A college professor of mine, picking up on my perfectionism-induced procrastination, gave me some wise advice. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” he said, explaining that striving for perfect performance can prevent the risks necessary for growth. Accepting that my work would always be imperfect would give me the freedom to never stop growing.
The apostle Paul explained an even more profound reason to let go of our own efforts to perfect ourselves: it can blind us to our need for Christ.
Paul had learned this the hard way. After years striving to perfectly obey God’s law, encountering Jesus changed everything (Galatians 1:11–16). Paul realized that if his own efforts were enough to be whole and right with God, “then there was no need for Christ to die” (2:21
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t resist sin (v. 17); but it does mean we should stop relying on our own strength to grow spiritually (v. 20).
In this lifetime, we will always be works in progress. But as our hearts humbly accept our constant need for the only perfect One, Jesus makes His home there (Ephesians 3:17
I got myself into this mess, so I’d better get myself out, I sometimes find myself thinking. Although I believe in a God of grace, I’m still prone to act as if His help is available only when I deserve it.
God’s first encounter with Jacob is a beautiful illustration of how untrue this is.
Jacob had spent a lifetime trying to alter his destiny. He’d been born second at a time when firstborn sons typically received their father’s blessing—believed to guarantee future prosperity.
So Jacob decided to do whatever it would take to get his father’s blessing anyway. Eventually, he succeeded—through deceit—obtaining the blessing intended for his brother (Genesis 27:19–29).
But the price was a divided family, as Jacob fled from his furious brother (vv. 41–43). As night descended (28:11), Jacob must have felt as far from a life of blessing as ever.
But it was there, leaving behind a trail of deception, that Jacob met God. God showed him he didn’t need desperate schemes to be blessed; he already was. His destiny—a purpose far greater than material prosperity (v. 14)—was held securely by the One who would never leave him (v. 15).
It was a lesson Jacob would spend his whole life learning.
And so will we. No matter how many regrets we carry or how distant God seems, He is still there—gently guiding us out of our mess into His blessing.
My high school cross-country coach once advised me before a race, “Don’t try to be in the lead. The leaders almost always burn out too quickly.” Instead, he suggested I stay close behind the fastest runners. By letting them set the pace, I could conserve the mental and physical strength I’d need to finish the race well.
Leading can be exhausting; following can be freeing. Knowing this improved my running, but it took me a lot longer to realize how this applies to Christian discipleship. In my own life, I was prone to think being a believer in Jesus meant trying really hard. By pursuing my own exhausting expectations for what a Christian should be, I was inadvertently missing the joy and freedom found in simply following Him (John 8:32, 36).
But we weren’t meant to direct our own lives, and Jesus didn’t start a self-improvement program. Instead, He promised that in seeking Him we will find the rest we long for (Matthew 11:25–28). Unlike many other religious teachers’ emphasis on rigorous study of Scripture or an elaborate set of rules, Jesus taught that it’s simply through knowing Him that we know God (v. 27). In seeking Him, we find our heavy burdens lifted (vv. 28–30) and our lives transformed.
Because following Him, our gentle and humble Leader (v. 29), is never burdensome—it’s the way of hope and healing. Resting in His love, we are free.
When I first graduated from college, I found myself needing to adopt a strict grocery budget—twenty-five dollars a week, to be exact. One day, while entering the checkout line, I suspected the groceries I’d selected cost slightly more than my remaining money. “Just stop when we reach twenty dollars,” I told the cashier, and was able to purchase everything I’d selected but a bag of peppers.
As I was about to drive home, a man stopped by my car. “Here’s your peppers, ma’am,” he said, handing the bag to me. Before I had time to thank him, he was already walking away.
Remembering the simple goodness of this act of kindness still warms my heart and brings to mind Jesus’s words in Matthew 6. Criticizing those who made a show of giving to the needy (v. 2), Jesus taught His disciples a different way. Instead of making giving all about them and their generosity, He urged, giving should be done so secretly that it’s like their left hand isn’t even aware their right is giving (v. 3)!
As one person’s anonymous kindness reminded me, giving should never be about us. We give only because of what our generous God has so lavishly given us (2 Corinthians 9:6–11). As we give quietly and generously, we reflect who He is—and God receives the thanksgiving only He deserves (v. 11).
Lately, as I’ve been skimming financial advice books, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. While almost all such books have good advice, many imply that the primary reason to cut costs is to live like millionaires later. But one book offered a refreshingly different perspective, arguing that living simply is essential for a rich life. If you need more or fancier stuff to feel joy, the book suggested, “You’re missing the point of being alive.”
Those insightful words brought to mind Jesus’s response when a man asked Him to urge his brother to divide an inheritance with him. Instead of sympathizing, Jesus dismissed him abruptly before warning sternly about “all kinds of greed”—because “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14–15). He then described a wealthy person’s plans to store his crops and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle—the first-century version of retirement planning—with a blistering conclusion. His wealth did him no good, since he died that night (vv. 16–20).
