In response to the article I wrote for Touchstone Magazine earlier this year, “The Cross of Least Resistance: Our Path to Holiness Runs Straight Through Calvary“, I have had readers write to me saying that struggle is NOT a good thing in the Christian life. You see, in that article I criticized the pervasive notion that when the Holy Spirit moves in someone’s heart they are always enabled to achieve complete victory over sin, where “victory” is taken to mean the absence of protracted struggle, frustration, confusion and occasional setbacks. According to the line of thinking I was attacking, the presence of difficulty is a sign that God’s life-giving power is not operative within us.
Those of us who have been involved in evangelical circles have probably encountered ideas like this at one time or another. 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.
When struggle is perceived to be a bad thing, we will naturally gravitate towards those expressions of the faith that require minimal effort. On the other hand, if we realign our thinking with Scripture, then we can recognize that struggle is an integral part of the sanctified life. We are then liberated to grow in, and work through, struggle, frustration, confusion, pain, and even failure, rather than trying to find shortcuts to sanctification that eliminate struggle from the spiritual experience.
Of course, struggle isn’t the most important part of the Christian life, and just because something is hard, that doesn’t make it right. After all, one can struggle toward hell just as one can struggle toward heaven (in fact, it is sometimes more of a struggle to follow the devil than to follow Christ, as I have suggested here). However, 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:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
“Looking unto Jesus” is key here. It is the difference between the type of struggle that leads to discouragement, defeat, despair, and depression, and the type of struggle that leads to joy and sanctification, joy, and theosis (becoming united with God). An analogy should make my meaning clear.
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 has finished milking 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 practicing, 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 has given credence to those who have followed Nietzsche in seeing Christianity as stifling joy and introducing a life-killing nausea. 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.
One of Saint Paul’s critiques of the Judaizers was that the burdens they were placing on Christians to keep the law of Moses were completely useless, since they were not directed towards Christ who is the telos of the law (Romans 10:4). It is only Christ and our hope of future union with Him (initially when we die, but ultimately in resurrection) that our spiritual struggles in the present have any value at all. That is why Saint Paul could tell the Christians in Corinth that their struggles were meaningless outside the context of the life to come:
“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. . . . If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’” (1 Cor. 15:19 & 32)”