Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. –C.S. Lewis
Something MUST be wrong, she said. I still struggle with the same sins that I did ten years ago. I struggle to forgive the same old things and sometimes I still get so mad at the kids. And just when I think I’ve got my discontentment nipped, a new envy blossom buds.
No matter how hard I try and how much I pray and try to rely on the Spirit, I just can’t seem to master these things. Something must be wrong. This stuff should be overcome by now.
Has a friend ever confided that sort of frustration to you? Or maybe you are that discouraged friend? And you- or your friend- have wondered, If Christ made me new and lives in my heart wouldn’t these battles be over? Shouldn’t the struggle be done?
I should be over this.
Not so fast, Sherlock. Who says your struggles should be done?
Chesterton knew: A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. Paul, knew too, that it’s only when the Spirit brings life that the struggle comes: The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other to prevent you from doing what you would” (Galatians 5:16).
The point? Real Christians experience real struggle. Even when we’re converted, new creations, there is such a thing as indwelling sin. John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, also knew the reality of clingy, indwelling sin.
It is inseparable from us, as the shadow from our bodies when the sun shines upon us. The holiness of a sinner does not consist in a deliverance from it, but in being sensible of it, striving against it, and being humbled under it, and taking occasion from thence to admire our Savior, and rejoice in him as our complete righteousness and sanctification.
So don’t let a flawed description of the Christian life bring you down. A Christian isn’t someone who doesn’t experience bad desires. No- a Christian is a person who struggles with those bad desires by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Or, as only John Piper could put it,
Conflict in your soul is not all bad. Even though we long for the day when our flesh will be utterly defunct and only pure and loving desires will fill our hearts, yet there is something worse than the war within between flesh and Spirit; namely, no war within because the flesh controls the citadel and all the outposts. Praise God for the war within! Serenity in sin is death. The Spirit has landed to do battle with the flesh. So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you are at war with them!
The Spirit has landed. But the road to victory is not easy.
The Long Hard Road
For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. Romans 7:15
The author of Hebrews wrote that we who have believed enter that rest, and verses later urges, Let us therefore strive to enter that rest. The same Paul who wrote that blessed verse we love to quote, If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone. Behold! All things are new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) also wrote, I discipline (or pommel) my body and keep it under control (1 Corinthians 9:27).
That’s boxing-ring, fight talk, not victory-lap chat.
Even when Jesus called the weary and heavy-ladened to come to him for rest, he calls them to take up his yoke and burden. These are easy and light, because they are borne with Christ, I think. But still, Christ calls them yoke and burden (Matthew 11:28-30).
Another verse we sheep love to quote, I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly, is followed by the Good Shepherd’s reference to laying down his life. And that was laced with bloody-tears and struggle (Luke 22:42-44).
In “The Cross of Least Resistance,” (Touchstone, March/April 2017) Robin Phillips asks,
If Christ himself struggles to be obedient to his Father’s will (Matt. 26:36-44), why should we as his followers expect anything less? On the contrary, if we want to be Christ’s disciples and experience abundant life, there is only one way: we must embrace the struggle, take up our cross, and follow him.
In other words, if we’ve been in the “struggle-is-bad” crowd, we’ve got to get out. We’ve got to see that perseverance in the good fight with the steadfastness of Christ is cause to rejoice. Rather than seeing struggle as bad, we’ve got to see struggle against sin as evidence of spiritual life.
Maybe, we even praise God for the war within!
Let Go And Let God?
Let go and let God is not a Bible verse. I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and Take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and We take every thought captive to obey Christ, and If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live- those are.
Oh, sure- to be fair, we are definitely called to come to Christ, and lie down in green pastures and rest. And to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that entangles. But why? So that we may run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Christ. But perseverance and running sound a lot more like struggle than let go and let God and give up the fight.
But, okay. In a way we are called to let go. To let go of our selfish desires, to put off and put away all manner of sin (Ephesians 4:22-32, Colossians 3:8-14). We are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Hebrews says, there is a Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:10). But the following verse says, Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.
And if by let God, we mean, Keep in step with the Spirit and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, which incidentally is followed by, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:12-14)- well then, Amen!- let God. Let God control you. Or like Paul wrote, the love of Christ controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14).
All the warfare and athletic metaphors in the New Testament and Paul’s own example of fighting the good fight and finishing the race point to this one thing: the Christian life, the normal Christian life necessarily involves struggle. Until the mortal is swallowed up by life, there will at least some level of Spirit-flesh fight.
