My buddy Sam and I still laugh 20 years later about a certain college basketball coach who, when interviewed about his team’s play, always seemed to respond along one line: “The boys just need to try harder.” While he had some very good teams, his teams never made it to a Final Four. Apparently they were never able to try hard enough.
I think this is often the attitude of Christians. They feel like God is trying to get them to play harder, but for some reason they can’t, or at least they can’t for long enough stretches to keep acting like Jesus.
When “try harder” is the means to a closer walk with Christ, or conquering some sinful attitude or behavior, it inevitably ends in failure and disappointment. Then a cycle of feeling bad about oneself sets in, i.e. self-condemnation, and then often a renewed “dedication” (aka trying harder) to get back on track. In trying harder, we are making the Christian life too hard, by making it something it isn’t.
Jesus never says try harder to follow him. He speaks in terms of “abiding” in him. Stay connected to him. Listen to him. Deny yourself…take up your cross. Those are not “trying harder” words. And he sent the Holy Spirit to fill us so that we would have the power to live free and beyond ourselves. “Trying harder” is like expecting a 6 yr old to play like an NBA all-star.
We can’t live the Christian life by self-effort and grit. That is why the Holy Spirit was given – to transform us and empower us to walk with Jesus. Our role is to be with him, not to perform for him. He’s really not impressed with our performance. But we will be transformed by his presence if we just take the time to acknowledge our sin and brokenness and yield to the Spirit’s control.