Why the Christian Life
Doesn't (seem to) Work
The Christian life cannot
be lived out of the self-effort of approaching it as a project,
a promotional effort, a panacea, or propriety.
©1999 by James
A. Fowler. All rights
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Why the Christian Life Doesn't (seem to) Work
Our naturally developed mind-set and tendencies
are opposite of God's ways. God told us that through Isaiah long
ago. "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are
your ways My ways,' declares the Lord. 'For as the heavens are
higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways,
and My thoughts than your thoughts.'" (Isa. 55:8,9).
As fallen, sinful persons we have all developed
patterned tendencies to approach everything in life in particular
ways. It is called the "flesh" in the New Testament
Scriptures. We each have unique action and reaction patterns
of selfishness and sinfulness in the soul. When we become Christians,
we still have those patterned tendencies of the "flesh."
Paul explains to the Galatian Christians that "the flesh
sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the
flesh; for these are in opposition to one another" (Gal.
5:17). To the Romans, Paul wrote, "I am of flesh, sold into
bondage to sin. ...I know that nothing good dwells in me, that
is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing
of the good is not" (Rom. 7:14,18).
These patterned tendencies of the "flesh"
affect our individual approaches to living the Christian life.
We have various patterns of thinking, with which we approach
our Christian living.
Some Christians approach the Christian
life as a "project." It is a task to be completed;
a job to get done. They want to see results in everything. The
objective in their mind is to get it accomplished. So they decisively
implement the necessary activities to achieve the objective and
to reach the goal. "What are we waiting for?" they
ask. "Lets get the job done...now!" They want everyone
to assist and to do their part. Focused and persistent, they
take direct action to perform what is necessary, and to produce
the desired end-product. Should they begin to relax, they feel
guilty. They work so hard to achieve what they perceive to be
the desired result. They want to do it, get it done, and make
a significant change in things. The project called the "Christian
life" must be accomplished and be completed.
But, what happens when they cannot accomplish
the project of Christian living? What do they do when all their
efforts are not enough, and their greatest fear of being a failure
in getting the job done seems to be evident? It is then that
they might conclude, "the Christian life doesn't work!"
They often then respond by saying to themselves, "Maybe
I haven't been decisive enough. Maybe I haven't been persistent
enough. Maybe I haven't worked hard enough. Maybe I haven't buckled-down
to get it done. Maybe I didn't attack it with enough effort and
commitment." Back they go to approaching the Christian life
as a "project" to be completed!
Other Christians approach the Christian
life as a "promotional effort" to persuade everyone
and to get everyone inspired. They want everything to be exciting.
The Christian life is measured by the level of enthusiasm, energy
and liveliness. These Christians thrive on spontaneity, emotion
and zeal. They always want to be optimistic and up-beat. The
objective is to be excited about being a Christian and living
the Christian life, to be "on fire for Jesus." They
want everyone else to get involved and to join in the exciting
programs. Everyone should be personable, out-going and friendly.
Everyone should feel good. Like cheerleaders at a pep-rally,
they try to motivate and enthuse by being dramatic, entertaining
and communicative. They want to whoop it up and be expressive.
They conceive of the Christian life as a promotional effort for
But, what happens when life isn't always
exciting? What do these Christians do when the energy level runs
low, and when no one responds to the peppy promotion? It is then
that they might conclude that "the Christian life doesn't
work!" Their response is often to say to themselves, "I
am unacceptable to God and to others," which is their greatest
fear. "Maybe I haven't been zealous enough. Maybe I haven't
been friendly enough. Maybe I haven't been personable enough.
Maybe I haven't been convincing enough. Maybe I haven't been
enthusiastic enough. Maybe I haven't been involved enough."
Back they go to approach the Christian life as a "promotional
Other Christians approach the Christian
life as a "panacea." They think that the Christian
life should be pleasant and predictable. Their expectation is
that the Christian life should cause everything to be peaceful
and pastoral. With an aversion to conflicts and troubles, they
think the Christian life should have no unexpected bumps and
no curve balls. The Christian life should be consistent, conservative
and traditional. For them security is found in that which is
steady and stable and status-quo. In relating to others who are
trying to live the Christian life, they want everybody to "get-along."
They think that everyone in the church should be amiable, accommodating
and cooperative like them. Everyone should be patient, loyal,
faithful and contented, in order to work together as a family
and a team. The objective is to have a safe environment of fun
and fellowship, for the Christian life is viewed as a pleasant
and predictable panacea.
But, what happens when their Christian
life is not such a stable plateau? How do they respond when problems
and conflicts arise, and when their greatest fears of an out-of-control
chaos seem to be realized? It is then that they might conclude
"the Christian life doesn't work!" Their response is
often to say to themselves, "Maybe I haven't been loyal
enough. Maybe I haven't been patient and accommodating enough.
Maybe I haven't been faithful enough. Maybe I haven't been cooperative
enough. Maybe I haven't been tolerant enough of others."
