Struggling Towards Holiness

Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.

“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, who 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 more general struggles with Christianity.

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 as when I converted. People keep telling me 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 just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.

I paused, taking in the import of what Trevor had been telling me. 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’ve been doing. If the Lord was not at work in you, one would expect to see you give up by now. The fact that you’ve kept struggling in the face of so much difficulty may be 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 repeated setbacks—is a reason to be encouraged and keep pressing on to the high calling.”

From there I went on to share with Trevor certain passages of Scripture which show 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 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 to subdue it. According to 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.” What this shows us is that Paul found the spiritual life such a struggle that he had to pummel his rebellious body into submission. Paul spoke about this struggle again in Romans 7: 15 where he wrote, “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”

I explained to Trevor that although Jesus lightens our load and promises us rest in the life to come, He still calls the life of faith a burden (Mt. 11:28-30), and He corrects those who suppose that following Him leads only to peace (Mt. 10:34). Even in the famous passage in John 10 where Jesus promises abundant life to His followers, when He explains what abundant life actually looks life, it involves sacrificing Himself for His sheep (John 10: 11-18). When Christ prepared to put this into practice Himself, He found it a struggle (Luke 22:41-44). Given that Christ struggled to be obedient to His Father’s will (Mt. 26:36-46), why should we as His followers expect anything less? On the contrary, if we want to be Christ’s disciples and experience abundant life, there is only one way: we must embrace the struggle, take up our cross and follow Him.

As Trevor listened, it was like a burden was being lifted from his shoulders. By the time he 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 challenges of his life as positive opportunities to grow spiritually. He had a new enthusiasm for carrying on as a Christian whatever the cost and however difficult.

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 notion that when the Holy Spirit moves in someone’s heart they are always enabled to achieve complete victory over sin. The problem is that “victory” in this context is often taken to mean the absence of protracted struggle, especially struggle involving hard work, 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.

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 believers 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.

Earlier today I received an email from a long-term friend who seemed to hold some of these views. He was responding to an article I had published with the Colson Center in which I had made the following claim (which, at the time, I did not think was particularly controversial):

“…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.”

In replying to the article that contained the above passage, my friend questioned whether it was even possible for struggle to be part of one’s growth towards godliness: “Are you indeed able to struggle yourself into a more sanctified life?” he inquired skeptically. Significantly, the criterion he was using for whether struggle was working was the absence of “continued failure as you struggle.” He seemed to assume that failure would be a reason to stop struggling and find a different approach to personal growth. 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.

But is “continued failure as you struggle” a legitimate reason not to “struggle yourself into a more sanctified life”? Is the presence of repeated failure really a good reason for assuming that a different approach is required? Not according to Saint Paisios (1924-1994). Listen to what this recently canonized Saint had to say about struggle and failure:

“The person that is struggling to the best of his abilities, who has no desire to live a disorderly life, but who – in the course of the struggle for faith and life – falls and rises again and again, God will never abandon. And if he has the slightest will not to grieve God, he will go to Paradise with his shoes on. The Benevolent God will, surprisingly, push him into Paradise. God will insure that he takes him at his best, in repentance. He may have to struggle all his life, but God will not abandon him; He will take him at the best possible time.”


The Normal Christian Life is Not Comfortable

The Christian life is not a holiday on the beach.

This struggle-less approach to Christianity is at odds with the most ancient expressions of the faith, which saw comfort as a danger and put a high premium on spiritual struggle. In the earliest days of the church, no one needed to be reminded that being a Christian was difficult since Christians were hounded and killed. But after Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in AD 313, and after Christianity became the official state religion during Emperor Theodosius’s reign (379-395), it became to be easy to be a Christian. As much as this was a blessing, many viewed the new ease as spiritually unhelpful. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that the way to the Kingdom of Heaven was through poverty of spirit (Mt. 5:3), mourning (Mt. 5:4) and persecution (Mt. 5:11-12)? As a way of compensating for the newfound ease, Christians began exploring various forms of self-imposed sufferings, such as fasting, voluntary poverty, living in isolation, staying up all night to pray, and other forms of ascetic disciplines. As St. John Chrysostom (347-407) said in one of his sermons, “Mortify your body; crucify it, and you will receive the martyr’s crown. What the sword did for the martyrs, let your own will do for you.” These types of voluntary struggles were not because the early Christians believed God wants us to be miserable; rather, it was an acknowledgement that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

Although much time has elapsed since then, our faith hasn’t changed. Christians are still called to embrace a life of spiritual struggle. I will go so far as to say that if our spiritual life is comfortable, if our life is defined by rest rather than struggle, then we should seriously question whether we are fully following Christ. There will be a time to rest, but it isn’t yet. Rest awaits us on the other side of the grave when we are with the Lord in paradise, but right now we are called to struggle.

