I’m not a fan of starting off any of my writing pieces with the rote definition of a word or phrase, but today I’m going to make an exception. I’m sure most of us have heard or have used the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” It’s an idiom, a figure of speech that means “to begin an enterprise or recover from a setback without any outside help; to succeed only on one’s efforts or abilities.” The original use of this phrase, known to be around since the early 1800’s, was to show how someone had attained a difficult or even impossible task.
My mom and dad and their parents before them are all “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of people, and they in turn taught me and my siblings that if you want something, you go out and make it happen. My dad has never been one to make excuses, and those lessons have paid off greatly in life. In fact, much of our lives would be far easier if we would buckle down and put in the hard work for the things we want. We would probably see a dramatic decline in some of our societal ills as well if that were the case.
While this figure of speech is appropriate for our success in everyday life, it doesn’t really work in our relationship with God. As the definition implies, we cannot just go about trying to save ourselves by our own abilities. For some reason, we sometimes get it in our minds that if we work just a little bit harder or we’re just a little bit better than those in the world around us, then God will be pleased with our effort. That simply isn’t true.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Even though we’ve done nothing to deserve the grace of God, we’re still not released from some responsibility on our part. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 15:10). I believe God, in his word, has made it very clear how he would want us to conduct ourselves and what we should be doing with the talents and blessings he has given us. We have to “make every effort” to grow as a Christian so that we will come to know God and be more effective in the lost world in which we live (2 Peter 1:5-8).
Are you bootstraps becoming a little worn out? How’s that working for you? My guess is that you’re trying too hard to make your own rules and do things your own way and now your spiritual life is more of a religion than practicing true, biblical Christianity. Instead, remember that while a responsible Christian knows how to please God through their obedience and prepared works (Ephesians 2:10), they also know that apart from God, they can do nothing (John 15:4-5). By all means, work hard and put forth the effort to show God gratitude for all that he’s done, but recognize that without him, we really are nothing.