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.
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…
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.
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.