If we are not facing the struggle of persecution, and if we do not have any significant spiritual struggles in our day to day life, then it is worthwhile to seek the Lord about ways to introduce a little struggle and discomfort into our spiritual lives.

Introducing discomfort into your spiritual life might mean giving money to the poor—and giving more money than is comfortable. For example, would you be willing to forego something you really want but do not actually need (say a new car, or a vacation, or a dinner out) and use the money to help a struggling family in your church? Or would you be willing to move into a smaller house and use the money you saved to help pay for a family to give their children a Christian education?

Another way to embrace a little discomfort could be volunteering your time. For example, would you be willing to sacrifice some of the time you spend watching sports or other TV, or the time you spend on recreation, and spend that time helping a family in your church—perhaps a family with lots of children who may need help with child-care, housework, homeschooling or running errands? And would you be willing to do this regularly as part of your weekly routine?

Other ways to embrace spiritual struggle could include working to discipline your mind and develop a habit of constant interior prayer, or overcoming seemingly benign habits like complaining, wasting food or spending too much time online. Another struggle could be finding another Christian who is suffering and then committing to get up in the middle of the night to pray for him or her. If getting up in the middle of the night is too much, would you be willing to use the time you were going to spend watching a movie and instead use that time to pray for the person who is in pain? And would you be willing to do this not once, not twice, but regularly?

For the average American Christian, the answer to all these questions is yes in theory but no in practice. We are not willing to experience these types of discomfort for those we love. When we give our time or money, we give out of our abundance and stop short of giving where it hurts. We like to think that if we were called to face martyrdom for the gospel that we would remain faithful. But if we are not willing to embrace a little mild struggle and discomfort to ease the burden of those Christ has placed in our life, how can we suppose we would have the spiritual stamina to endure martyrdom? How can we even say we love Christ if we are not willing to sacrifice comfort and ease for the sake of those Christ has put in our life for us to serve? (John 4:20; Mt. 25:42-45)

Educated in Comfort

For most Americans, the idea of voluntarily seeking out tribulation seems crazy. We think the normal Christian life should be one of rest and relaxation rather than struggle, and even if we may acknowledge that following Jesus comes with a cost, we rarely choose to go out of our way to suffer for the gospel.

Our resistance to struggle may be partly attributable to the culture of comfort that stamps itself on our unconscious through our earliest educational formation.

In the 90’s James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA, teamed up with James Hiebert from the University of Delaware to report on trends they had discovered in American classrooms. The trends were identified from analyzing hundreds hours of video footage from eighth-grade mathematics classrooms throughout the United States and published in the book The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom.

One of the predominant themes that emerged from the video study was that American teachers tried to minimize struggle whenever possible. They strove to make mathematics as easy as possible through eradicating all confusion and frustration. One of the consequences of this is that teachers frequently offer tricks for helping children get the right answers even when the students don’t fully understand the underlying concept.

The assumption that struggle is bad is not limited to eighth-grade mathematics. From our earliest school days, most of us have been conditioned to think that the purpose of learning is not to fail but to easily achieve straight A’s and to get our homework done as quickly as possible. Accordingly, we tend to unconsciously assume that one of the factors distinguishing smart students from students of low-ability is whether the student can learn concepts and finish homework with a minimum of struggle. By contrast, we tend to think that poor or merely average students are those who experience struggle, confusion and frustration. Referring to the mindset they found in American classrooms, Stigler and Hiebert observed that,

“Confusion and frustration, in this traditional American view, should be minimized… Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs that they have not done their job. When they notice confusion, they quickly assist students by providing whatever information it takes to get the students back on track. Teachers in the United States try hard to reduce confusion by presenting full information about how to solve problems.”

The same researchers also analyzed footage from classrooms in Japan. In contrast to Americans, Japanese teachers believed that struggle is an integral part of the learning process. In Japan teachers will intentionally set children math problems that are too hard for them and which the teachers know will result in the students making mistakes. The reason they do this is to force the students to struggle. According to the mindset in Japan (and much of East Asia), the sign of a successful student is not someone who can his work done with a minimum of struggle, but someone who can persist in their work through struggle, frustration and failure.

What the video study revealed is that the same behaviors that Americans perceive as failing, the Japanese think of as learning. In the mindset of many Asians, those students who show they can persevere through repeated setbacks are the ones who are preparing themselves for great things later in life.

