When Hard Work Doesn’t Work

These are the trees I saw every afternoon after my class lecture, a reminder of who my God was and where my identity was found. 

These are the trees I saw every afternoon after my class lecture, a reminder of who my God was and where my identity was found. 

By Lauren Hall

When I was growing up, I developed an understanding that good things came to people who worked hard. Whether my pursuit was academic or recreational, diligent efforts typically led to success. If they didn’t maybe my effort wasn’t sufficient enough.

This theory was put to the test towards the end of high school, as well as the beginning of college. It was challenged the most after a couple semesters when I enrolled in a class required for my major that was positively insurmountable. The professor lectured too fast, and each classmate seemed much brighter than me. I spent hours upon hours on each problem set, holding my breath when I received each grade back. I was anxious every day about how much studying was necessary to understand the material, and threw my hands up in frustration every night when each effort seemed all for naught.

One day, a friend prayed over my predicament: “God, we thank you that you have given Lauren the brain she has and the opportunity to study. Though this class is burdensome, we pray that she will rely on your strength, and seek to glorify You in her studying.”

I found this peculiar. I granted that God created my brain, but every effort felt solely my own, and every achievement, my own – as well as every failure. Additionally, relying on God’s strength sounded good in theory, but what did that look like in light of this class? Moreover, what did it mean to study for God’s glory?

I struggled with these questions throughout the semester and continually asked God to teach me what it meant to glorify Him in my studies. The class finished, and though the outcome wasn’t preferred, God had given me peace in it (Phil. 4:7). As it turned out, the most meaningful lessons I learned had nothing to do with anything on the syllabus.

First, I had to grapple with why I was so preoccupied with working hard in this class. I realized I was worried about what the outcome would be, believing a bad grade would negatively affect my life. I looked to achievement, and even the consolation that I had worked my hardest, to define myself. I held onto this so tightly until I was forced to realize that it wasn’t leading to success as the world promised it would. At this point, I had to acknowledge that my strength was not enough to overcome this class, and instead rely on God’s strength. I had to trust that in this current burdensome task, He would carry me through. I had to ask that His will be done, regardless if the outcome was what I preferred or not.

When I had overcome what seemed insurmountable, I saw that God’s power had been made perfect in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). This is where I saw God glorified in my life through my studies. He had demonstrated to me that it was not by my own hard work that I prevailed. Rather, it was by a combination of the abilities He had given me, as well as the strength with which He had supplied me, that I was able to persevere. In this process of learning to surrender the hope of working hard, something that I had previously held so tightly within my control, this trial was testing my faith and producing steadfastness (Jam. 1:23) – and this was even more important than any grade, any degree, any job, any “successful” or “comfortable” life.

I am reminded that even my salvation was not earned through hard work; it is a gift I received through God’s grace (Eph. 2:89). For so long, I had thought that “good things came to people who worked hard.” While this was often the case, and while it is good to work hard, these “good things” are not the end goal. I had turned achievement into an idol in which I placed my security, and when that failed me, the notion of “hard work” stepped in as an backup idol as if to say on my behalf, “Even if I didn’t attain success, I still worked hard.” But when Christ died for my sin and reconciled me to God, hadn’t I become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17)? This meant that I died to my old self, that my identity was no longer found in the things that this world prizes. Rather, my identity was found in being a child of God who called me His own upon confession of faith through Christ, even after I had chosen to live apart from his will. Because of this, I no longer have to look to achievement or the consolation of “working hard” to define myself – or to anything else the world offers me.

When our hopes for this life aren’t manifested through our diligence, I pray that we will remember that none of these define us nor encompass our identities. In whatever trial you are currently encountering, I encourage you to take heart! Lean into God and His perfect understanding when self reliance stands in the way (Prov. 3:56). With every struggle we encounter, may He use each one to remind us who we belong to and continue changing our hearts for His glory.