In part 1 of this series, I argued that Genesis 32:22-32 teaches us that God’s people will struggle for as long as they live. They will struggle with the sin that remains within them and with difficult circumstances and events. But the Old Testament isn’t the only place we see testimony to this reality. We also see it in the New Testament in places like John 16:33, where Jesus promises that His followers will have tribulation in this world. These passages tell us that the presence of struggle in our lives shouldn’t concern us as much as the absence of struggle should.
Take for instance the comments that the apostle Paul makes in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” This comment ought to give us pause if we consider ourselves to be followers of Christ and yet have never experienced persecution of any kind. The absence of persecution, like the absence of struggle, ought to concern us. But the presence of even minor mistreatment for the sake of Christ, just like the presence of struggle, ought to encourage us and strengthen our faith.
But if the presence of struggle was the only criteria characterizing the lives of genuine believers, then everyone in the world would look like a Christian at least on the outside. And we know that is not true. Many people’s lives look nothing like what a Christian’s life should look like. It is not enough for us to struggle, we must struggle in a certain way. The genuine believer’s life is to be characterized not simply by the presence of struggle, but by a specific kind of struggle or, perhaps better, a specific way of handling the struggle.
The Christian doesn’t simply struggle. The Christian struggles well, or, we might even say, Christianly. Like Jacob, we hold onto the Lord with all our might and refuse to let go until and unless He blesses us (Gen. 32:26). But what does this kind of struggling look like? Practically, how do we struggle well? I think there are at least 5 features that characterize struggling well and distinguish Christian struggling from every other variety: (notice the nice alliteration while you’re at it too!):
1. Reflect—Christian struggling is marked out first by meditation upon God’s Word, most especially His promises. We seek to hide His Word in our hearts, so that, when we need it most, the Holy Spirit can bring that Word forward in our minds and bring it to remembrance at the right time. This obviously involves reading the Bible and reflecting upon what it says. But it also involves memorizing it. By doing these things we store it up in our minds for the day we will need it.
This has been an incredibly helpful practice for me personally over the years as I have sought to struggle well in my own life. The Lord has mercifully brought to mind verse after verse, often at just the right time, to remind me
• that He really is working all things together for my good (Rom. 8:28);
• that He really is for me in Christ—despite what my circumstances may tell me—and that if He is for me, then no one can truly be against me (Rom. 8:31);
• that He really does love me with an almost unbelievable love—“O what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1);
• or that He really will remain faithful even when I am unfaithful, because He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13).
2. Rehearse—It is not enough for us simply to reflect upon these great and glorious promises (and others like them) once and then stop. We must continue to rehearse these things in our minds, reminding ourselves of them over and over again.
I remember hearing Oliver North, whom some of you may remember in connection with the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, give his testimony on a Christian radio program many years after the controversy had settled down. He spoke about how, in his life, God sometimes had to hit him upside the head with what he called “the two-by-four of faith” to get his attention. I think that we are often the same way. We are thick-headed and stubborn, slow to hear and even slower to understand. We often have to hear something many times before we actually begin to believe it.
When we rehearse the promises of God’s Word to ourselves, we massage them into the deep tissues of our experience. We work them into our heart and our soul. This not only keeps them before our eyes, but it keeps them front and center in our experience as well.
One of the best ways to do this is through music. Songs have a staying power in our memories and a catchiness that causes us to sing their lyrics throughout the day. They are ready-made vehicles for rehearsing the glorious truths of God’s Word.
3. Resist—In addition to reflecting and rehearsing, we stand firm upon what we know to be true. We resist giving in to the struggle. When we are talking about our struggle against remaining sin, this means that we keep fighting against it until the Lord calls us home. We never give up. We adopt the same attitude that the famous 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday had toward his sin when he said somewhat humorously:
I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition!
In regard to our struggle with difficult circumstances and events, it means that we hold fast to the Lord in faith even, or, better, especially when we cannot see what God is doing. We refuse to let Him go until and unless He blesses us. We keep our eyes fixed on Christ and resist the pleas of the devil to let go and give up.
When I lived in Scotland, my apartment was located just below an extinct volcano called “Arthur’s Seat.” I could look out of my bedroom window every day and see the mountain standing grand and majestic. But at certain times of the year, when the fog was especially thick, I would look out of my window and the mountain would be completely invisible. On those days, it was if Arthur’s Seat didn’t exist at all. Never once did I give in to the temptation to believe that Arthur’s Seat had vanished, however. I knew that it was still there even though I couldn’t see it.
Similarly, resisting in the midst of difficult circumstances means holding fast to the Lord, trusting that He is not only still there when we cannot see Him but also that He is still for us when it may not look like it.
4. Repent—None of us will ever be perfect this side of heaven, which means that no matter how much we resist, we will inevitably fall short. When we do, we repent; and we remind ourselves anew and afresh of the great and glorious promises we have reflected upon and rehearsed to ourselves in the past. This repentance is not a one-time endeavor but, rather, an ongoing practice every day of our lives, as Martin Luther so helpfully pointed out in the first of his 95 Theses.
5. Remember—Satan has used moments of failure in my own life to attack and to accuse and to hold things over my head. Usually, the message he repeats to me goes something like this: “How can you call yourself a Christian and act (or think or speak) in that way?” Since the Christian life is characterized by struggling against remaining sin, you and I will spend the rest of our lives struggling against many of the same sins. This means that we will fall prey to at least some of these sins hundreds and perhaps even thousands of times over the course of our lives. It’s usually after yet another failure in one of these areas that Satan’s accusation resounds most loudly and holds most sway.
But when these accusations come, we remind ourselves that God promises to put all our sins as far from Him as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12) and to “remember [them] no more” (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12; 10:17); we recall to our minds the Bible’s teaching that God’s grace is far greater than all our sins (Rom. 5:20); and we preach to ourselves the grand reality that God always remains faithful even when we are faithless, because we are united to His Son and are, therefore, part of His body, and “he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
As CS Lewis said, “Though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference.” He relentlessly pursues us even when we sin in the same ways for 40 or 50 years or longer. He cannot deny Himself. And that is what we need to remember in the midst of the struggle.