The Harder I Try, the Worse I Do

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I don’t know if other people can relate to this, but it seems like the harder I try to live a God-pleasing life, the harder I try to avoid sin, the more of a sinner I become. The more I strive to curb my thoughts and actions, the more unholy my thoughts and actions seem to become.

This seems to be the case especially during the Season of Lent. It is the season of fasting, and yet I hunger more for food and drink than ever before. It is the season of increased devotion to Christ, and yet at no other time of the year do I feel less motivated to pray. It is the season of repentance and casting off dead works of the flesh, and yet it almost seems as though my fleshly desires become more active than they do at any other time of the year. Which leads me to conclude that perhaps, Lent is really bad for me. Or really good, depending on which way you look at it.

This is what the Law does. It is relentless in its demands, and it does not give one the power to do what it demands. So, try as I might to keep it, to fulfill it, to live according to it, I find myself condemned at every turn. I’m not even trying to justify myself by keeping it. I know that I am a child of God and fully justified by faith in Christ, apart from my works. I am simply trying to do it because I know that it is pleasing to God, and good for me. But alas, I continually fall short. The harder I try, the worse I do. Indeed, the more I actually desire the thing that is contrary to God’s will. As Paul writes: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7:8).

Perhaps God is trying to keep me from an even more dangerous sin–the sin of spiritual pride. I think I remember Peter Kreeft writing something to that effect in his book Back to VirtueWhat if I were successful in avoiding sin, in curbing my unholy thoughts, in doing what I know is pleasing to God, and doing it well? What would happen then? Would I be able to resist the temptation to give myself a pat on the back? Would I be able to resist the self-congratulatory attitude that comes with such success? Perhaps I would humbly thank God that, with His help, I warded off another attack. Perhaps not.

I suppose the Law is doing what it is meant to do. If in striving to do the works of the Law I become more of a sinner, stronger, then is my thirst for the righteousness of another: Christ. Is this the real purpose of Lent after all, to show me how utterly depraved I am by setting the bar higher so that I might yearn more deeply for the One who has fulfilled the Law for me? That is the effect it seems to have on me. Perhaps God is just getting tired of my same old confession. Perhaps what He really wants to hear from me is not, “I said/did/thought this or that” or “I failed to do this or that,” but simply: “I can’t do this. I don’t even want to do it. That is how wretched I am.”

Maybe, just maybe, instead of trying so hard to keep the Law, to do what is right, to curb unholy thoughts, etc., I might try to keep the Gospel instead, and to believe it, to cherish it, to trust it. After all, it is true what Luther says in his Heidelberg Disputation: “The Law says, ‘Do this’, and it is never done. The Gospel says, ‘Believe this’, and it is done already.”

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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