Wider research in cross-cultural psychology indicates that these differing orientations towards educational struggle are rooted in broader differences in how Asians and Westerners perceive character, intelligence and skill. In most of East Asia it is believed that character, intelligence and skill are the result of what one researcher called “dull and determined effort” over long periods of time. This coheres with Confucian beliefs concerning the malleability and growth-potential of the human brain. By contrast, researchers have found that a majority of Westerners (particularly in the English-speaking nations) tend to view character, intelligence and skill as resulting from innate ability or sudden flashes of insight. Accordingly, Americans are prone to take lack of prompt success as a sign that a person just doesn’t have what it takes instead of seeing it as a challenge to engage in further struggle.

Our classrooms are just one area where these assumptions about struggle have been incarnated. Even a cursory glance at our approaches towards food, music, art, farming, sex and economics reveal a bias towards quick-fix solutions over slow and steady struggle through time. Even how we think of ourselves is often tinctured with the assumption that identity and personality are authentic to the degree that we embody what comes naturally to us, where “natural” is understood to refer to raw experience untouched by struggle, effort and difficult habituation. For example, under the rubric of “being true to yourself”, people are discouraged from working towards lifestyle choices that go against the grain of what comes easily, as if virtues that arise after a protracted period of struggle are somehow contrived and artificial. Accordingly, it is often supposed that each of our highest callings is to be like Elsa in the Disney film Frozen. Elsa had to learn to stop trying to be the good girl everyone expected her to be, and to realize that the path to redemption lay in learning to “let it go” and be herself—to realize the authentic person she was inside. Realizing your authentic self is thus correlated to following the path of least resistance. The implication is that spending years to develop habits and dispositions that do not come naturally is somehow repressive, hypocritical, less authentic, less “true to yourself” and less genuine than “letting go” to follow the impulses that come naturally with little or no struggle.

Towards a Theology of Struggle

The church has been infiltrated by these worldly assumptions about reaching goals without struggle. Indeed many Christian pastors routinely teach that there can be a short-cut to sanctification that bypasses human effort and struggle. Andy Naselli has given a helpful survey of this teaching in his book Let Go and Let God?. Naselli shows how the Holiness Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, together with the Keswick Convention, helped to disseminate the idea of “monergistic sanctification.” What Naselli means by “monergistic sanctification” is the notion that holiness comes from God doing everything and the believer doing nothing.

One of the teachers Naselli cited in Let Go and Let God? was the teacher Evan Henry Hopkins (1837–1918). Hopkins reflected widespread beliefs when he asked “What then is needed on the part of the believer in order that his life may be a life of triumph?” His answer: “Not struggles with the flesh to overcome it….It is not by straining and struggling that this blessed condition is brought about…”

Another crucial teacher was Charles G. Trumbull, editor of the Sunday School Times and one of the founders of America’s Keswick convention. In his book Victory in Christ, Trumbull asserted that it was impossible to try to live a victorious and succeed, since human effort plays no part in true spiritual progress:

“If any of you are making the mistake of trying to live the victorious life, you are cheating yourself out of it, for the victory you get by trying for it is a counterfeit victory… Trying is what we do, and trusting is what we let the Lord do.… The counterfeit victory means a struggle.”

The notion that trying to follow God is useless does have an intuitive grammar about it for many Christians. After all, how many of us have struggled with an issue in our life to no avail, and then all of a sudden God helps us in a way we never could have done on our own? Deep down inside most of us know how inadequate and helpless we are; hence it often feels right to say that God does everything and man nothing. Moreover, many of us have an angst that if the Christian life does involve our own struggling efforts, then we would have a basis for pride. Given these instincts, it is natural for us to view the spiritual life like a zero-sum game in which God can only get full glory when human agency is eradicated or denied. This zero-sum approach creates a web of rigid dichotomies in which trying becomes antithetical to trusting, struggle becomes antithetical to grace, and faith becomes antithetical to works.

