Stop Striving!

I’ve come to see a pattern in many people who are trying to live a holy life: they strive for moral perfection, realize it is unachievable, give into discouragement, and then begin to strive again… Repeat cycle…  Truth be told, I’ve seen this pattern in my own life as well.

It’s this idea of striving, though, that seems to be the problem.  Dictionary.com defines the verb “to strive” as “to exert oneself vigorously; try hard.”  Striving is not bad in itself, but there’s a negative side to it.  For example, recently I’ve been striving to run more miles. However, there’s an interesting thing that happens in running: when I relax and let go, I find that my running is more enjoyable, that I get in the flow; but, when I strive to run well, I find that I get tired more quickly and even feel more pain.  Another example is the golf swing.  Grip a club tightly and swing really hard, and that little white ball isn’t going very far; however, loosen your grip and swing effortlessly, and that ball mysteriously flies farther than you thought you could hit it.

So what about our lives?  What if we stopped striving so hard for moral and spiritual perfection?  I know this sounds outrageous, particularly when we think of the words of Our Lord: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  I’m not saying that we should be ambivalent about the moral and spiritual life; what I mean is what if we took a more relaxed, letting-go, approach to the moral and spiritual life?

I think that Psalms are instructive in this regard.  Psalm 131 reads, “I do not busy myself with great matters, with things to sublime for me.  Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child.  Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me.”  And Psalm 37 tells us to “Be still before the Lord; wait for God” (v. 7)

I think when we focus on striving, we make it about our own effortWhen we let go and surrender (like a weaned child on its mother’s lap), our focus is more on God’s love, on His desire to make us holy, on His grace.  Ultimately, it is God’s grace that perfects us, not our striving.  When we stop striving, we let ourselves be loved and we stop trying to earn God’s love.

I know I don’t have this whole letting-go approach figured out.  I’m not even sure I know how to stop striving.  I guess I’m just posing the question for our reflection.  Can we take a more relaxed, letting-go approach to the moral and spiritual life without being ambivalent?  I believe we can.

I’ll leave this post a bit open-ended… Feel free to add your thoughts…

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10 Responses to “Stop Striving!”

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  1. Tony Single says:

    Michael, I can relate to the striving for moral perfection thing very well. And oh, how I have missed the mark! :(

    Yes, I think what you say must be wisdom. “Letting go and letting God” is a phrase I heard once. I never really thought about it until I read this post, and then it clicked.

    Now, if I can only work out HOW to let go without striving to let go! Argh! :P

  2. JFP says:

    Instead of striving for perfection, which is really God’s realm, I really strive to just follow Him and take the path He has asked me to take.

    When I focus on my soul instead of my ego, the journey seems to go a lot easier. I tend to get sidetracked when I forget to follow Him or I trust myself more than Him.

    I believe that all of our experiences (even our failures) can help us find God. He is always there to turn to when we miss the mark. Like a loving parent, He has given us what we need for the journey, and He is there to pick us up when we stumble. He will guide us in the right direction if we just take the time to trust and listen, and He will discipline us if we need it.

    If we keep trying to follow Him, I believe He will find us, even if we occasionally get lost or distracted. This has helped me let go of my need to take control. I trust that He is in charge and that He loves me.

  3. Lindsay Rigby says:

    Hey, Fr. Mike!

    It seems to me that you’re definitely on to something. Not that we should neglect the sincere desire for holiness and the part we do need to play, but that it’s easy to get discouraged when we fall into the trap of beleiving this acheived entirely on our own effort. As you’ve addressed before, doing so makes it about me (self-centered), rather than about God (Christ-centered).

    But I do believe that God expects something from us, that is, willingness: the willingness to take a look at ourselves and our lives, the willingness to change what could be improved, the willingness to take action (i.e. practice virtue), and ultimately, the willingness to lay it all down at His feet and let Him do the heavily lifting, which only He can do anyway.

