seen everything that is done under the sun; and
behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind —
Then I considered all that my hands had done, and
the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all
was vanity and a striving after wind — Better is a
handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and
a striving after wind.
(Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:11; 4:6 KJV)
IF YOU ARE INCLINED TO
SUPPOSE that everyone else is much better integrated and
more ‘together’ than you are, then you will be able to
identify with these sombre verses from the book of
Ecclesiastes. The Ascent of Toil exposes many imperfections
in our hearts: frustrated strivings as well as the harmful
desires which rob us of the peace of heart the Lord is
longing to give us.
The New Testament does enjoin certain kinds of striving on
us: for instance, that we should make every effort to share
the good news with others, pray at all times, develop our
spiritual giftings and maintain the unity of the Body.1 I am
more concerned in this chapter to help us avoid the kind of
striving which makes people slaves to demonic forces or to
lose their health in their quest to gain power, position and
Striving is a particularly deadly enemy of intimacy with
God. Our desperate attempts to please others leave us
feeling worn-out, not least because the pressure of our
concern to know how we are doing robs us of any chance of
experiencing true restfulness.
As Herbert Swope wrote:
‘I cannot give you the formula for success, but I
can give you a formula for failure: try and please
It is not our striving that
God rewards, but our obedience. Many of us are so
preoccupied with our own self-image that we know all too
little of this inner freedom. If we are strangers to God’s
humour, and approach life so seriously that we can never
laugh at ourselves, it is a sure sign that our hearts are
In one of C.S. Lewis’ delightful Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan
has just created the talking animals. As they get used to
the sound of their voices, a jackdaw says something which
embarrasses him, and makes the others want to laugh. At
first, they try to repress it, but Aslan encourages them:
Laugh and fear not,
creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and
witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as
well as justice came in with speech.2
I often feel heavy and weary
in spirit after a demanding time of ministry. My physical
reserves are low, and I find it hard to settle to any
sustained work. Once, when I was troubled about this, the
Lord reminded me (and by no means for the first time) that
there are seasons in the life of the soul, just as there are
in nature. Even the Lord Jesus found that there were
occasions when the Spirit’s power was particularly strong on
Him. We should not expect to be able to experience the same
high level of blessing day after day.
‘Striving to enter God’s
sabbath rest’ as the Book of Hebrews exhorts us sounds like
a paradox.3 Many of us find it difficult to allow ourselves
these ‘fallow’ times because we are afraid of being left
behind or being considered lazy. We saw earlier how these
times of rest can make it easier for us to discern the
Spirit’s leading. Although it may feel as useless as leaving
a field unplanted, vital nutrients are being replenished in
our soul through these quieter times.
The trouble with chasing great visions is that we often miss
the opportunities that are right in front of us. This does
not mean that we should not have clear goals and visions to
aim towards: it is simply that we need to cultivate a
restful, rather than a competitive attitude of heart. The
more open we are to what the Lord has for us from one day to
the next, the less we will feel the need to compare
ourselves with others.
God loves to use the humble. Their intellects do not get in
the way, and the glory goes where it truly belongs. Not that
it is easy to be humble: the very act of seeking it can make
us profoundly self-centred! Humility tends to develop as a
joyful by-product of doing something for someone else.
What a joy it is when we know what we are called to do, and
to be at peace about all that we have not been called to do.
It may take time, experience and the counsel of friends to
bring us to this point, but it is a great relief to discover
that we do not have to act (or to hold back) because of the
fear of what other people will think or say.
Freedom in Christ
It is for freedom that
Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be
burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
The Lord Jesus is giving us
the freedom to do the specific things He has called us to
do. The principal thing that can stop us from achieving this
is our own instability. Many of us are so filled with
self-loathing that we pass judgements against ourselves
which, in turn, fuel self-destructive tendencies. At any
moment, these lethal charges can be set off like high
explosives, bringing all manner of disquiet not only to
ourselves but to all who come too close to us. It is no
wonder that publishers are falling over themselves to bring
out books on self-acceptance!
