I’m a striver. I’ve been striving my whole life to be a good Christian

I grew up the youngest of four in a military family that uprooted and replanted every 2-3 years. No matter how often we moved, we always landed in a church where I absorbed messages about how very bad I was, and how desperately I needed to be good and do the right thing or I’d go to hell. 

One of the first things I remember trying so hard to “get right” was the sinner’s prayer. I’d spend night after night awake with fear that I hadn’t done or said it right. I’d try again. I was so scared of getting the most important thing wrong. 

This fear-based faith and guilt-driven obedience marked me young and marked me thoroughly. I knew the list of what I should and shouldn’t do. So I played by the Christian rules, and always tried to be good. I assumed “grace” was a cheap excuse for bad behaviorI thought I had to be good enough that I wouldn’t need it.

I looked a lot like a model “good” Christian while fearing deep down that I wasn’t “there” yet. I was terrified that my faith wasn’t good enough. 

What I believed to be a black-and-white, right v. wrong world was shattered in middle school when my parents called a family meeting in our living room. They told us my mom was leaving my dad. I had been a witness to their broken, unhealthy marriage my entire life. I wasn’t surprised by its brokenness. What threw me was that our family was going to do the “wrong” thingmy parents were getting a divorce. It was confusing and devastating.

In my confusion and pain, as my family split up and I moved across the country with my mom, my little teenage self just dove deeper into striving even more, knowing that with my family in shambles, the responsibility was on me to figure it all out.

God’s been so faithful all the while. While I was still striving, he loved and healed parts of my heart. He was near, but I was still so scared that my faith wasn’t pure enough. I couldn’t shake this vague sense that I was missing something. It wasn’t until college that I was (at least for the first time) freed from this very heavy burden. 

During a Bible study, God got my attention with a really small detail. In a passage we were studying (Romans 4:18-25), a passive verb explained that Abraham’s faith was strengthened by God (v. 20). It caught me that day, and I couldn’t stop pondering this idea that God helped Abraham with his faithit was something God gave, not something to be mustered or mastered.

It felt like cheating to expect God would grow my faith without me “earning” it. On some level, I knew faith didn’t come through my good works (Galatians 2:16), but if I’m being honest, I didn’t truly buy it.

Eventually, I decided to take him at his word— I asked for the faith I had been striving for. If he wanted me to grow, he was going to have to be the one who grew me.

Ever since, God has proven himself faithful by keeping me close and gradually refining my faith. It feels like my faith life is a process of God showing me the heavy burdens I’m demanding to carry (like earning my own faith), and then reminding me that I don’t actually have to carry them at all. 

Most recently, my season of becoming a mom has been full of heavy burdens. 

The first few months after we had our baby was the hardest time of my life. Everything about having an infant was so much harder than I expected, and my husband and my capacity to be capable parents was so much less than I hoped for. 

Things were awful, and because I was the one who pushed us to start a family, I battled guilt for “ruining” my great marriage by throwing us into something that almost broke us.

It was also a season where I felt free to be in shambles, free to slack on my Bible reading and all of the things that I was taught to “do” to make a good relationship with God. Instead of striving, I just asked God for help (a lot)… and I binged home improvement shows. I asked him to get me through each day, one day at a time, and for the first time in my life, I let myself have what I considered low expectations of myself.

As it turns out, God’s response to my perceived “failure” during this time was not condemnation. Instead of guilt, I felt his grace and compassion for the hard things I was dealing with. In the midst of this postpartum depression, I fought to believe that I was safe with God, even though my circumstances were overwhelming and completely out of control. During that time I fought, and I still fight today, to believe that God isn’t criticizing my every move, or determining his love based on my performance. 

Jesus, to me, is the One who performed perfectly in my place and freely offers to clothe me in his righteousness and good works, to be seen by the Father as pure and blameless (Colossians 1:22). It is Jesus’s work that counts, not my own. 

I hope that news feels as good for your striving heart as it does mine. Take a deep breath, dear friend. Instead of the pressure of striving or guilt or fear of condemnation, let the Father’s great, abundant, provisional love for you be what carries you into continuing in the faith. And then, never ever move from the hope held out for you in the Gospel (Colossians 1:23). Because it’s a really good, really gracious, really loving hope that you don’t have to muster on your own.