No, whatever letting go means, biblically it does not mean struggle-free. To the Philippians, Paul wrote, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is Christ who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (2:12-13). He put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:10, But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Work is involved. Struggling and wrestling are not abnormal. Far from it. They are the precise means God uses to grow strong saints. And to magnify his sufficient, glorious grace.
Why Struggle Is Good
The language of the New Testament describes the Christian life as a life of growth and increasing spiritual strength. We’re born again as infants. But Scripture says we grow. We’re called children and young men or older women, even fathers in faith. Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, Peter wrote.
It’s in our struggle we grow and build our stamina. That’s why I used an Asian style math with the boys. I wanted to see them persist, to struggle a bit, in their work. They did the kind of problems that take 10 minutes of trial and error. Of fight. These same behaviors that American regard as failing, the Japanese think of as learning.
Persevering through setbacks sets us up for future success and spiritual strength.
Paul pleaded three times for his thorn in the flesh, his harassing messenger of Satan to be removed. You know what God said: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Paul got it. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).
Do we get it? Or do we think being in Christ on this earth means that we get to shed all our weakness and let go of our struggle? That comfortable here is our right? That grace comes better when there’s no indwelling sin left to fight?
Do we know that groaning and grit lead to spiritual growth? That struggle and stress and strain are God-ordained means to rely on his grace?
The Burden That’s Lifted When You Don’t Let Go
Can we be clear that spiritual struggle is not out of place for the Christian? That, quite possibly, if by Spirit, we’re struggling against sin we’re right where God wants us to be, on the high road to holiness where God’s grace strengthens us weak, struggling saints?
So you’re struggling. That just might just be a good thing. Because it’s not only the force of wind we feel when we stand against. We feel the power of God’s sufficient grace, too.
Looking To Christ’s Sufficient Grace
In Newton On The Christian Life, Tony Reinke presents a beautiful and compelling portrait of a man who reveled in God’s sovereign, sufficient and boundless grace. To all of us who would despond in our ongoing sin struggles Newton (via Reinke) writes:
To not feel the sting of sin is a form of sickness, a deadness, a leprosy of the soul. But to feel the sting of sin is a mark of health, a sign of life, and a necessary experience if we are to appreciate the sin-conquering work of Christ (p. 123).
Our struggle, then, against sin is good insomuch as it makes us,
[W]onder how such a weak sinner’s faith has been sustained. Indwelling sin should cause us to marvel when we awake each morning with a remaining spark of hope and faith in Jesus. The faith-sustaining grace proves the power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love of God toward us. How can it not? Faith survives in the most unlikely of places: within us! (p. 115)
Like a spark burning in the water. That’s how Newton sized up Christ’s power in maintaining us-his own work- in the midst of such opposition, such struggle. Opposition which includes our pesky, clinging indwelling sin.
While Newton is most famous for the phrase amazing grace, he much preferred the phrase sufficient grace (p. 42). In fact, he actually wrote another song about grace titled, aptly, “My Grace Is Sufficient For Thee.”
Reinke describes this song as a “micro-look into how grace gets applied to warfare in the Christian life.” I can’t think of a better way to close.
Oppressed with unbelief and sin,
Fightings without, and fears within;
While earth and hell, with force combined,
Assault and terrify my mind:
What strength have I against such foes,
Such hosts and legions to oppose?
Alas! I tremble, faint, and fall;
Lord, save me, or I give up all.
Thus sorely pressed, I sought the Lord,
To give me some sweet cheering word;
Again I sought, and yet again;
I waited long, but not in vain.
Oh! ’twas a cheering word indeed!
Exactly suited to my need;
“Sufficient for thee is my grace,
Thy weakness my great power displays.”
Now I despond and mourn no more,
I welcome all I feared before;
Though weak, I’m strong; though troubled, blessed;
For Christ’s own power shall on me rest.
My grace would soon exhausted be,
But his is boundless as the sea;
Then let me boast, with holy Paul,
That I am nothing, Christ is all.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
1 Corinthians 12:9
I found each of these resources to be rich sources for biblical encouragement on spiritual struggle:
1. Robin Phillip’s March/April 2017 Touchstone article, The Cross of Least Resistance
2. Tony Reinke’s biography of John Newton, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ ch. 5,12
3. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ sermon, addressing “Let Go and Let God,” Who Does The Fighting?
4. Pastor John Piper’s sermon, How To Kill Sin- Part 2