Certainly it would be a mistake to think that we can do anything—let alone overcome sin—without the enabling power of the Holy Spirit within us. But it is equally mistaken to deny that God works through means. In His providence, God has seen fit to structure the world so that certain things—the sacraments, other people, prayer, and yes, our own feeble efforts and struggles against temptations—are means by which He accomplishes His plan for us and works holiness in our life. There is no room for pride since even our ability to struggle against temptation comes as a result of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

Paradoxically, it is those who deny that struggle plays any role in the Christian life who end up robbing glory from God since they deny that God is powerful enough to work in and through and because of our struggles. When we come face to face with the full extent of our fallen condition, it’s much easier to believe the only solution is for God to do everything while we do nothing. When we have constant reminders of our spiritual inadequacy and helplessness, it’s easy to believe that the only solution is for the Holy Spirit to wipe out our problems with a silver bullet solution that bypasses the cycle of struggle, failure, frustration, more struggles, etc. It takes a lot of childlike faith is to believe the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to use even our puny struggles to bring us closer to Him.

Falling Forward

When we see struggle as alien to the spiritual life we often don’t know what to do with suffering, nor do we have a place within our theology for coming to terms with human weakness, failure, disappointment, confusion and frustration. Instinctively we tend to assume that suffering must mean that God is displeased with a person. This seems to be a distinctively Anglo-American mindset. By contrast Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.

The term podvig is part of a larger understanding in Russian Christianity that painful struggle can be reframed as a good thing. The Russian Saint, Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894), articulated this understanding when he wrote that “all the saints accept the only true path to virtue to be pain and hard work… lightness and ease are a sign of a false path. Anyone who is not struggling, not in podvig, is in prelest [spiritual delusion].”

In the ancient Russian translation of the Bible,, the word podvig appears in Colossians 2:1 when Paul is describing his agonizing struggles on behalf of the Christians in Colossae and Laodicea. The term again appears in the Russian translation of Hebrews 10:32, where the author is calling to mind days when believers endured a great conflict of suffering for the gospel.

When I first learned about the concept of podvig, it ran contrary to my American sensibilities. As with Trevor, I had been told countless times that a spirit-led life should not be a struggle, but should come easy. One teacher told me that the Christian life should be as easy as a boy rolling down hill, while other mentors told me that frustration, confusion and struggle are the signs that someone is living in the flesh rather than the Spirit. The concept of podvig challenges us to go back to the Bible and reassess. When we do, we find that the Christian life is actually very difficult, and that we are in a state of constant war against our fleshly lusts (1 Peter 2:11).

Indeed, when we let Scripture inform our thinking, we begin to see that love is a battlefield. To love is to be at war, for love can only be preserved through struggle, through painful commitment, and through a multitude of difficult baby steps. As we struggle forward towards Him who is Love, we grow holy not by never falling down, but by getting back up and resuming the struggle.

This is what the former Lesbian, Rosaria Butterfield, found. In her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria chronicled her struggle to put Christ’s claims into practice in her own life. What she found was that intimacy with Christ involved constant struggle and failure; but most importantly, it involved learning from failure and getting back up to resume the struggle. As Rosaria observed in her book:

“Winners have always seemed to me people who know how to fall on their face, pick themselves up, and recover well. It has always seemed to me that without the proper response to failure, we don’t grow, we only age. So I was and am willing to take the risk of being wrong for the hope of growing in truth. It seemed to me that if we fall, we need to fall forward and not backward, because at least then we are moving in the right direction.”

Of course, this is not about struggling in our own strength or trying to earn favor with God through works-righteousness. Even the ability to struggle to put the old man to death is entirely a result of God’s grace. Apart from Christ we can do nothing, let alone struggle towards holiness (John 15:5).

Because Christ’s love forms the context for the Christian’s struggle there can be a lightness in the midst of suffering, a joy in the midst of struggle, and a peace in the midst of pain. Just think of some of the stories of saints who have been tortured for their faith—in these saints you see a conjunction of peace, joy and hope running parallel with incredible struggle, hardship and pain. Christ’s burden is truly light (Mt. 11:28-30) not because He takes away our struggles or makes the spiritual walk easy, but because He gives us supernatural grace in the midst of these struggles. This is easily highlighted simply by comparing the types of struggles bought about by sin vs. the types of struggles animated by the Holy Spirit. If we look at those whose lives revolve around the pursuit of sinful lusts (whether substance abuse, selfish pleasures, various addictions, or purely mental vices like worry, self-pity and selfish striving) it is often clear just from looking into their faces that this kind of a lifestyle is a difficult struggle. Sin is hard work. But life is also a difficult struggle for saints who strive to live for others, who pursue moderation, who strain themselves in the pursuit of virtues like humility, gratitude, love, compassion and charity. The difference is that in the former case, the struggle is not life-giving but leads to progressive heaviness, anxiety, hopelessness and despair. In the latter case, the struggle is life-giving and results in peace, well-being and joy. It is in this sense that we should understand Christ’s promise to lighten our burdens and give us perfect peace.