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Your Struggle is Good, His Grace is Strong

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One of my writing goals is to normalize struggle. Another is to energize grace.

Struggle Is Good

What I mean by the first is this: I want my readers and friends to know that struggling with bad stuff is good. That struggle is both normal and good.

In fact, I expect and solemnly hope that there’s some fight in me until the day I die. Because my sin is ever before me and I know too well my proneness to pride and impatience, to gluttony and envy– to name a few.

And because there is a “mean, violent streak” in every vibrant Christian life. In one of those sermons I keep going back to, John Piper explains that this violence is never against other people. Rather,

It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. A violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality. It’s a violence against all lust in ourselves, and enslaving desires for food or… alcohol or pornography or money or the praise of men and the approval of others or power or fame…

Christianity is not a settle-in-and-live-at-peace-with-this-world-the-way-it-is kind of religion. If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.

If you’ve read JoyPrO for any length of time these two goals won’t surprise you in the least. I’ve written about how comfort is overrated and faith is a muscle that must strain to grow and even why, for a time, I kissed ice cream good-bye.

For Strong-in-the-Lord Superconquerors

Recently I spent some time exploring what Paul meant in Romans 8:37 when he called us “more than conquerors.” Because to be a conqueror is one thing, but to be a “superconquerors”- well, in this tempted and tried flesh of mine, that is, to quote from The Princess Bride, nearly “inconceivable.”

The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.

Albert Barnes explains what this strong man term means.

That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.

But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.

Think of it this way: borne by faith, the weight of trials and temptations are transformed from burdens slumping our backs to CrossFit bars squaring our shoulders. Same weight, different results.

This is more than simple triumph.

But Not Without Struggle

In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without struggle.

Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.

Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.

The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.

And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.

No man, or woman, is spiritually strong because he cannot help it. Strength is acquired. Strength only comes through struggle.

Why It Matters

You must know beyond the shadow of a doubt that struggle is normal, healthy, and good for you, Christian. This knowledge matters immensely because too many Christians think something is wrong with them- or worse, that God does not love them- when they’re tempted again and again. That if they were “really a Christian,” struggle and temptation would be done.

It matters because, honestly, if you see struggle with as the exception rather than the rule for the saint, “as if something strange were happening to you,” it will weaken you. I’ve seen too many friends give up, give in and quit.

I don’t know where that idea comes from, but it is definitely not from God’s Word. The Bible says the opposite. Over and over, we read that the Christian life is effortful and vigorous and full of struggle.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Romans 8:13, “By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body.” And Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”

We must know this or the next time we crave the other sleeve of cookies, or another glass of wine or feel the urge to look at something we shouldn’t or the say words we’ll wish we wouldn’t have- because if we’re not prepared for the struggle, we’ll probably succumb.

And over time, giving in to sin gets demoralizing. Seeing the empty jar or empty sleeve or reliving the words that wounded or that image on the screen can sap the life right out of you.

Struggling (With Help) Makes You Strong

But when you know that struggle is normal and, in fact, the exact means God has chosen to grow you up and make you strong, well, then, you’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge and less likely to give in to temptation.

You’ll be more likely to plug in to a very great and precious promise to escape the temptation (see 2 Peter 1:3-4). You’ll be more likely to send out an SOS text to your comrades in arms. That is what should be normal.

Texting a friend to say: Please pray that I’ll be self-controlled and satisfied in God and listen well at the party tonight. I know I’ll be tempted to overeat.

Or messaging your prayer warriors at 12:45 am to ask, What promise can I cling to right now when fear is freezing me out? I can’t latch onto a single truth to break in on my catastrophizing dreams.

Or calling a sister to say, Can we please talk NOW? I am feeling paralyzed by anxiety and I need help.

We’re Needed and Needy (Both)

Those are real. Those came through from faithful struggling saints last week. Real people. And God’s grace was strong to meet their needs.

But remember that God uses means. He uses us- his needed and needy children- to strengthen his other needed and needy children.

So why does knowing that struggle is normal matter so much? That, in fact, if you didn’t struggle against besetting sins, that would be a problem.