    In my experience, God is a gentleman, and He doesn’t force Himself upon anyone. So in order to cooperate with the grace He pours out so freely on those who seek Him, we do have to be willing. It actually reminds me of last Monday’s Gospel, about the feeding of the 5,000. Our Lord performed an amazing miracle that produced enough to meet everyone’s needs, and then some. However, Jesus needed the two fish and five loaves to get started. In other words, He requires that we first “bring something to the table.” But more often in the Gospels, what Jesus asks for is faith. And I would maintain that faith and willingness go hand in hand. So when we trust in God and bring Him what meager offerings we have, it is His abundant love and grace that has the power to transform us to be more and more like Christ. For no matter how hard we “strive” on our own power, without Him, we are nothing.

    Peace and blessings!
    Lindsay

  4. Greg says:

    All of this brings to mind the book Abandonment to Divine Providence by J.P. de Caussade. He wrote to the nuns under his spritual direction: “If the business of becoming holy seems to present insufferable difficulties, it is merely because we have a wrong idea about it. In reality, holiness consists of one thing only: complete loyalty to God’s will… …The will of God has has only delights, favors and riches for all souls who are obedient to it. We cannot trust it too much or abandon ourselves to it too completely. If we leave everything to God, he will do all that is necessary for our holiness.” Easy, right?

  5. Michelle says:

    I once was recommended a great book called “In the School of the Holy Spirit”, by Fr. Jacques Philippe and it was given to me at a time when I had hit a bit of a valley and was really really trying to figure things out. The very first chapter is “Holiness is the work of the Holy Spirit”. I paused (at the title of chapter one!!) and then suddenly realized that the only way to advance at all in the spiritual life was by getting out of the way, that well known saying of “letting go and letting God”, and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the way. I highly recommend this book for those who are really seriously wanting to advance in the spiritual life (you might want to consult with your own priest or spiritual director, or get approval from Fr. Mike!!) It is small, and easy to read, but it will change the way you understand how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. Another good advice given to me once was that this discouragement is a tactic of the devil to bump us off the right path. We see we are not advancing, we fall again, we cannot press on, and we give up. This is exactly what he wants. That’s why “letting go and letting God” is so important because we no longer rely on our strengths but His. When I find myself in a rut, I pick up this treasure again. (http://www.amazon.com/School-Holy-Spirit-Jacques-Philippe/dp/1594170533)
    PS @Greg: “Abandonment” was another one of those life transforming books for me too! :0)

  6. I appreciate reading this because, having a strong pragmatic side, moral perfection has never been part of my thinking and certainly not something I’ve ever consciously tried to attain.
    Doing and being good, or at least being able to live with oneself on particularly bad days (rare though they are, they still happen), these are more within the realm of possibility for me. I’ve found that setting the bar impossibly high (or clutching to anything too tightly) very often creates conflict.

  7. Fr. Michael Najim says:

    @Everyone – Thanks for your comments. I found them all to be very helpful to me!

  8. Nicki says:

    Odd as I just finished reading another friend’s blog about failure and how at least he had tried. Somehow, the two – striving and failure – seem to be intertwined for me.

    While we cannot be divine or perfect, we can continue to strive and to fail as we attempt to live the way we should.

    I am not really sure where I am going today with these thoughts. Too much running in my brain to be concise. Thank you for the thought provoking words.

  9. Striving to be something or achieve something is an interesting way to put it as it kind of lends itself to success or failure over growth and enrichment – the movement toward greater knowledge and awareness or even love. I don’t know that we can strive to release or to let go as it seems that both are more a let go, take the risk, trust and leap kind of moves – similar to faith. We choose to take our hands from the wheel or drive – I am not sure that there is an in between.
    I live in DC where it seems that there are many striving to be everything to everyone or striving to be an “ideal” or striving to be something that they aren’t… and then they fall because they are human. If we are going to strive – why not strive to be human? To accept our inperfections? And yet, as I commented above – when we strive, we put ourselves in a place of success or failure which may defeat the purpose.

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