Nov 28, 2013

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Being Thankful for Struggle

“What are you thankful for?” Whether that question is put to you or arises in your own thoughts, it is a question that is simultaneously simple and difficult to answer. In one sense, it conjures up a reflective attitude regarding your circumstances and the ability to list those things for which we are thankful, whether material, spiritual, or relational. However, I believe the significance of the question lies not in our ability to create lists so much as it is a barometer of our attitude toward daily living. Is every day an opportunity to praise God for his providence and grace or is every day a struggle against a myriad of disappointments and failures?

I believe that both are necessary for the human person to thrive. We cannot become complacent in the joy of what we have been given, we must serve, we must be stewards of what God has provided. Neither should we be so focused on our struggles that we lose sight of Him who guides and sustains us through our difficulties. In fact, I believe it could be argued that God does more with us in our struggles than in our triumphs.

Consider the following from the fourth chapter of Philippians.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

This passage has comforted me through some very difficult periods in my life. Note that word, thanksgiving. In our most desperate moments, when we need the “peace of God” more than anything else, we are to be thankful. It is the role of struggle in our lives and our attitude toward that I want to focus on for the remainder of this post. There are three categories we will consider.

First, there are those struggles that are so overwhelming we are driven to our knees in utter dependence on God. Not only will we receive what Paul describes; we are cured, for a time, of that perennial tendency in humanity, to drift away from God. Which leads me to a second kind of struggle, which is described in this passage from the Screwtape Letters.

You complain that my last letter does not make it clear whether I regard being in love as a desirable state for a human or not. But really, Wormwood, that is the sort of question one expects them to ask! Leave them to discuss whether ‘Love’, or patriotism, or celibacy, or candles on altars, or teetotalism, or education, are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Can’t you see there’s no answer? Nothing matters at all except the tendency of a given state of mind, in given circumstances, to move a particular patient at a particular moment nearer to the Enemy or nearer to us.[1]

In other words, every thought, decision and action, every moment of every day is an opportunity to draw closer to God in obedience and trust, or to drift away and do things our own way. From my own experience, the best means of preparation I know is a steady diet of spiritual disciplines.

A third kind of struggle for which I am thankful are those of an intellectual nature. Becoming a Christian apologist, something I started in earnest almost three years ago, is a commitment to a lifetime of learning. Learning necessarily entails the work of reading, comprehending, and ultimately being able to explain concepts and subjects that are new. A friend on Facebook commented to me recently how much of a struggle they had reading C.S. Lewis. I didn’t respond, but I wanted to encourage them to struggle with Lewis. He is very much worth the effort. It has been said that the mind is like a muscle, the more it is used the stronger it gets. What is even more significant for me has been studying the arguments and philosophy of those who reject the Christian worldview. Working through the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments against Christianity has brought my trust in Jesus to places I could not have imagined.

Thanksgiving, being thankful, is really spiritual discipline. Something that can be practiced daily even hourly. We can be thankful for the providence and grace we receive and we can praise God for the struggles that expand our minds and deepen our dependence on The Mind behind all creation.

Finally, I would like to offer a thought about the necessity of struggle in the human experience. I’ve always enjoyed the way this point is expressed in a scene from The Matrix. Agent Smith is describing the history and nature of the matrix and how it had to conform to the nature of humanity. Agent Smith is staring out the window of a high rise as he begins…[2]

Have you ever stood and stared at it, Morpheus? Marveled at its beauty. Its genius. Billions of people just living out their lives… oblivious.

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost.

Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.

The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.[3]

The profound truth being expressed here, masked as it is in a haze of different worldviews, is the reality the human condition. Life is a struggle. That experience, I submit, is the realization in every human soul that something is wrong. Humanity was created for something far better than this, yet this existence is where we find ourselves. The answer to both questions, why do we seek something better and what went wrong are both answered in the Christian worldview.

***

Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also connect with Ratio Christi at CU on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @gadgetmann.


[1] C. S Lewis and C. S Lewis, The Screwtape letters: with Screwtape proposes a toast (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), 101.

[2] The scene quoted below can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nb6yOklzHMI

[3] “the_matrix.pdf,” http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the_matrix.pdf, (accessed November 26, 2013).

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  1. What a thoughtful, encouraging piece. Thank you.

    • Thanks for this encouragement.

      Another relevant Lewis quote (from Screwtape):

      “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

      • I’m so glad you did. I emailed this piece to two of my dearest friends who are not unfamiliar with hardship but are determined to march on into the goodness of hope in Christ.

    • Kevin and Bethany, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. Such pieces are sometimes difficult to share as they come from a place of personal struggle. But, as is often the case in the Christian life, the sharing we do from our most vulnerable moments is sometimes the most fruitful.

      Kevin, that is my favorite passage from the Screwtape letters, I can quote it from memory.

  2. Ken,
    Good post. I think part of spiritual maturity is realizing that struggle at different levels is very much part of not only life, but also maturity. Perhaps a by product of living in a fallen world, but there as much as water and air.

    An interesting side effect that I have been discovering over the past several years is that when struggle hits, I’m finding I move not in the direction of Job and Abraham, but rather far less strong around the topic of pain and suffering. Why does God allow these things to happen when he has the power to do otherwise, and he loves us so much. Sure you can say, because of His love, but for one who is in the midst of the Tsunami it just doesn’t seem to satisfy, and actually leads me to feel abandoned and alone. Perhaps this is when God wants me to know that he is there with me the whole time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

    So I’m left trusting the one who I feel has abandoned me, while knowing theologically that He hasn’t. I know this sounds confusing, I just wonder what role feelings play in this endeavor.

    Have a great Christmas,

    Robb Novak

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