In the second part of this series on struggling well, I mentioned five things that we can do to in the midst of our struggles to approach them Christianly: we can reflect, rehearse, resist, repent, and remember. While I certainly believe that these five things can be tremendously helpful, I also want to ensure that we not fall into the pit of believing that struggling well is primarily about what we do. The Bible most assuredly teaches us that we have a part to play in our sanctification. The apostle Paul commands us in Philippians 2:12, for instance, to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” And the author of Hebrews constantly warns us to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (2:1), to “hold fast” to Christ (3:6; 4:14), to “take care…lest…[we] fall away from the living God” (3:12), to “go on to maturity” in the Christian life (6:1), to “draw near” to God and “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:22-23), and, perhaps most famously, to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and…run with endurance the race that is set before us (12:1).
We clearly have a responsibility to persevere in the Christian life. We aren’t to sit on our hands and do nothing. Doing nothing, as Richard Baxter used to say, is what stones do, and we can rightly praise them for it. But this is not true for those who are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Having acknowledged the important role we must play in our own growth in grace, however, we must also point out that the Bible places its priority not on what we do but on what God does in us. That is why, in the very passage we cited above from Philippians, Paul anchors his command to “work out your own salvation” in the grand reality of God’s prior work within us. You and I are commanded to work precisely “because” God is at work within us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). This means that we work because God enables us to do so, and, when we work, all the glory goes to Him and not to us. But, what is more significant and far more encouraging—especially in the midst of our struggles—it means that God’s work within us does more than simply enable us to work out our salvation, it guarantees it.
This may not be immediately evident in Philippians 2:12-13, but it becomes so when we see those two verses through the lens of other passages in Scripture. Take, for instance, Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6, which require very little by way of explanation: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, take Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:13-14, where he explicitly calls the Holy Spirit “the guarantee” of eternal life and the inheritance that will belong to all who “hear…the word of truth…and believe” in Christ.
But we might also think of what Paul says in Romans 8, not only when he tells us that nothing “in all creation”—and this includes ourselves and our struggles—“will be able to separate us from the love of God” that is ours “in Christ Jesus” (v. 39), but also when he tells us that everyone whom God predestines, He also calls, justifies, and glorifies (v. 30)—thereby guaranteeing that Jesus will in fact be “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (v. 29). Or we might think of vv. 9-10, which clearly proclaim the necessity of every Christian being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, in connection with Galatians 5:22, which describes the fruit of the Spirit. When taken together, these two passages guarantee that every Christian will exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (although imperfectly and sometimes intermittently), because such is the fruit of that Spirit who necessarily indwells every believer.
But my favorite passage in this regard is one that I have already mentioned in this series on struggling well, 2 Timothy 2:11-13:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
We know that Paul has the doctrine of union with Christ on his mind here, because v. 11 tells us so. This doctrine is simply a summary of the Bible’s teaching in at least four main areas:
(1) we are said to be “in Christ” (see Eph. 1:3-14; and, most especially, 2 Cor. 5:17);
(2) Christ is said to be “in us” (see, in particular, Col. 1:27);
(3) we are said to be “with him” in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-11 and 2 Tim.
(4) we are said to be “one flesh” with Christ in a way similar to the marriage relationship on
earth (Eph. 5:31-32).
Union with Christ, thus, forms the theological basis upon which you and I can genuinely be “the body of Christ.”
So when Paul connects God’s faithfulness to those who are unfaithful to His not being able to deny Himself, we ought to think immediately of union with Christ. And we ought to respond by saying, “Absolutely! Of course, God will always remain faithful even when we are unfaithful, because we are united to His Son and are, therefore, really and truly His body, and He cannot deny Himself.”
What this means is that God’s work within us doesn’t merely enable us to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling;” it guarantees that we will. To be sure, the “work” we do will always be imperfect. The sin that remains within us—Paul calls it the “flesh” (Rom. 7:18, 20-23; Gal. 5:16-24)—ensures that this will be so. God’s guarantee doesn’t make the road to heaven a straight line or an easy path; it only certifies that we will be there. And this is the real encouragement that we have in the midst of our struggles. No matter how many seasons of hardship and difficulty we may endure, no matter how profound or frequent our struggles may be, God is working within all those who believe in Jesus Christ, even when we may not be able to ourselves. The Bible calls us to “hold fast” to Christ but—praise God from whom ALL blessings flow—also promises us that, when we cannot do so, God will always hold us fast and will never let us go or forsake us in any way.
As we strive to struggle well by reflecting, rehearsing, resisting, repenting, and remembering, let us not lose sight of the fact that God is far more committed to us than we are to Him. He is always holding us fast even when we are not able to hold Him fast. To borrow the illustration from Genesis 32:22-32 and apply it to the point I am making here, it means that Jacob was able to hold fast and not let go as he wrestled and struggled precisely because God was holding him fast. The strength to struggle well was not Jacob’s but the Lord’s. The same is true for us too: our struggling well does not ultimately depend on us but on the Lord. And that is encouragement indeed!