It matters because if you don’t know that trials will come but God’s grace is strong you might be overcome. You might end up like seed sown on rocky ground, that sprang up fast but wilted away as soon as tribulation came (Mark 4:12). Do not be surprised, Peter wrote, when fiery trials come to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

No, struggle is not strange. It’s normal.

And Grace Is Strong

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul told Timothy. Since God designed the good fight of faith to be normal till the day we die, it’s no surprise that he gives more grace. “Grace,” John Piper says, “is not just the gift of restfulness, but the power of God to enable us to work for holiness.”

Grace is strong. Good struggle and strong grace go hand in hand. Do you see that? Grace, I think, is less a safety net for hang-loose living, than the stabilizing bar that helps us cross the wire.

Biblical grace is also more than the gift of the kids sleeping in on a rainy days and picking strawberries sunny days and the power that keeps illness away. Grace is that- unmerited favor. But it’s so much more. It’s power.

God’s undeserved favor also comes in the form of strength to call out for help, and power to fight. To take up the struggle like a strongman hoists a barbell. This also is grace.

Daily Struggle + Strong Grace = Freedom

Freedom is not so much a destination that we reach as it is a daily choice that we make by our actions. Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth, said that in an interview with Janet Parshall.

The freedom Fradd mentioned doesn’t only apply to the porn problem. It applies to our struggle with other temptations. Fradd says,

We need to think of struggle as a daily battle. Whether it’s losing our temper or eating too much, succumbing to anxious thoughts or shutting off our screens, it’s not realistic to simply say, I’m done. I’ll never do that again. Rather than thinking of it as an all or nothing battle, we should think of it as a daily battle. Rather than think of this as one and done, we need to think of it as a daily decision to live free.

Struggle is a daily battle, a daily decision, to live free. And the struggle is made possible only by God’s strong grace. Strong enough to get you through, to help you beat up under, every single struggle you face. Not just somehow, but victoriously.

Having a free will, John Piper says, means doing what you want to do and not regretting it in a thousand years.

Such freedom, I think, will only come as we see struggle as good and embrace God’s strong grace.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

-Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10

When through fiery trials our pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply.

-John Rippon, “How Firm A Foundation

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The Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.

And there was one question I was not ready for.   

Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?

I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.

But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.

But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls it spiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feel that genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change. 

A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.

How’s your soil?

“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.

With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow. 

Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasingnote: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good. 

Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield, wild, or dry? 

The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.

Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.

What about contaminated soil?

What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those? 

Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this. 

Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots? 

What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?

The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.

Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.

Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.

To go back to the garden metaphor, it means if you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.

Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.

But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.

Change what you can change.

We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.

But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.

We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.

It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.

But there will come a day. 

But there will come a day when we won’t have to deal with toxic people and debilitating diseases, with polluted water and contaminated land. All mysterious will be bright at last.

All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit. 

But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face…

Revelation 22:1-4a

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When It Hurts To Keep Your Word

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Mom, do I have to go? he cried. I really want to see my cousin play.

You do, Gabe- you have to go. You gave your word.

When “Something Better” Comes Along

And so the way to the town hall was a trail of tears. Because we had previous commitments that night.

That Monday night of his cousin Eli’s game. Of the only game Gabe might ever see in his MVP cousin’s last basketball season. Because Eli lives two hours away and was coming down this one time only, to play a team 20 minutes away.

But Gabe had signed up for his project talk that night, about bluegill fishing down in Honey Lake. Plus I’d promised to give some friends a ride that night. We’d made both these promises before the invite to Eli’s game.

But still- this was it, our last, best hope to see him play.

He Swears To His Own Hurt

So as Gabe bawled, I stewed. I seriously considered ducking out.

But I knew.

God’s children keep their word when it hurts. Sometimes only because their parents make them. But they don’t bow out the second something better comes along.

When Psalm 15 describes the kind of person who “may dwell on God’s holy hill,” one of the marks of that person is that “he swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

I knew the righteous keep their promises. That, even when it’s costly or inconvenient, their word is gold and their yes means yes.

Because They Trust God

I think they can do this because, at the end of the day, they trust that God is as just as involved in the timing of opportunities that came through as they trust that he never lies, that all His Word is truth.

Can we skip 4H? This is my only time to see Eli. Can we please not go, Mom?

