We are surrounded by a culture that requires us to be happy. All the time. We are also surrounded by a self-help culture which assures us that by following these five easy steps, or discovering that secret, we can eliminate struggle and pain from our lives. Some of this can be helpful. Most of it is dangerous. To the degree that we can move out of sad self-obsession into the freedom of joyful giving, to the degree that we can benefit from overcoming certain bad habits or achieving more order in our daily living, we can be thankful. But the danger inherent in the implicit promises made by these surrounding cultures is that having reached the end of whatever process or achieving the “enlightenment” of whatever gnosis that is being sold, we will enter a state wherein the struggle is over.
This is a lie.
Long before cognitive therapy, by more than a millennium and a half, the desert fathers practiced the examination of thoughts. A disciple would disclose to his abba the thoughts which filled his mind, and his abba, with the gift of discernment, would help him to see which thoughts were delusional, which were of the enemy. A brother who was troubled by what others said about him, was told to go into a cemetery and curse and revile the dead. When he reported back to his abba, his abba asked him how the dead responded. The disciple of course replied that they had said nothing. The abba then told his disciple to go into the cemetery and to praise and compliment the dead. Again he reported back in answer to his abba that the dead had said nothing. They had not been impacted or influenced in any way by his praises or his curses. His abba counseled him to be as the dead.
A brief examination of the thought that life can be without struggle will show similar results. It is a delusion. We will always have struggle. This struggle will not always be traumatic. Sometimes it will simply be in the myriad daily irritations that reveal our true characters. Nor will it always be continuous. We will have periods of respite and relief. But what we need to come to grips with is this simple and unadorned fact: for the Christian, struggle is normal.
Struggle Is Normal
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
This working out our own salvation with fear and trembling is the normative experience of the Christian. “Work out” here is a word connoting labor, an intensification of “work” so as to produce something. It can also mean conquer, overcome, prevail upon. This is not something one does without mental focus and an intensive exertion of the will. I say it again: this is the normal life for the Christian.
It is nice and wonderful to sing about victory in Jesus. We do well to remind ourselves that we are indeed “more than conquerors” by his Holy Spirit. But we ought not to think of our life in this world as the long and uninterrupted after-effects of being crowned on the victor’s stand. Rather, we would do well to think of our life in terms of a long march through many opponents to the final victory. Our latest victory is only a precursor to more struggle and, by God’s grace, more victories.
We have only to look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith.” Jesus did not simply suffer one temptation from Satan. He endured three. And though when he had finished that round of testing Jesus did indeed return “in the power of the Spirit,” nonetheless, his struggles were not over: “Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Jesus was tested again and again by the religious leaders of his own people. He was rejected by the people of his hometown. One of his own disciples, whom he had chosen, betrayed him to death. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again faced the Tempter. If Jesus was made perfect through sufferings (Hebrews 2:10), that is to say, in that the partaking of flesh and blood was required to conquer death, then how much more are we so made perfect as well? If Christ learned obedience through the things which he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), how much more do we so learn obedience?
In a world of ease and comfort that is twenty-first century North America, this reminder disturbs us:
For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. (Hebrews 12:3-4)
The primary meaning here is, of course, the Hebrew Christians had not yet resisted in their trials to the point of death. They hadn’t shed any blood. While we would not be wise to pull down a flagellum and start whacking ourselves about the neck and shoulders with it, the point remains: our struggles are minimal, comparatively speaking, to what Christians have faced throughout history and are facing in our present world. And yet, if Christ’s life is normative for us, and if he faced such struggles, then we will not escape them–if we want to be like him.
So, let us then accept this truth: for the Christian, struggle is normal. Our goal is not the easy, carefree life. Though we may be richly blessed by God with few cares. Rather, our goal is faithfulness. All struggle is a test: we will be faithful?
Struggle from the Outside
There are two kinds of struggles that we face, external and internal struggles. We cannot clearly draw impermeable boundaries, because sometimes our failures in our internal struggles lead to external struggles. If we do not maintain a healthy manner of living, we will experience illness. Gluttony leads to obesity; the internal gives way to the external.
Nonetheless, we do face external struggles that come upon us unbidden and even unjustly. We live in a fallen world. Disease and natural catastrophes come upon us whether we will it or not. Friends and co-workers betray us. We can be caught in financial disasters brought on by the greed and deception of others, no matter how fiscally soundly we attempt to manage our lives.
One of the dangers we face in our modernist world regarding these external trials is that we may simply attempt to relegate them to material cause-and-effect. We may fail to see that these things could very well be instances of spiritual warfare.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
I do not mean to suggest that every external trial is from the devil. There is not a sin behind every sneeze. And it doesn’t take a legion of demons for people to act sinfully. Sometimes we just get sick. We live in a fallen world. Most of the time, people just sin, without infernal inducement.
But it is also the case that we are called to sober watchfulness because our
adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith. . . (1 Peter 5:8-9)
We must always be mindful that we are part of a larger universe than that of which we are aware. The circles of our lives are small, but they are part of a much larger history. Satan has only one focus: to kill and to destroy. Again: We must be mindful that often external trials are brought on by our own lusts and passions (James 1:13-15). But that is not to say that our various external trials are not brought about by Satan so as to destroy our peace and faith, and to bring us into discouragement and faithlessness.
