Yes, You Should Still be a Christian…even when the struggle is hard

“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.

“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”

My friend (whom we will call Trevor) pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his spiritual struggles.

I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”

“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions that I had when I converted. It’s so frustrating! People keep telling me that I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I’m confused. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

Trevor explained how he was told he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria for determining whether he had fully “let go”, and since he couldn’t achieve complete victory over his sinful habits, he was crippled with a double load of guilt – the guilt of his sin, plus the guilt that he hadn’t “let go.” Trevor had also been told he was struggling in his own strength, while others had declared that the very difficulties he was facing were themselves a sign that he wasn’t a true Christian. The difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, he had been told.

I paused, taking in the import of what Trevor had been saying. When I finally spoke, it was the last thing he expected to hear. “Everything you’ve just said suggests that the Holy Spirit has been working in you.”

Trevor was visibly puzzled. “How’s that?” he asked curiously.

“Well,” I explained, “you just shared that for years you’ve been struggling against the same sins and addictions. You’ve shared that this struggle has continued despite frustration, confusion and increasing difficulty. Have you ever considered that this could be evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life? After all, when the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts, the result is that we struggle against the passions that separate us from Christ, exactly as you are doing. The fact that you are struggling in the face of difficulty, confusion and frustration, is evidence of the Lord’s work in your life.”

After a minute I continued. “Of course, I can’t see into your heart and judge your spiritual condition – only God can do that. But I do know that Jesus promised that those who followed Him would face constant struggle. The fact that the spiritual life is hard for you is not a reason for giving up. On the contrary, the fact that you’ve made it this far already—six years struggling against passions despite setbacks and occasional failures—is a reason to be encouraged and keep going.”

From there I went on to share with Trevor certain passages of Scripture which showed that even the apostles experienced the daily struggle against passions and bad habits. One of the passages I shared was 1 Corinthians 9:27 in which Saint Paul declared, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” In the Greek text, Paul is literally saying that he pommels [upopiazo] his body [soma] to subdue it. In the Greek lexicon the word “pommel” means “to strike one upon the parts beneath the eye; to beat black and blue, hence to discipline by hardship, coerce.”  The word for body is “soma,” referring to the body itself, rather than the word for the “flesh,” or “old man,” which is “sarx.” Since even after his conversion Paul found the spiritual life hard work (Romans 7: 15-19), his spiritual struggle is compared to “pommeling” his body in order to receive the prize and not be disqualified.  I also shared how Jesus Himself, on the night in which he was betrayed, struggled to embrace the Father’s will.

As I spoke, it was like a burden was being lifted from Trevor. He shared how this was a completely different way of thinking about the spiritual life than what he had been accustomed to hearing. Well-meaning Christians had told Trevor that if his spiritual walk was characterized by struggle rather than “victory” then that was a sign that he was still living in the “old man” and that the Holy Spirit wasn’t operative within him. No wonder Trevor felt like giving up!

By the time Trevor left my office later that afternoon, the terms “struggle” and “difficulty” and “trying hard” were no longer dirty words. Rather, he was able to reframe the difficult challenges of his life as positive opportunities to grow spiritually. He had a new enthusiasm for carrying on as a Christian whatever the costs.

Struggling Against Struggle

The above account is a composite of conversations I’ve had and heard about over the years. The underlying theme to these conversations is the erroneous belief that when the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts we are enabled to achieve complete victory over sin. The problem is that “victory” in this context often means the absence of protracted struggle, especially struggle involving frustration, confusion and occasional setbacks. According to this line of thinking, the presence of difficulty is a sign that God’s life-giving power is not operative within us. To be “victorious” doesn’t simply mean turning away from sin, but turning away and not finding it difficult.

In its most extreme form, this teaching asserts that once a person has fully surrendered to Christ they reach a state of perfection whereby they no longer have to struggle against sin because their sanctification is complete. Milder versions of this idea would include the notion that difficult struggle is a red-flag alerting us that something is wrong in our Christian life, perhaps that we are walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit, or maybe that we have a wrong idea about sanctification, or perhaps that we are denying our salvation through trying to reform the old man.

Of course, I’m painting with a very broad brush. It’s hard to generalize about the struggle-is-bad crowd since it includes Christians from all ends of the spectrum. For example, sometimes this paradigm attracts antinomian Christians who, wanting to steer clear of the specter of legalism, end up embracing a form of Christianity that makes little demands on one’s lifestyle. In such a context, there is no place for struggle because the Christian life is made out to be some kind of a birthday party. But the struggle-is-bad crowd also includes perfectionist Christians who believe we should reach a point where our sanctification is so complete, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts so pervasive, that we no longer struggle with the old man. In both cases, spiritual struggle is an anachronism, a sign that something is amiss.

Are “Try” and “Struggle” Dirty Words?