Although we are responsible to use our resources wisely, Jesus’s words remind us to check our motivation. Our hearts should be focused on pursuing God’s kingdom—knowing Him and serving others—not on securing our own futures (vv. 29–31). As we live for Him and freely share with others, we can fully enjoy a rich life with Him now—in the kingdom that gives meaning to all of life (vv. 32–34).
Sometimes our lives can change in a moment through the powerful impact of others. For rock ‘n’ roll legend Bruce Springsteen, it was the work of musical artists that helped him through a difficult childhood and a persistent struggle with depression. He found meaning in his own work through the truth he’d experienced firsthand, that “You can change someone’s life in three minutes with the right song.”
Like a compelling song, others’ well-chosen words can also give us hope, even change the course of our lives. I’m sure most of us could share stories of a conversation that forever impacted our lives—words from a teacher that changed the way we saw the world, words of encouragement that restored our confidence, gentle words from a friend that carried us through a difficult time.
Perhaps this why the book of Proverbs spends so much time emphasizing our responsibility to treasure words and use them wisely. Scripture never treats speech as if it’s “just talk.” Instead, we are taught that our words can have life-or-death consequences (Proverbs 18:21). In just a few words we could crush someone’s spirit, or, through words of wisdom and hope, nourish, and strengthen others (Proverbs 15:4).
Not all of us have the ability to create powerful music. But we each can seek God’s wisdom to serve others through our speech (Psalm 141:3). With just a few well-chosen words, God can use us to change a life.
“Change: From the Inside Out or the Outside In?” the headline read, reflecting a popular trend today—the idea that outward changes like a makeover or better posture can be an easy way to change how we feel on the inside—and even change our lives.
It’s an appealing concept—who wouldn’t want improving our lives to be as easy as a new look? Many of us have learned the hard way that changing deep-rooted habits can seem nearly impossible. Focusing on simple external changes offers hope that there is a quicker path toward improving our lives.
But although such changes can improve our lives, Scripture invites us to seek a deeper transformation—one that is impossible on our own. In fact, in Galatians 3 Paul argued that even God’s law—a priceless gift that revealed His will—couldn’t heal the brokenness of God’s people (vv. 19–22). True healing and freedom required them to, through faith, be “clothed” in Christ (v. 27) through His Spirit (5:5). Sanctified and shaped through Him, they would find their true identity and worth—every believer equally an heir to all of God’s promises (3:28–29).
We could easily devote much energy to self-improvement techniques. But the deepest and most satisfying changes in our hearts come in knowing the love that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:17–19)—the love that changes everything.
As I was nearing the end of lunch with my sister and her children one afternoon, my sister told my three-year-old niece Annica it was time get ready for her nap. Her face filled with alarm. “But Aunt Monica did not hold me yet today!” she objected, tears filling her eyes. My sister smiled. “Okay, she may hold you first—how long do you need?” “Five minutes,” she replied.
As I held my niece, I was grateful for how, without even trying, she constantly reminds me what it looks like to love and be loved. I think sometimes we forget that our faith journey is one of learning to experience love—God’s love—more fully than we can imagine (Eph. 3:18). When we lose that focus, we can find ourselves, like the older brother in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, trying desperately to win God’s approval while missing out on all He has already given us (Luke 15:3
Psalm 131 is one prayer in Scripture that can help us to “become like little children” (Matt. 18:3), letting go of the battle in our mind agonizing over what we don’t understand (Ps. 131:1). Instead, through time with Him we can return to a place of peace (v. 2), finding the hope we need (v. 3) in His love—as calm and quiet as if we were children again in our mothers’ arms (v. 2).
I recently stumbled across some of my journals from college and couldn’t resist taking time to reread them. Reading the entries, I realized I didn’t feel about myself then the same as I do today. My struggles with loneliness and doubts about my faith felt overwhelming at the time, but looking back now I can clearly see how God has carried me to a better place. Seeing how God gently brought me through those days reminded me that what feels overwhelming today will one day be part of a greater story of His healing love.
Psalm 30 is a celebration psalm that similarly looks back with amazement and gratitude on God’s powerful restoration: from sickness to healing, from threat of death to life, from feeling God’s judgment to enjoying His favor, from mourning to joy (vv. 2–3,11).
The psalm is attributed to David, to whom we also owe some of the most pain-filled laments in Scripture. But David also experienced restoration so incredible he was able to confess, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (v. 5). Despite all the pain he had endured, David discovered something even greater—God’s powerful hand of healing.
If you are hurting today and need encouragement, recall those times in your past when God carried you through to a place of healing. Pray for trust that He will do so again.