Why we struggle. How to struggle. Finding Hope in Struggles.
On average, probably more than twice a week, I hear from another pastor who, in a moment of painful transparency reaches out to me saying, “I’m struggling.” It’s so common, I believe pervasive is a more appropriate word. I hear the same from church family and Christian friends. They reach out because they know I struggle too, and have admitted as much. Whether over text, email, phone, or in person—these conversations are poignant and very similar. Let’s explore the idea of “struggling.”
First, the fall means we will always be struggling, no matter how well placed in God’s will or way. No matter how well aligned with His word, no matter how sincere or strong our hearts, struggle is woven into life, and even more into Christian life. Struggle is intrinsic to life on earth. From now until you see Jesus, you will struggle. God’s word is replete with strugglers expressing their struggle on nearly every page.
Second, our struggles are multi-layered and woven into every aspect of life. Some are struggling in personal life. Some struggle in family relationships or balance. Some struggle with marital conflict and disconnect. Others struggle with ministry discouragement and unmet expectations. Some struggle with financial concerns. Others struggle with church conflict and contention. Some struggle with oppression, contempt, and personal rejection. Others struggle with slander and politics. It is safe to say, if you are a living spiritual leader, you are likely struggling.
Third, if struggles are intrinsic to life and pervasive in life, then escaping or ultimately resolving all struggle is a faulty expectation. This is not to say we should not anticipate and press toward victory, but that we should not define victory as the absence of struggle. This is so essential to our spiritual survival in Christian life and ministry!
How do you view your struggle? Is it something to be conquered and put away forever? Or is it something to engage in a forward momentum in repeated ways? It’s hard to pin this down when simply addressing “struggles” in a subjective, big picture way, but perhaps our larger struggle is that we “struggle with struggling”? Could it be that we were simply expecting not to struggle at some point in this journey? Could it be that our unmet expectations of spiritual ease cause us greater distress than the struggles themselves?
If your idea of spiritual life and leadership is that you will at some point arrive at a struggle-free plateau, you are simply setting yourself up for one long stream of disappointments and ultimate discouragement. That plateau is called “Heaven,” and you won’t be there until you see Jesus. Until then, we struggle—always struggling with something, in some way, on some level; and therefore always negotiating the possibility and implications that the present struggle brings into our lives. Those implications include fatigue, discouragement, failure, weakness, hurt, loneliness, doubt, fear, relational hurt, loss, heartbreak, hesitation, and (God forbid) despair that leads to quitting. The possibilities are endless, for both bad and good!
Fourth, if struggles are here for the duration of life, then perhaps we need to reorientate our expectations and engagement of that struggle. The right response is not to throw our hands up in failure, giving up the fight. Neither is the right response to lower our heads, redouble our efforts, and fight forward in woefully insufficient self-dependence. Yes, in one sense, we are to accept that struggles are here to stay. In another sense we are to resist the struggle—for that’s what defines the “good fight of faith” and spiritual growth. In yet another sense, we are to biblically engage the struggle—which involves faith, endurance, rest, peace, and obedience.
Let me say it another way. Yes, we should accept the temporary reality of struggles, not feeling like “something is wrong with me, and everybody else is normal.” Yes, we should not accept the struggle in terms of giving in, giving up, or in any way accommodating defeat. And yes, we should engage the struggle like a sail engages the blustering wind, like a batter engages a 90mph fastball, like a surfer engages the raging surf. Oswald Chambers wrote of this: “The surf that distresses the ordinary swimmer produces in the surf-rider the super joy of going clean through it. Apply that to our own circumstances, these very things—tribulation, distress, persecution, produce in us the super joy; they are not things to fight. We are more than conquerors through Him in all these things, not in spite of them, but in the midst of them. The saint never knows the joy of the Lord in spite of tribulation, but because of it.”
The longer I act like the victim of struggles, the longer I will flounder under the struggle. The moment I reckon with the struggles, accept their reality, and leverage their power—this is the moment everything changes! When playing victim, the struggle has power over me and keeps me floundering, gasping for breath and drowning under the wave-surge. The moment I stop playing victim and engage the struggle as a negative but (by God’s grace) also a positive force for good and growth—then, and only then, can I leverage the wind to propel me forward, leverage the force of the fastball to launch a home run, and leverage the surf to ride the waves back to shore. It’s all about my relationship to the force of the struggle.
Often while we are trying to escape the struggle, God is calling us to stand on top of it and leverage it for our growth and His glory.
The struggle is negative in the sense that it’s painful, problematic, annoying, disruptive, and just plain hard. The struggle is positive in the sense that it is a force to be leveraged, an opportunity to be seized, a growth moment to be realized, a glory moment for the gospel and for God to be magnified! (If I were to start recounting my struggles over the last 40 years—personal, family, marriage, financial, pastoral—their embarrassing reality as well as their ultimate outcomes of growth, this would be a long book rather than a blog post!)
Growth as a result of struggle only happens by the grace of God, by the presence of Christ in my life, and by the work of His word and Spirit—but have no doubt, it happens! God uses the struggles of our lives to produce the greatest fruit, but for that to happen, we must have a right orientation toward and relationship with the struggle.
We must engage the arduous, tedious, taxing nature of the struggle itself. We must allow the struggle to exercise us, work us over toward godliness. (1 Tim. 4:7-8) We must set our hearts like a sailor sets the sail. We have to ride the wave rather than being crushed by it. While being flattened by the wave takes no work at all, be sure that climbing on top of it is a tiresome, exhausting process—an exercising process of allowing salvation to be “worked out of us.”
Truly, the choice is mine. The struggle only has power over me if I render that power. I’m only a victim if I choose to be. The struggle only wins if I hand it the victory by disengagement. Since the struggle is not going away, it only makes sense to leverage it—to put it to work in me! This is more than “positive speak”—no, this is reality. This is woven into every victory of scripture. Paul said in Philippians 1:12, “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.” In essence, he is saying, “My struggles are for gospel and God’s good!”
Isn’t this the promise in Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Again in Romans 8:37, “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”
Real Christianity is not about “not struggling.” Real gospel ministry is not a temporal pursuit of some utopian plateau of bliss. No, real Christian growth and real ministry is about struggling—every day, every week—leveraging for good the forces of whatever is attempting to crush me, discourage me, or bring me to despair. If you struggle you are normal, and your life and ministry is exactly what you should expect on planet earth.
In light of all this, the question that remains is “How will you respond to the struggle?” What relationship will you choose to have with your struggles today? Victim or victor? And by “victor,” I don’t mean, “Poof, the struggle is gone—you win!” No, I mean, “Bring it; leverage it; stand on it; be exercised by it; use it to thrust you forward in growth, in joy, in maturity, in Christ-likeness.”
Don’t try to escape the struggle. That’s a hopeless quest, at least for now. See it differently. What power are you giving to the struggle? Are you giving it the power to discourage you? Are you giving it the power to frustrate or anger you? Are you giving your struggle the power to wreck relationships or cause you to resent or despise God? Are you giving your struggle the power to hinder you, to cripple you, to destroy you?
You can’t eradicate struggle, but you can stop giving it power.
Perhaps it is time to render the struggle powerless over you, but powerful under you!
From one fellow struggler to another—we struggle for a moment, but then, suddenly, face to face—it will all be worth it!
Struggle on, but struggle in faith and hope!
PS— I’ve taken a couple months off from writing for this blog. I’m hoping to resume on a weekly basis, and I hope you will track with me and share it with a friend! Thanks for sharing whatever you think will bless others.