As I’ve been struggling for the past year or so, with depression, wanting the wrong man, hating my job, hating the church, etc… I’ve learned something worth sharing. I’ve learned that struggling is a lost art form that needs renaissance.
The responses my struggle elicited in Christian friends most often included them telling me to give in or telling me to move away and start fresh elsewhere. People said a few other things. Few of them demonstrated much empathy. Several tried to recycle their own experiences and apply them to my life, as if they and I are interchangeable. Only really one thing anyone said was very helpful, and that helpful person is probably the one least likely to believe he helped.
I think these responses reveal that the church has lost a necessary and intimate knowledge of the struggle. We give in way too easily and refuse or neglect to struggle well and to the full extent of our capabilities. Consequently, I don’t think we grow in endurance, character, and hope, as they’re described in Romans 5, where Paul, a man uniquely qualified to comment on struggle, wrote that: “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”
We, as individuals and as the church, aren’t what we ought to be. It is rare that I meet a person who possesses endurance, character, and hope, and I’m sad to say that the majority of those I’ve observed living out those attributes as I’d like to live them out myself… they are rarely Christians.
When faced with struggle, which may or may not be reasonably categorized as suffering, I was advised by believers to give in to it or to run from it. While I can see the wisdom in sometimes removing myself from a tempting situation, I don’t believe moving to another city and away from the man or the job will make me any less likely to struggle with lust or depression. Obviously, giving into either of those will end up with increased struggle… more lust or possible suicide attempts.
That advice is evidence of a compete misunderstanding of what it is to be human, as well as what it means to belong to God, in Christ.
Being human means that I am at war with the flesh OR I am submitted to it. There is no getting around the fact that my humanity makes me want that which will destroy me. Belonging to God, in Christ means that my sins were punished and defeated in the destruction and resurrection of Someone good and perfect. I therefore, must simultaneously rejoice in and lament the cross.
Belonging to God does not put an end to my desire for that which will destroy me; Christians, in fact, are just as at war with the flesh or submitted to it as non-believers are… until we leave this world behind.
This doctrine is crucial to my current struggle and to every temptation a Christian can face, because choosing to sin is a willful choice to add greater disgrace and pain to our Savior. It is a devaluation of Christ’s actions on our behalf. It is a sense of entitlement to grace, and it is offensive and insulting.
Additionally, choosing to leave temptation behind for another city and another situation may seem like a solution, but it is only temporary. The temptation never dwelt solely in the situation; it also dwelt in me. In other cities, there will be other men to lust after and other jobs to feed my depression.
Overcoming temptation and sin is not something done quickly or easily, which seems to be at the heart of the advice offered to me.
It pisses me off that individuals in the church and the church itself cannot help me in my struggles because they don’t know what I know: that the way to endurance, character, and hope is paved with soreness of heart and ungratified angst.
There is no quick fix, and I am not one with whom there can be much success in peddling counterfeit faith. In the words of J.I. Packer (although, I believe he was quoting someone else when he wrote this), “I have known God.” True faith is far more than what folks are offering to me while I’m struggling. I know this, because I have known God.
Believing is really freakin’ difficult, but I don’t know what the hell are we doing if, when people come to us with their lust and depression, we have little better to offer than avoidance. Isn’t there more? Can’t we be more?
I think we not only can be more, but I believe we ought to be more.
I believe we ought to reclaim the art of the struggle by taking up the whole the armor of God when faced with temptation and struggle, and that there is no better advice for us in those times than to “fasten on the belt of truth…put on the breastplate of righteousness… as shoes… put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace… take up the shield of faith… take up the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit… praying at all times.”
But what we say is bullshit.
We don’t tell those who struggle to work out their salvation in the quiet of a closet, in the dark of night, with absolute fear and trembling. We don’t tell them to train themselves for godliness, set the example for believers, devote themselves to the reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. We don’t tell them to immerse themselves in these things or to keep a close watch on themselves and those around them. That advice is worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
What we offer is as cheap as what the world offers, and far less gratifying. We offer surrender to sin or avoidance of life, neither of which is the freedom we claim exists in Christ. If we believe, and I mean truly believe, the way to keep ourselves from sleeping with the wrong man must be more than the advice the world offers. It must reveal character and hope in the adviser, cultivated in years of endurance. One who has never endured certainly cannot well-advise me to endure, as one who does not exhibit character cannot instruct me in character growth, and one who has no hope, sure as hell better shut up and stop telling me to give into temptation or to run from it.
The armor of God is sufficient for the struggle. That’s what people should be telling me. The Word of God should be dripping from the lips, rather than caught in their throats because they aren’t sure what I want to hear – whether I’m hoping they’ll give me permission to sin or not.