Mark Jenner investigates ‘trying’. You’ll need an open Bible for this (and a little Greek or Hebrew would help!)
It amazes me how Scripture is full of meaning even at the level of its individual words. At a Christian camp in summer 2008, I was set the challenge of finding out how many times the word ‘try’ occurs in the Bible. It promised to be an intriguing and revealing search.
Here follows what I expected to find, and what I actually found out.
My first thought was that because I had been asked such a question, there could only be a striking answer – either a great many or just a few occurrences of try. Instinct inclined me to the latter, since it seems a lukewarm sort of word, contrary to the tenor of Scripture with its certainties.
For example, I could not imagine God as ‘trying’ to do anything, as if it were a struggle for him. Surely he just does it. Then, Romans 12 does not exhort us to try our best, but simply do whatever God calls us to do (‘Nike Christianity’ as Stuart Olyott has described it).
Another preliminary thought was that try might appear in Scripture in other shades of meaning; as in the sense of ‘test’, that is, ‘try someone’s patience’.
There could be examples from Israel’s wilderness wanderings, or perhaps in the appeals of Hosea against Israel’s unfaithfulness, or in Elijah’s challenge to the people on Mount Carmel (‘How long will you waver between two opinions?’).
Then there’s the jurisprudential sense of the word ‘try’, meaning ‘to put someone on trial’. Actually, I only found this meaning once – in Acts 25:10. More often, expressions like ‘stand trial’ or ‘brought to trial’ are used. Interestingly, there’s plenty of forensic language surrounding the Lord’s arraignment – ‘testimony’, ‘charge’, ‘witnesses’ and ‘law’ – but no mention of a ‘trial’, which only seems to add to the chaotic, extra-judicial nature of that momentous event.
I can’t recall any instances of rugby being played in the Bible either! So I was driven to the supposition that the occurrences of try must tend towards, if not actually be, zero.
What I found was not far off. In my exhaustive NIV concordance, there are listed 23 examples of try (plus entries for ‘tried’, ‘tries’ and ‘trying’). This was quite low, but higher than I expected. However, what is notable is that on seven occasions try only appears to assist in translation (e.g. showing the inflection of a verb), as opposed to being found in the original text.
On two further occasions – Numbers 20:18 and Titus 2:9 – it is not found in the Hebrew and Greek respectively, but has been added for clarity.
Additionally, there are seven instances of a single word in the original biblical language being rendered as a two- or three-word phrase in English that includes try. And there is a further instance (Luke 12:58, as part of Jesus’ parable about being reconciled with an adversary) where two Greek words are translated as ‘try hard’, despite neither of them having that precise meaning.
This leaves just six more occurrences of try in the biblical text. Two of these are themselves assisted in translation – Isaiah 22:4 and Luke 13:24. On the other four occasions, there is one Hebrew word, nâvâ in Psalm 26:2; one Aramaic word, sebar in Daniel 7:25; and two different Greek words, zçteô in 1 Corinthians 14:12, and diôkô in Titus 2:9.
With all these caveats and qualifications, it seems that the English word try, in the sense we often use it, of putting in extra effort towards a goal we may well not reach, doesn’t make a significant appearance in the biblical text.
Nevertheless, and despite these technicalities, it is certain is that within the pages of Scripture there lies a bugle call to Christians to engage in earnest effort and dedicated self-examination.
Whatever words are used (e.g. crying, running, wrestling, fighting), the call to the Christian is to make every effort to obtain the crown of glory that does not fade away and to have a definite expectation of obtaining it through Christ (Hebrews 12:1-4; 1 Peter 1:5-9). The passionate straining is there, but without the insipidity surrounding the word try.
In conclusion, Christians ‘try’ (in the highest sense) as hard as they can as the servants and ambassadors of Christ, but all the while knowing the Lord Jesus is not merely trying to achieve our eternal salvation. Rather, he has finished that work; and we have entered into his rest.