The Beauty of Spiritual Struggle

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In North America, we have been trained to assume that if a process does not come easily to us, there must be something wrong. From the way we use technology, to the way we make shopping decisions, and even the way we learn and work, we often assume that struggle is bad. Everything should be intuitive and simple, with clear and easy steps toward achieving your goals or receiving whatever you want.

When we apply this mindset to Christianity, we start to assume that if the Christian life ever seems hard, there must be a problem. This, in spite of the many words of Jesus and the apostles that indicate we will face difficulty and obstacles in living according to the gospel.

Christianity and the Runner’s High

It is true that, while sins and struggles may hinder us, they do not define us. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: Let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us (Heb. 12:1, CSB). I love the emphasis here on casting off weights, putting struggles and obstacles behind us, untangling ourselves from the sins that would cause us to slip up.

Christians still slip and fall, but we should be best known for running. We are saints who sometimes sin, or racers who sometimes stumble. But sins and struggles no longer define us. The Christian is not defined by the sins of the past, nor the struggle of the present, but by the vision of the future. You see the finish line, and you run to win the prize.

I’ve never run a marathon, but friends tell me there’s a certain moment after you’ve been running several miles when a sense of euphoria and exhilaration kicks in. You begin to think: I am really doing this, and it is fantastic!

This phenomenon has a name: the “runner’s high.” It takes place when the endorphins begin to work on your body (due to the pain you’re inflicting on yourself). Once they are deployed, you feel happy when running. It usually comes in at around four or five miles. (To be clear, I don’t know what this is like. Last time I ran a 5K, I nearly threw up and passed out!)

Many people believe the Christian life should always feel like the “runner’s high”—that the struggle toward holiness and the fight against sin should always be inspiring.

Satisfying Struggle

We need to revisit the assumption that struggle is bad. Otherwise, we are likely to get discouraged in the spiritual race.

Struggle is not an anomaly for the Christian. While struggle may not define us, it is part of what it means to run.

Most of us understand there are times when you are engaged in work that makes your muscles ache. After a certain amount of exertion, you begin to feel inspired. But this feeling of inspiration is fleeting. It comes on the other side of serious and sustained struggle. And it does not last forever.

Struggle-Free Christian Life?

In a recent article in Touchstone, Robin Phillips opposes the idea that the Christian life should be free from struggle:

“Their underlying theme is the erroneous notion that when the Holy Spirit moves in a person’s heart, he always enables the individual to achieve complete victory over sin—where ‘victory’ is taken to mean the end 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 in a person.”

Phillips contrasts this notion with that of ancient Christianity, which “saw comfort as a danger and put a high premium on spiritual struggle.” He also sees a cultural force at work. American teachers seek to minimize struggle whenever possible, but in other parts of the world, struggle is viewed differently:

“[Japanese teachers] believe that struggle is an integral part of the learning process. They will intentionally set their students math problems that are too hard for them and that the teachers know will result in mistakes. But they do this anyway to force the students to struggle. According to the mindset in Japan (and much of east Asia), the successful student is not the one who gets his work done with ease, but the one who persists in his work despite frustration and failure.”

What does this mean for Christians today? We should never pit the work of the Spirit against the struggle toward godliness.

“Within the context of a Spirit-filled life, struggle can play a positive role, as we literally exercise ourselves toward godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) and follow Christ’s example of running the race with endurance. . . . By keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus our goal, and the joy that is set before us as 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.”

I appreciate the song from Tenth Avenue North that says: “Hallelujah! We are free to struggle. We’re not struggling to be free.” The gospel indicative (that we don’t have to struggle to be free) precedes the gospel imperative (that we are freed now to struggle).

We shouldn’t expect to feel the “runner’s high” all the time while we run the race. The spiritual life will often feel difficult. But we run with joy because the Spirit is working in and through us, and running is the sign that we are in the race.

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