But we couldn’t not go. We given our word. We’d promised.

Gabe, tip-off is at 7:00. The meeting is called to order at 7:00. We can’t do both. And Christians keep their promises– here I nearly shouted to hurdle his wails- WHEN IT HURTS!

When the Date Can’t be Changed

That was Monday. Then along comes Thursday, and lo! and behold, it’s me who’s all torn-up and thinking of bailing out.

Because the date of the boys’ annual piano recital- a day that marks an end of hours and dollars and commitment – was announced. And it just so happens it’s the one day this spring that I promised to speak hours away.

So after my sob story to our piano teacher friend, she nudged, I’m sorry the date can’t be changed. It would be good for them to perform.

And by the grace of God, I texted back, I agree.

Do we trust God in the timing?

These might seem so little: missing a piano recital or a basketball game.

But they made me revisit disappointment as His appointment and the truth that my times are in his hand. Which means, by extension, that the timing of the invites that come my way are also in his hand.

The speaking invitation came weeks before I knew the recital date, so I must take it that God didn’t mean for me to be at the recital. And Gabe agreed to give his project talk a month before Eli’s game was changed, so I take it to mean that we weren’t to be at the game.

Can we trust that the order in which the invites reach us isn’t random? That even this sequence was from God? Can we commit our commitments to him and take Psalm 37:5 to heart: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in him and he will act”?

Will we bank on that promise when it costs us to keep our word?

Or will FOMO overcome us?

Maybe the root of our temptation to break our promises is FOMO- the fear of missing out? Maybe the reason we break our vows is that we really don’t trust God to work when we keep our word.

And fear, you know, is always at odds with trust.

This FOMO thing reminds me of a quote I recently came across. It describes a person whose faith is vibrant and growing and who is also self-controlled.

The world has no dominion over him: he is master of himself; and being possessor of a far better inheritance…he does not expect or seek on earth perfect happiness which he believes is secured for him in heaven.

John Brown, Commentary on 2 Peter 1

God’s children are not slaves to FOMO. We know we’ll miss out on some things here. We know our bucket list won’t all get checked off. That we’ll miss some great recitals and exciting games.

And that it is okay. Because we know that perfect happiness awaits.

More Concerned With Middles

One last point.

It strikes me that besides a lack of trust and a fear of missing out, there’s another reason it’s so hard to keep our word.

It has to do with beginnings and ends. We remember those best. When we study and practice, brain science says chunk it up so you have more starts and ends, because that’s what you’ll recall. And we emphasize births and graduations, first steps and last games.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that our God might be more concerned with middles. Middles are longer. They’re where we run the race. They’re where character is made.

In-betweens and middles are where we grow. And God cares about growth.

Where Faith Grows

And growth comes from how we live in the middle. From what we do with the “better party” that comes along after we committed to another, the ballgame on project talk night. That’s how character is formed.

Because faith is a like a muscle. Exercise it and it grows. Leave it- break your word, don’t trust God with the timing- and it will atrophy.

Will we be strong people of integrity who let our yes be yes and trust that God is pleased and his children are blessed when they swear to their hurt?

Will we believe his promises? That He is a shield to those who walk in integrity? That no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

And that when we keep our word when it hurts we will abide in His tent and dwell on his holy hill?

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He …who swears to his own hurt and does not change…

Psalm 15:1,4b

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Resolve. Even though you’ll fall.

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We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.

C. S. Lewis, Letters, 1/20/42

Why We Don’t Resolve

Only one of five was. Some of the five shrugged. One shook her head and grimaced.

Why don’t we start the New Year with a resolution or two? Reasons tend to fall in one of two groups: either for sloth of soul or for fear of failure. I’ll explain.

1. Some of us opt out of New Year’s Resolutions because they’re so much work. We like comfort and a fast fix. Saying no to nighttime snacks and prepping salads for tomorrow’s lunch instead – these take diligence and effort and self-control.

And we don’t want to dig in for what might be a duel to the death. We’ve got work to do and kids to feed. Maybe next year. We’re not ready for that fight. Not yet.

2. Some of us resist resolutions because we know we’ll fall. Whether in two months or two days or two hours, it’ll happen. We’ll succumb. I’ll eat that bowl of ice cream at 10 pm and interrupt my friend, again. It’s only a matter of time.

