I heard the word “strive” six times at church on Sunday. The idea of striving — of trying, of struggling — is a bulwark tradition of our faith. We are an industrious bunch, like bees in a beehive (except for those worthless drones.) Some of you will recognize one of the temple recommend questions in the words Do you strive . . .? I always cringe at the question. Because I know the “right” answer is Yes. But I can’t say Yes. I say, “No. I don’t really “strive”. It’s counterproductive for me. I simply nurture my divine desires and then I surrender to God the best I can.”
I’ve thought about this a lot, as I’ve interacted with my fellow Saints over the years and noticed the various ways people approach their church and spiritual life. I understand the question about striving . . . I think. There is perhaps some value in trying to be good. The problem, though, is that trying — or striving — always fails. Or, as Amy Grant sings it: “Being good is just a fable; I just can’t ‘cause I’m not able. I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.”
Remember when Luke Skywalker was trying to raise that ship out of the muck using just the Force? It wasn’t working and in frustration, he griped to Yoda: “I’m trying.” Yoda succinctly summed up the problem with these words: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I completely get that. Trying necessarily includes the possibility of failure. So when we strive, our focus and energy is divided and we are unsure of the outcome. I don’t believe that priesthood power (the Force, if you will) can operate that way. When we call upon priesthood power (as a woman or a man — it doesn’t matter) the only “trick” is to be so attuned to the Divine Will that we KNOW that what we pronounce will come to pass, because it already is. We do or we do not, exactly as God directs. There is no try. It’s all about surrender, submission, alignment with God’s purposes.
Surrender is scary. We talk a lot about the fight against evil and overcoming sin. We resist temptation; we stand firm against the foe. These are all battle terms. To surrender implies that we have lost the battle. So isn’t it interesting to note that Jesus won the war against sin and death (our two biggest enemies) not by fighting or resisting or even striving, but by surrendering his whole self to the Divine Will?
While valiant, big-hearted Peter drew his sword to protect the Lord, Jesus bowed his godly head and submitted to ignomy, torture and death. I do not believe He surrendered blindly or hopelessly. He was not trying to save us. He simply did what He knew needed doing. He did save us, not without effort to be sure, but the effort did not involve swords and spears, but rather complete, humble submission. There is an almost incomprehensible power in such humility and assurance. Jesus knew who He was. He knew the outcome before that third day came. He certainly didn’t appear the victor, with that crown of thorns on his head or those nails in his wrists. He knew the war against evil could not be won by fighting, but by surrendering, not to evil, but to God.
I know a lot of depressed Mormon women. I have been one of them. The journey to the Celestial Kingdom is difficult. But we will not get there by trying, by striving against our nature. I believe it’s the striving itself that gets us so down. Because we inevitably fail and fail and fail again to meet our divine objectives. There is enormous hubris in this approach, couched as false humility. I first heard this expressed in a conversation amongst my seminary friends, just a month or so after my baptism decades ago. We were talking about the Celestial Kingdom, and Esther said, “. . . if I make it.” Her words have stuck with me all these years, because that wistful little comment is so full of striving and hopelessness. As if it all depends on “me” and I’m just not sure I’m good enough. I’ve always assumed we all arrive on the planet with an A in the grade book. We graduated from Estate 101 with flying colors and there’s absolutely no reason to expect any less in this Estate 201 class. Do you believe it is God’s will for you to “make it” to the Celestial Kingdom? If so, then there’s nothing to do but surrender to the Divine Will and let it be. The daily “striving” becomes far less about resisting evil and far more about listening and heeding the voice of God. The surrendering takes care of the evil, without any further fight. For me, it’s simply a matter of falling more and more deeply in love with God, by intention, by desire, by practice. I lean into believing and trusting what He intends for me. I let Spirit flow through me and outward to others of His beloved children. The only effort is in not striving, so that He can work His grace in me. There is no try. There is only peace.
I know this sounds counter to a lot of what we hear at church. But whether you call it Grace and Works, or Love and Duty, or Strive and Surrender, the point is, there is a beautiful, powerful paradox right at the heart of the gospel. To win, surrender. To be, believe. To grow, know. There is no try. Do or do not. That’s the only choice there is.
Do you strive?