Yesterday I received an email from a long-term friend who seemed to hold some of the views I am criticizing. He was responding to an article I published last week with the Colson Center in which I had made the following claim:

“…within the context of a Spirit-filled life, struggle can play a positive role, as we literally exercise ourselves toward godliness (1 Timothy 4:7) and follow Christ’s example of running the race with endurance.”

“When… we fail, we may be tempted to give into a sense of discouragement and defeat…. However, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus our goal, and the joy that is set before us at the end when we are fully united with Him, we can find the energy we need to get right back up and keep struggling. Before our spiritual muscles are fully developed (and even afterwards), we may stumble and fall more times than we can count, but what do we do? We get up and keep struggling, fixing our gaze on Christ.”

My friend began his reply by questioning whether it was even possible for struggle to be part of the pursuit of godliness: “Are you indeed able to struggle yourself into a more sanctified life?” he inquired skeptically. Significantly, the criteria he used for whether struggle was working was the absence of “continued failure as you struggle.”  My friend went on to talk about his own experience, claiming that since his sanctification was “utterly complete” there was nothing more he needed to do. “There is nothing left to be accomplished,” he added, referring to both his salvation and sanctification.

My friend was not alone in suggesting that the concept of struggle should be expunged from the Christian life. In my Colson Center article ‘Is Will-Power Good or Bad?‘, I quoted Pastor Jim Wilson who wrote,

Try is a dirty, un-Christian word. It is a practice taught by the devil. It is a lie of the enemy. A person who tries is trusting himself. That is the wrong person to trust. It is impossible to trust God and try at the same time. In order to trust God we have to quit trying. [emphasis his]”

There is much I could say about these notions that trying and struggling are intrinsically bad, but sometimes a story is worth more than a thousand words. This is the same story I used in my recent Colson Center article ‘Struggle and the Christian Life‘, and I want to share it again because I believe it gets to the heart of how we should approach spiritual struggle. If we could learn to approach struggle like the characters in this story, I do believe it would transform how we think of concepts like struggle, will-power and difficulty.

The Joy of Struggle

Imagine a girl named Calista who dwells in the Greek lowlands and works as a milkmaid during the day. Calista loves a shepherd boy named Damarion, who lives in the highlands. Every day after she’s milked the last cow, Calista makes the journey up to where Damarion is guarding his sheep, waiting patiently for her to come. Calista’s joy is to spend the evening with Damarion, where they kiss and talk fondly of the time when they will be free to marry. When first light appears, Calista makes the journey down the mountain, where she catches a little sleep before its time to begin work again.

Now Calista’s journey up the mountain is not easy. She has to navigate challenging terrain, climb difficult rocks, and sometimes even fight off dangerous beasts. Sometimes she feels that she will never make it to the top, or that if she does, her lover won’t be there. Often she arrives at her lover’s side exhausted, scratched, and sometimes even bleeding from all the thorns she had to pass through. Sometimes her clothes are even torn. On top of this, Calista also struggles with the typical symptoms of sleep deprivation. However, Calista doesn’t even think of these hardships as a struggle; it is her joy to endure these things in order to spend time with her lover.

Calista often fails. On numerous occasions she slips and falls, yet instead of feeling defeated and discouraged she gets right back up and presses on towards her goal.

Eager to lighten her load, Damarion gradually teaches Calista skills to ease the burden of her nocturnal traveling. He shows her activities she can do during the day to strengthen her climbing muscles, and exercises she can practice to increase her aptitude at scaring off wild beasts. He also gives her mental techniques she can apply when her tired mind begins playing tricks on her and she is worried that she will never make it to the top.

The practice, the exercise, the development of skill, the constant struggle—all these things remain a joy to Calista, not because these things are good in themselves, but because of her goal.

We are in the same position with the spiritual life. When the struggle toward holiness becomes too much for us and we fail, we may be tempted to give into a sense of discouragement and defeat. We may be tempted to ruminate on how bad we are, or to compare ourselves to others who are more advanced. We may be tempted to stay down and not get back up. However, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus our goal, and the joy that is set before us at the end when we are fully united with Him, we can find the energy we need to get right back up and keep struggling. Before our spiritual muscles are fully developed (and even afterwards), we may stumble and fall more times than we can count, but what do we do? We get up and keep struggling, fixing our gaze on Christ.

Sadly, many Christians throughout the centuries have approached struggle as if it were an end in itself, rather than a means towards greater intimacy with Christ. This is the error of legalism and it is often in reaction to this that so many Christians assert that struggle is intrinsically bad. But the reality is that our struggles have no intrinsic value for their own sake, just as Calista’s struggles had no value apart from her ultimate goal of reaching Damarion. Rather, our struggles have value to the degree that they are oriented towards reaching Christ.

Further Reading