But could it be that we fear stumbling on the right road more than we fear drifting along the wrong road?

Because we’re afraid of getting dirty, we let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We’re afraid to run and fall in the mud.

Which is why you might actually consider making these three resolves.

1. RESOLVE: To know God’s power in the fight.

C.S. Lewis knew of whence we speak, of what we fear, at the start of this new year.

I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc. don’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of his presence. (Letters, January 20, 1942)

So up and at ’em. Get in the fray. God is present with us in our muck.

Though a righteous man falls seven times, he gets up again (Proverbs 24:16a). Muddy and sweaty, maybe trembling or scraped, the righteous get back up.

But cowards watch unscathed from the couch. And cuddled up, clean and dry, they probably don’t much notice God’s power. They don’t feel his forgiveness and grace, helping them up.

We don’t know the strength of the wind until we try to walk against it and we don’t know the force of the evil within us until we try to fight it.

But, we also don’t know the power of God to strengthen us until we resolve, face off, do battle against the besetting sins and bad habits that would have us bound.

My power is made perfect in weakness, our Lord said.

2. RESOLVE: To avoid greater cost later.

It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish. -Sam Gamgee

Waiting can be costly. Strike while the iron’s hot. Resolve now. Agony comes when we wait too long, from thinking I wish I would have.

Rory Vaden is a motivational speaker. It’s hard to argue his premise that success of any sort requires self-discipline. He quips,

Procrastination and indulgence are nothing more than creditors that charge you interest.

He’s right. We eat too much and we feel sick and gain weight. That’s costly. We spew angry words and lose friends. Very costly. We don’t proof our messages and take triple the time undoing the confusion. Big interest. Procrastination and indulgence are costly.

Left unchecked, they cost us our souls. Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion (Hebrews 3:15).

Get started. Resolve today.

3. RESOLVE: To exalt Christ in the good fight and when you fall.

The Apostle Paul was a resolver. He resolved, he made it his ambition, to preach where Christ had not been named (Romans 15:10), to know nothing but Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), to minister in Rome (Acts 19:21) to name a few.

You might not know this, but Paul also encouraged us to make resolutions. To make faith-filled resolves for good.

My proof text for urging you to make good resolves is 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12,

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s train of thought here is important for us to understand in order to make good resolutions. Not all resolutions are good resolutions. Because without faith it’s impossible to please God and whatever does not come from faith is sin. Resolves that are made, and-even worse-kept, without faith cannot be good and only tend to pride.

Yes, definitely- count the cost (Luke 14:28). Don’t be like the guy who started the tower and got laughed out of town because he didn’t have the resources to finish. If you are in Christ, you do have the resources. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work for you (Eph. 2:19-20).

But then, make good resolves by faith, relying on God’s power to help us will and act. And refuse to see failure as a sign that you’re on the wrong path.

The fact that you get mud on the windshield and temporarily lose sight of your goal and swerve, doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong race track.

If you were, the enemy wouldn’t bother you. What the mud really means, John Piper explains (Future Grace, p. 55),

[I]s that you should turn on the windshield wipers and use your windshield washer.

Be encouraged. The mud means you’re right on track. Spiritual growth ahead.

Resolve Now. Quit Limping.

The opposite of resolved is not a happy-go-lucky drift to holiness. We only drift one direction and it’s not toward heaven. Not to resolve is to be undecided and irresolute.

Not to resolve is to limp between two opinions and to think, I really should stop ____ (eating, scrolling, interrupting)but not yet. 

So when should we resolve?

Whenever we see something we should be doing that we’re not doing we should resolve to do it and whenever we see something we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing, we should resolve not to. To walk worthy, to see God’s power, to exalt Jesus. We should resolve. January first or December 31st and any day in between.

How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him, if Baal is God follow him, Elijah challenged the Israelites.

It’s the same today. If God is strong and your resolve is born of faith and for good, don’t be irresolute. Resolve. Don’t go on limping.

Oh, sure, we’ll fail and stumble and get a little muddy. But we will rise.

And the towels will be out and our clean clothes waiting.

Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.
Jude 24-25