Back they go to approaching the Christian life as the development
of a "peaceful panacea!"
Other Christians approach the Christian
life as "propriety." They view the objective
of the Christian life as proper thinking and proper action, issuing
forth in correct doctrine and correct morality. These Christians
want to get everything figured-out accurately and analytically.
They "study to show themselves approved." In their
quest for truth and knowledge, they are conscientious about every
detail. They think that if they can get everything down-pat and
air-tight logically and systematically, then there should be
precise procedures, techniques and formulas by which to lead
an orderly and structured Christian life. In the process, they
want everyone else to think like they do, and to agree and conform
in thought and practice. The objective is to "do it right,"
"follow the rules," and "go by the Book."
Then the Christian life will be proper, correct and right.
But, what happens when their Christian
life doesn't go as planned and the tight structures fail? Inevitably
they will find that everything isn't "proper" in their
lives. It is then that they might conclude, "the Christian
life doesn't work!" Their response is often to say to themselves,
"Maybe I've been wrong." They hate to admit it. "Maybe
I haven't understood it well enough. Maybe I haven't been studious
enough. Maybe I haven't been disciplined enough. Maybe I haven't
been exhaustive enough. Maybe I haven't been moral enough."
Back they go to approach the Christian life as "propriety."
All Christians can see themselves in one
or more of these misdirected approaches to the Christian life.
We have all had a tendency to approach our Christian lives with
a degree of self-effort. That is why the Christian life doesn't
seem to work, because it will not work by our "works"
The Christian life works alright, but not
because we try to make it work in a certain way according to
our selfish propensities. The Christian life works only when
Jesus Christ works in us. That is the way the life of Jesus worked
on earth as a man. Jesus said, "the Father abiding in Me
does His works" (John 14:10). In like manner, the Christian
life works, for the writer to the Hebrews prays that "the
God of peace...might equip you in every good thing to do His
will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through
Jesus Christ" (Heb. 13:20,21). The Christian life is Jesus
working in us that which is pleasing in God's sight.
To the Philippians Paul wrote that they
should "work out their salvation with fear and trembling"
(Phil. 2:12). He did not mean that we should try to work out
our Christian lives in accord with our self-oriented mind-set
and approaches to life. Rather, those misguided ideas, approaches
and orientations must be given up in order to recognize what
Paul goes on to say, "God is at work in you both to will
and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).
The Christian life does not work if we
try to "pull it off" by our pre-conceived agenda of
patterned perspectives and approaches. Paul wrote that "He
who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of
Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). To the Thessalonians he indicated
that "Faithful is He who calls you, and he will bring it
to pass" (I Thess. 5:23). Who is going to bring our Christian
lives to pass, and effect sanctification? God by His divine action!
The Christian life is really God's business, not ours!
In his epistle to the Galatian Christians
Paul notes that "it is no longer I who live..." (Gal.
2:20). It is not me trying to live the Christian life by my own
self-expression, and my own expectations of what it should be.
No one is going to be able to sing Frank Sinatra's song, "I
Did It My Way," concerning their Christian life. Rather,
Paul goes on to say, "Christ lives in me, and the (Christian)
life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God" (Gal.
2:20). The Christian life is our receptivity of His activity.
Christianity is Christ! The Christian life
is the life of Jesus Christ lived out through our behavior. The
Christian life is not a project. The Christian life is not a
promotional effort. The Christian life is not a panacea. The
Christian life is not propriety. The Christian life is a Person,
Jesus Christ. The Christian life is effected by the ontological
presence and activity of the Being and Life of the risen Lord
The Christian life is a process of allowing
the Person of Jesus Christ to be lived out in us. It is not a
project to get completed and finished. It is not a panacea to
arrive at. It is not a promotion to get a "high" of
excitement about. It is not a propriety to be properly enacted.
The Christian life is the salvation/sanctification process whereby
we are "made safe" and "set apart" from the
dysfunction of trying to live the Christian life by our own effort
and expectations, in order to function as God intended by the
indwelling dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus, the Spirit
The Christian life is not static. It is
not accomplishable. It is not promotable. It is not a plateau
of pleasantness. It is not a systematic belief-system. The Christian
life is the dynamic manifestation of the life and character of
Jesus Christ, who is "the way, the truth and the life"
In John 15:5 Jesus is recorded as saying,
"Apart from Me, you can do nothing." Apart from Jesus
Christ and His activity in and through us, we can do nothing
that will effect the living of the Christian life. We must give
up our naturally patterned approaches, and rely only on Him.
"Not that we are adequate in ourselves, to consider anything
as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God"
(II Cor. 3:5). With His divine adequacy and empowering, "we
can do all things through Christ who strengthens us" (Phil.
4:13). We can live the Christian life through Jesus Christ, as
He lives through our behavior.
Our argument has moved from "why the
Christian life doesn't seem to work," to the recognition
that "the Christian life works" by the out-working
of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to
make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations,
and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.