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Your Struggle is Good, His Grace is Strong

Woman with Cross Fit Exercise bar on her shoulders

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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Why I Don’t Tell The Boys They’re Smart & Handsome*


You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  

-David McCullough, Jr., You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements, p. 308

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.

-Romans 5:3-4

I pounced the moment it hit my inbox. What self-respecting parent could resist this subject line: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart? Sal Kahn wrote the article. He’s the genius founder of the online learning academy that bears his name.

Kahn describes reading with his newly literate 5 year old. His son labored over a word (“gratefully”):

He eventually got it after a fairly painful minute. He then said, “Dad, aren’t you glad how I struggled with that word? I think I could feel my brain growing.” I smiled: my son was now verbalizing the tell­-tale signs of a “growth­ mindset.” But this wasn’t by accident. Recently…I decided to praise my son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. I stressed to him that by struggling, your brain grows… 

I get that. Early in motherhood I remember reading “process praise” is better than “person praise.” That is, telling Sam, “I like how you didn’t quit when your Lincoln Log roof fell in,” is preferable to, “You are such a clever little guy.” Praise persistence over natural success.

Maybe it’s intuitive that this is a higher quality praise. Or maybe not. Praising Jen’s silky long hair, Michaela’s long legs or Michael’s strong muscles comes naturally. I can live two months on a good compliment, Mark Twain said. Any kind’ll do. My happy meter rises as much if Jim commends a fetching smile or faithfulness to a troubled friend. Alas, charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. But (incoming “process praise,”) the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Kahn’s point is spot on regarding intellectual growth. My own tearful grappling with x and y left an indelible mark. Not the A in Ms. Beaumont’s Algebra I, but the process by which it came. To get over my Letters don’t belong in math mental block required Dad and I to mutually endure the kitchen table tutoring until until I could think algebraically. I finally understood that letters were symbols, and as such they could be manipulated with certain rules. Seeing through letters to symbols, I could solve once perplexing problems.

Praising perseverance and grit builds mental muscles more than praising innate traits. And embracing the “growth mindset” will help us take on, not turn from, challenge.

In Kahn’s words,

…the best way that we can grow our intelligence is to embrace tasks where we might struggle and fail.

Our physical and emotional dimensions weren’t within Kahn’s purview. But we know “process praise” and the “growth mindset” it fosters undergird physical abilities and emotional resilience. Both are partly inborn, but both can be built with effort. Free throw percentage and fluency playing Bach’s Inventions, to dealing with long lines and flawed friends only improves with endurance. To grow, we must struggle along.

However, not everyone realizes this. Dr. Carol Dweck…has found that most people adhere to one of two mindsets: fixed or growth. Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure

Can we also extend Kahn’s work to the realm of faith? Is a “growth mindset” prescribed in the Scripture? Does God encourage with “process praise”? How does Christ commend us? 

Divine praise and apostolic encouragement are not based on aptitude and innate traits. It’s man who looks at outward appearance. When God saw man that he had made, his very good is more a commendation of Creator than creature I think.

Scripture is replete with commendations of Spirit-empowered perseverance and persistence in the face of trials.  Perhaps the best known is Romans 5:3 where Paul rejoices in his sufferings. If that’s not a growth mindset, I don’t know what is.

As for “process praise”:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…(Revelation 2:2) 

Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:7)

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:3) 

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12) 

And the anchor verse for this blog:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)

Is this picking process over product? Does “process praise” promote imperfection? Is it akin to “fuzzy” new math, where critics allege 3 times 3 can equal 10, as long as a student can explain how they reached the answer?

I don’t think so.  Here’s why.

When we consider Him patiently enduring and for the joy set before us press on amid problems, we are changed. Pressing on to perfection, we work out this salvation while Christ works it in us. Persistence becomes, at the great day of the Lord, perfection. He has perfected those who are being made holy, will all be past tense. It’s not just the process, then, that God will praise.

Our doing and being meld. So that after you have been faithful, you can be said to be faithful.

I stake my life on this praise. To hear my Master say,

‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 
Matthew 25:21

*Disclaimer: While I don’t tell the boys they’re smart and handsome I do occasionally tell others that they are. If you are one of those others, I beg your pardon. Maternal braggodocio dies hard