Jesus died not only to save us, but to lead and care for us.
So much of our striving stems from not believing this, or
from trying to be other than we really are. Some of us need
consciously to thank the Lord for making us the way we are,
lest otherwise we merely feel resentful or envious of
others. It is tempting, but not wise, to wish away the
circumstances of our life. What good does it do to run away,
or to wish that we were someone or somewhere else? Are we
not effectively rejecting the Lord if we reject ourselves?4
In one of the ‘Barbar’ cartoons, the elephant king had been
feeling his responsibilities so heavily that he wished he no
longer had to be king. He was allowed to experience the lot
of a commoner, but then watched with horror as another king
imposed a tyrannical reign on his kingdom. The elephant’s
influence had been far more beneficial than he had supposed
– just as our own so often is. The script writer was
merciful: Barbar was restored to his throne just in time to
save the kingdom!
It is no use worrying
that we are not converting the world or gaining
rapid promotion if God has not given us the ability
or the platform to do so. John the Baptist reminds
us, A man can receive only what is given him from
heaven (John 3:27).
True, the ceiling of our
faith ought to be increasing from one year to another, but
if our epitaph matches that of Mary, who poured a jar of
perfume over Jesus’ head, then we have lived well. Of her it
was written, She did what she could (Mark 14:8). What
a phrase that is to ponder! As we offer God the things we
most desire, so He begins to set us free from our
emotionally exhausting fears and strivings.5
One man, who knew that he was dying, prayed that he might
lead at least one person to the Saviour before he was taken
home. Not only did he do so, but the man he helped was D.L.
Moody, who himself went on to lead thousands into the
At one period in his life, Moody was barred from being a
member of his church on the grounds that he would ‘never
amount to anything much.’ Billy Graham was likewise
forbidden to preach at his seminary, because he was
considered too poor a communicator for such front-line work!
We can all take heart as we ponder what God has done through
people whom the world, and even the Church, branded as
failures. The Lord can pick us up one more time than we can
fall – and there is no limit to what His grace can
accomplish in our soul.
Here are some keys to set us free from the strain of
• A gracious attitude is
pleasing to the Lord.
• People matter more than projects and seeking God
is more important than winning fame.
• Contentment is an attitude to develop, because it
keeps resentment and envy at bay.
• Try to see yourself as the steward, and not the
owner, of your gifts and possessions.
Sovereign Lord, we cry
to You that You will set us free from the sin of
May our hearts be
filled with praise and gratitude, and be empowered
to live in peace and freedom.
Guide and direct our
efforts; renew and strengthen us in Your service, so
that we can give You our best.
Help us to look for Your hand in the circumstances
that hinder us, and in the people who irritate us.
Grant us discretion
in the way we discuss these people and these
situations, and the love that bears and conquers all
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. See Romans 15:30; 1 Corinthians 14:12; Colossians 1:29; 1
Timothy 4:10; cf 2 Timothy 2:24 (KJV): The servant of the
Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to
2. C.S. Lewis The Magician’s Nephew (Fount) If you
have not yet had the pleasure of discovering The
Chronicles of Narnia, a series of six books for
children, I heartily commend them to you.
3. See Hebrews 4:9-11.
4. We can trace this cycle with alcoholics, who drink to
make themselves feel good, only to plunge into a further
sequence of shame and guilt which compounds the original
problem – their low self-esteem. Many fall into sexual
immorality, or some other serious sin, out of a desire to
escape from this crippling sense of inadequacy. By seeking
happiness and safety in some other direction – usually in
the mistaken hope that it will involve fewer commitments and
responsibilities – all they end up doing is inflicting
endless suffering on themselves and others.
5. John and Paula Sandford have excellent wisdom on the
whole subject of what they call ‘Performance Orientation’ in
their book The Transformation of the Inner Man