Are You a Swimmer or a Surfer?

I remember taking swimming lessons as a kid.  My teacher was a family friend, and my brother and sister and I learned in her pool.  We learned the breast stroke, the back stroke, how to float, and the simple dog paddle.  We even did laps.

I loved swimming.  The feel of the water and the way you could pull yourself through it.  It was and is still exhilarating.

But after practicing strokes and laps for little while, it can get very tiring. One thing is for sure, you have to be very strong to be a good swimmer. Competitive swimmers are in peak physical condition, and it shows. Every muscle is sculpted and ready to burst forth in energy.

Of course, no matter how strong you are, it would be impossible to swim across the Atlantic Ocean.


We “swimmers” often try to cross the ocean in our own strength.

I’ve always wanted to learn to surf.  It looks magical, the way the board glides across the water.  I’m amazed at how gracefully, yet sharply, the surfer can turn in the water and cut back toward a wave.  It must feel kind of like flying.

I wouldn’t say you don’t need to be in tip top shape to be a great surfer, but one thing is for sure –

Surfers rely on the power of the wave to move across the water.  


Surfers don’t drag themselves through the water. They let the wave carry them over it.

I find that many Christians, myself included, tend to be swimmers more than we are surfers.  We know that God wants us to be holy and righteous.  We know that we’re supposed to be increasing in obedience. So what do we do?  We drag ourselves through the water, striving harder and harder to make it across the ocean that separates sinner from saint.  We look at others around us who are stronger “swimmers” than we, and take cues from them on how to achieve better results. The problem is, those betters swimmers have no more chance of reaching the other side than we do.

Why is this?

Paul tells us in Romans 7 that the law is our problem.  When we try harder to be righteous, we do it by looking to the law.  The problem is, our flesh is weak.  When we encounter the law, something inside us (our fallen nature) perverts the process and yields unrighteousness.  I’m not just talking about being legalistic – though that is certainly included here.  I’m talking about looking to the law for power to become righteous and holy.  I’m talking about trying harder to be better.  It may work a little, but the divide is too great and our ability is too small.  As Paul says, we must die to the law so that we might bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4-6).

I think Christians should be more like surfers.  This isn’t a suggestion for passivity and moral lethargy.  Surfing is not easy.  It requires real effort and work.  The effort we exert is not the effort of moving us into righteousness, just as the surfer’s effort is not to propel the surfboard.  The effort is to hold onto the wild and untamable Spirit of God.

What if we were willing to set aside our inability to power our way across the Atlantic Ocean and instead trusted in the Holy Spirit?  What if we rode that wave all the way across the abyss?  What would it look like to trust God and his grace for the power to become righteous, instead of the law?

For starters, we would need to have the same trust in God’s provision of grace to help us overcome our sin that we have in his grace to forgive our sin.  What requires more grace?  To forgive or to empower us to live holy lives?  I would vote the latter on personal experience alone.

Next, we need to trust God’s work in us to achieve his purposes for us. It would be silly to think that we know better than God how to be holy.  In fact, the Galatians were called fools for turning from faith to the law after salvation (Galatians 3:1ff).  They trusted themselves and their abilities more than God’s.  And we do the same thing.

We certainly need to be patient with ourselves, not despairing when we do fail.  I have seen despondency set in on a person to the point that they feel the flames of Hell licking their heels.  But God tells us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Rather than focusing on our sin in times of desperation, God invites us to focus on Jesus and the great Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16).

When we look at it this way, it is obviously futile to keep on the “try harder” track.  I know that I default to that method over and over again. I’m tired of swimming.  I want to surf!

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