Let us speak more prosaically: If we are confronted with a flat tire on the way to work, and we know we are going to be late for an important meeting, it may well be that this is simply a flat tire. It might well be simple chance that we ran over the metal object and punctured our tire. Satan may not have caused the flat tire. But it now becomes a temptation for us. Do we lose our peace and joy in Christ as we fret and become anxious over the cost and time of repair, the lost work time and scrapped meeting? Or do we in peace reaffirm our trust in the sovereign God who takes notice when a sparrow falls to the ground and has numbered the hairs of our head? Do we look for the blessing in this struggle? And perhaps it is one piece in the adventure of faith as the cascade of interlocking events unfold to new pathways? Or maybe that blessing is nothing more than the uninterrupted peace and trust in Christ?
The key here is to have a constant awareness of and attentiveness to the presence of God in our lives. If we are constantly seeking his guidance, constantly orienting our hearts to his will, then we may confidently confront these external struggles. And if we are constantly attentive to Christ, we will face our internal struggles with more wisdom and strength.
Struggle from the Inside
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
Even when faced with external trials, in reality what is the trial is the internal wrestling we undergo as we experience those trials. Even the physical sufferings of illness and injury are small compared to the mental anguish we face. It is not the flat tire itself, but the anxiety in our soul with which we wrestle.
This is because we have within us many inclinations and desires which turn us away from the Kingdom of God, and, giving them our attention, it is painful when these inclinations and desires are frustrated. Perhaps we are placing our faith in our job and fear losing it and this is productive of the anxiety our flat tire brings up from within our hearts. We do not rest in God’s promise of provision of our daily needs. We lie about certain matters because in our pride we would be embarrassed if the truth were known. We criticize and condemn others, killing them with our tongues, because we see in them the very sins and failures within us that we do not admit to ourselves.
The point of all temptation and testing is that we are faithful to Christ. But the effect of the successful struggle against our internal trials, those things brought about by our own sinful inclinations and desires, is that over time we are more and more cleansed of these inclinations. We put away lying and criticism because we have in humility learned to confess our sins and failures and to seek forgiveness, thus coming to a more honest and real appraisal of ourselves as “first among sinners.” We put away anxiety about our well-being and future, remembering God’s constant past provisions, and trusting him for today’s.
This struggle, to state the obvious, is not easy.
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)
One of the common interpretations of this passage throughout the life of the Church is that Christians “take” the Kingdom “by force” through the discipline of the body. That is to say, we resist our bodily inclinations and channel them through faith and reason along the pathways set by God. Christians deny themselves certain foods on Wednesdays and Fridays. We abstain from sex outside the bonds of marriage. We tithe of our income. We honor and revere the body, because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. But, in the words of the Apostle Paul
Therefore I run not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)
But this bodily discipline is only a means, it is not the end. It is a means to conquer, by grace in the Spirit, the sinful inclinations and desires which well up from our mortal flesh and bring about the testings we experience. We struggle against flesh and blood, to be sure.
However, this struggle with the body is the pathway to the struggle with our internal disorder, those inclinations and desires, trained by a mortal body and our habituated choices, to seek the mortal and to turn away from the immortal. As St John Cassian notes in his Institutes, the battles against the sinful desires of gluttony and lust, are simply the beginning gateways to wrestling with pride, vainglory, depression and so forth.
This is why the internal struggle is so important and primary. If we conquer pride, we will not be vexed when others criticize us, knowing that their mere words neither reflect reality nor have any impact on our true identity. If we conquer vainglory, we will not be tempted to such self-focus that we create strife and friction in our relationships by ignoring the needs of others and how we can serve them. If we maintain peace and joy in our hearts, the external struggles will not stir up the internal passions. If we conquer the internal passions, we will meet the external struggles with peace and joy.
Struggle Brings Joy
Here is the paradox: it is through struggle that we know peace and joy. More: it is in struggle that we can know deeply that peace and joy that are ours in Christ, “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 12:2). Trouble and pain focus our attention. Attention to our hearts and to Christ help us to uncover those places within us that need healing. Like any athlete, struggle makes us stronger. Resistance provides us the motivation for forward progress. No, struggle is not pleasant. Cleaning an oozing wound is smelly and painful. It is hard to admit how bad off we are.
And yet, here is the opportunity for great freedom. By acknowledging the constancy of our struggle, that such is normal for us, we are free to see in every moment God’s amazing providence for us. We are given the ability to interpret our life’s events with a new paradigm; not one of sorrow, vexation and frustration, but one of adventure, anticipation and joy. Yes, we will sorrow. Christ himself shed tears. Yet there is joy and peace for us.
Our task is simple. Pay attention. Be faithful. God will provide everything else we need. Strength to endure. Escape when temptation and testing is too much (1 Corinthians 10:13). Most of all joy and the peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7).