God has told you to do. No other standards matter. No other rules apply. This is why his yoke is easy and his burden is light, because we can ignore every other burden that comes our way. “Nope. Not mine. Wasn’t called to that. Don’t have to carry it. Thanks anyway.”
There are some for whom “letting” is going to draw them into more action, more work, more excitement, all that stuff they resisted because it didn’t suit their wants. Others of us are going to be led into a quiet place, where we can have the rest that we so stubbornly deny ourselves, that we’re sure we don’t deserve. Which one is right for us is up to God, not us, and not anyone else. And as we’re all different, “letting” is going to lead to something different for all of us.
The Bible does not tell us to never quit in anything. It never tells us to create feelings, or summon up strength, or that if we’re weak and heavy-laden that we should stop whining and buck up. The book of Hebrews tells us to lift drooping hands and strengthen weak knees, but doesn’t say how. Probably because the writer assumed we’d be smart enough to know that the way to strengthen the body involves rest and food and regular exercise, not some kind of über-spiritual willpower.
Jesus, Paul, and James all told us that if we find ourselves lacking (strength, wisdom, love, material goods), we’re supposed to ask God. Not make do. Not try to create it ourselves, ex nihilo. Let God take care of it. He’s the only one who can.
“Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” John 4:1