Struggling With “Striving”: When Should I Strive and When Should I Rest?

My despair

Back in 1994 when I was studying Leviticus (because it was my wilderness book), I wrote this in the margin at Leviticus chapter 2 (the boldface is added now):

II Peter 1:4 says that we as believers should be “partakers of the divine nature.” This passage shows the priests literally partaking of that which represents the divine nature of our lovely Lord. Then that bread of life becomes a part of us and we are influenced and strengthened by it. In all these ways mentioned, we should be striving to be like Him: the sweet-smelling life, the full anointing by the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of His sufferings. How far, how far I have to go!

Do you hear the wailing in my voice?

Do you see how I said we “should be” this and we “should be” that?

Can you feel with me how hopeless I felt to actually measure up to Jesus? It was a tall order. Impossible, even.

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was doomed to push a boulder up the hill every day–a boulder that would roll back down to the bottom every night. I can think of few things more despair-inducing.

More ammunition for my despair

But it was what I had been taught in the fundamentalist churches of my background—and this theology extends much farther than fundamentalism. The words of this Reformed pastor hint at the confusion and despair I experienced. This is what he said right after the congregation recited Zechariah 4:6 together.

As we come each Lord’s Day I hope that God will continue to drill that into our spirit. That as we strive in this life for those things that only God can give, let’s be reminded that it’s only by the Spirit that good things are accomplished here.

Is that confusing, or what? We’re supposed to strive for what only God can give? How can a Christian not be confused with this kind of theology?

But I believed in this striving theology. I believed that though my justification was by grace alone through faith alone, my sanctification was by faith and works (and it always ended up being mainly works, even the “absolutely crucial spiritual means of intensive prayer and Bible study,” as I wrote in my Galatians notes in 2000).

Since I wanted to be a serious Christian, I took the striving very seriously. But why couldn’t I be the Christian I wanted so much to be? When I wanted so much to be kind and patient, for example, why did I keep being unkind and impatient? Why did I keep failing?

Or, as I was reminded from the book Godliness through Discipline, by Jay Adams, the Father of Nouthetic Counseling (now called “Biblical counseling”) . . .

There is only one way to become a godly person, to orient one’s life toward godliness, and that means, pattern by pattern. The old sinful ways, as they are discovered, must be replaced by new patterns from God’s Word. That is the meaning of disciplined living. Discipline first requires self-examination, then it means crucifixion of the old sinful ways (saying “no” daily), and lastly, practice in following Jesus Christ in new ways by the guidance and strength that the Holy Spirit provides through His Word.

 In my critique of that book, I interpreted what he had written, thus:

 By work. By effort. By straining and striving. (And finally, almost at the end of the book, Adams mentions the Holy Spirit for the first time. But it is only in the inspiration of Scripture. It is not in the outworking of the believer’s life.) 

My Bible study of the topic

I’ve mentioned that long before I understood the importance of asking the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to the Scripture, I still took my Scripture studies very seriously, striving to understand the Bible with the brain God gave me. What I lacked in connection with God, I tried to make up for with teeth-gritting determination. So this particular study is one I grabbed by the horns about 15 or 20 years ago:

How can I reconcile Jesus and the book of Hebrews talking about rest while others like Paul talk about striving and laboring and fighting and working so hard?

On the one hand, rest

Of course this is the well-loved passage about rest for the weary.

Matthew 11:28-30

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

I love that Scripture, but I didn’t understand it.

And in Hebrews 3 and 4 the author urges the Jewish Christians to enter into rest, not just rest from Wandering, as their ancestors found (or didn’t find) by entering (or not entering) the Promised Land, but . . . rest from Works. It was very clearly rest from Works.

Hebrews 4:10-11

he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his own works, as God did from his [on the Sabbath]. Let us therefore make haste to enter into that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.


This blog post expresses my understanding of this whole section of Scripture now. But at that time, I was clueless. What was I supposed to do? Hurry up and flop down on the couch? I had read lots of books about “abiding” and such, but I still didn’t understand.

On the other hand, works

Even Jesus, who admonished us to rest, also admonished striving. What gives?

Luke 13:24

And he said to them, Strive to enter at the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, will seek to enter in and will not be able.


And what’s more, you couldn’t find someone who seemed to ignore the admonitions to “rest” any more than Paul. How about these, as examples. . . .

Colossians 1:28-29

 Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. 

2 Corinthians 5:9

Therefore, whether we are present or absent (from the body), we labor to be well-pleasing to Him

Philippians 2:12-13

 So my beloved, as ye have always hearkened, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. 


And the author of Hebrews, the same one who talked about entering into rest, said

Hebrews 12:4

You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.

How are those rest and works to be reconciled? Am I just supposed to alternate, striving for a while and resting for a while? Or is there something more?

It’s an extremely important question and one that, when I finally understood it, revolutionized my Christian life.

More coming. (This is just Part 1 of 3.)


Part 2 is now available to read, here.

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3 years ago

Maybe the idea is that we strive to yield (yielding doesn’t come naturally) to the Holy Spirit in whom we find rest?

Kristine Brown
Kristine Brown
3 years ago

Wow! Thank you! I look forward to the continuation!

3 years ago

What???? We have to wait for Post #2? Is that a use of literary tease to build our anticipation of the answer to come???? Or…Perhaps an example of the very thing you are trying to teach? In leaving us with part # 1, I find myself pondering, wondering, pricked to the heart to know and discover what it is that God has taught you. YOU HAVE CREATED THE GOOD SOIL into which your answers would take root and grow. Perhaps as God’s Holy Spirit works in us ( as we REST in that knowledge of His active work) He stirs in us a desire to know Him, a belief in His care for our souls, an equipping to do the things to which He calls us, and an anticipation of His preparing the good soil/needs of those to whom He would have us serve ( our striving/ working out of our salvation) can actually work together SO THAT WE DON’T WEARY OF THE GOOD THINGS TO WHICH HE HAS CALLED US (Striving) because we are empowered by His working POWER in us ( REST). Still, i look forward to hearing your thoughts on how it is the Lord has taught you the balance of resting and striving❤️

Sharon Odio
Sharon Odio
3 years ago

I love where this is heading. I’m thrilled that you’re walking us through this paradox of resting vs. striving that so many of us have struggled with for so long. You would absolutely love to get your hands on a copy of Malcolm Smith’s book titled “The Power of the Blood Covenant.”

Tamara Church
Tamara Church
3 years ago

Yes exactly !!! A fine tension. It begins and ends with God. I have been trying to reconcile these 2 things as well. When one comes down on the side obey and submit and “ work” and it’s ON YOU, it is burdensome and slavery to me. When I trust Christ with my frailties failures inadequacies AS I desire to live a faithful life focusing on Christ and His work dependent on the Spirit I find rest. It’s all His Work in and through me. Coming out and away from NANC/ACBC after 17 years and experiencing spiritual abuse for 40, I am VERY sensitive to legalism. I have raised my kids in a strong conservative Christian homeschooling community in DFW. I have seen a lot of abuse thrive in the church masked by conservative Christianity and legalism. I look at scripture from a point of rest instead of striving but it took decades to get there, but He is merciful to bring about that True Rest!

Sandra Allen Lovelace
3 years ago

I’ve fought this same battle to understand for nearly 50 years. The content of your continuation will be sweet.

cindy burrell
3 years ago

You’ve got me on pins and needles, Rebecca. I can hardly wait to read what you have to share next!

3 years ago

Anxiously waiting for part 2 and 3!


[…] mistake striving for spiritual living, which it is not. The link to the first post in her series is here. Part 3 is my favorite. She explains what I am trying to explain quite well and with a compliment […]