Struggle and the Christian Life

The essay below first appeared in The Christian Worldview Journal on the website BreakPoint, part of the Colson Center Family of Sites. 

Struggle is an integral part of the sanctified life
— Robin Phillips

In his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” C. S. Lewis reflects that an advantage to reading old books is that they can help us question aspects of our own outlook that we might otherwise take for granted. Every age has its own assumptions that form part of the taken-for-granted background of how we think. While we can’t eliminate the biases that come from our own temporal context, we can achieve some level of objectivity through exposing ourselves to writers from the past. That is why reading old books is a way to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

This is also a reason I find it helpful to study other cultures. The more I read the work of anthropologists and cultural psychologists, the more I’m coming to see that many of the attitudes, practices, and patterns of thinking that I consider to be normal are actually symptoms of my own particular culture.

This post is about one particular assumption I’ve held for most of my life but which has recently been challenged through my studies in cross-cultural psychology.

The ‘Struggle Is Bad’ Assumption
Like a lot of people throughout Western culture, I used to think that struggle, frustration, confusion, and failure were a sign that something was wrong. In my schooling, as in my spiritual life, I’ve always been attracted to the easiest way of doing things. Consequently, whenever I found myself involved in protracted struggle, I assumed something was wrong with me. This assumption is particularly systemic in the American school system, as I observed in an article last year that I wrote for the Taylor Study Method:

From our earliest school days, most of us were conditioned to think that the purpose of learning is not to fail but to easily achieve straight A’s and to be able to get our homework done as quickly as possible. Accordingly, we think that one indicator of whether someone is a smart student is whether he or she can learn concepts and finish homework with a minimum of struggle. By contrast, we tend to think that poor or merely average students experience struggle, confusion and frustration with school work. . . . The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned.

The American dislike of struggle was confirmed by James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA. In 1999 Stigler teamed up with James Hiebert from the University of Delaware to report on trends they had discovered in American classrooms. In their book “The Teaching Gap,” they identified a clear and distinct pattern among American teachers:

Confusion and frustration, in this traditional American view, should be minimized. . . . Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs that they have not done their job. When they notice confusion, they quickly assist students by providing whatever information it takes to get the students back on track. Teachers in the United States try hard to reduce confusion by presenting full information about how to solve problems.

This attitude has far-reaching implications. For example, if we think that struggle indicates weakness and low ability, we will be less inclined to master material and to persevere through difficulty to reach our goals. When it comes to learning a musical instrument, mastering a foreign language, or developing a new skill, we may fall victim to the “fixed mindset” which falsely assumes that our abilities are innate, instead of the “growth mindset” which recognizes that our basic abilities and strengths can be cultivated with effort and struggle. (For more about the difference between these two mindsets, see “New Study Reveals Importance of Mindset in Career Success” and “The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift.”)

What the West Can Learn From the East
Christians in the West have a lot to gain from looking at Confucian cultures. That is what I concluded last December after reading various professional journals dealing with cross-cultural psychology. I found that in many Asian classrooms, it is simply assumed that the best students will be those who struggle the most. By struggling, good students show that they have what it takes emotionally to persist through struggle and to persevere through frustration and confusion. (For more about this, see my post “A Different Approach to the Classroom.”)

One of the fundamental precepts of Confucian philosophy is that achievement consists, not in innate ability, but in continuing to struggle through hardship. As the Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu once said,

Achievement consists of never giving up. . . . If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment; if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.

The Apostle Paul reflected a similar notion when he compared the Christian life to a rigorous athletic event, adding “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9: 24-27)

Easiest Is Best
It isn’t just in academics that we see it assumed that struggle is a sign that something is wrong. Here are some other areas of Western cultural life that have been infected with the assumptions that struggle should be minimized at all cost:

  • Food. The popularity of fast-food outlets has been the result of many different cultural and economic factors. One of these factors has been the assumption (often unconscious) that eating should be as easy as possible, and that the ideal meal is one that requires a minimum amount of effort on the part of the consumer and provider.
  • Money. The popularity of get-rich-quick schemes, and the appalling lack of long-term financial planning, is often underpinned by the assumption that life should be easy and struggle should be minimized. Whereas in countries like Singapore people will routinely make economic decisions that have implications far into the future, Americans find it hard to think about the economy beyond the next election cycle.
  • Sex. Much of the sexual immorality throughout our culture, as well as our society’s love affair with pornography, hinge on the assumption that sex is best when it can be separated from all struggle. Elsewhere I have given evidence that the rise of “sexting,” as well as the emerging field of social robotics, are largely underpinned by the attempt to avoid the complications attendant on the type of long-term sexual relationship characteristic of marriage.
  • Art. In the modern art world, much contemporary painting strives to convey a sense of raw immediacy, over and against art that includes tokens of refined skill that takes years to develop. In commercialized popular painting, what people often want is sentimental art that appeals to the emotions immediately without making demands on the viewer.
  • Music. Today, popular singers are rarely required to sing intervals that stretch more than a major fifth. In general, the fine vocal training required to execute the difficult intervals in Schubert’s lieder or Verdi’s arias feels less authentic and personal to many young people today. Similarly, when I’ve had conversations with teenagers music, the operating assumption is often that our natural tastes in music are fixed, so that the idea of struggling to grow towards more refined musical tastes seems like an anachronism for many. (For more of my thoughts on music, see my article “Music: Myths, Meanings, Messages and Mediums.”)
  • Morality and Ethics. Increasingly, our society is making a virtue out of lifestyle choices that require the least amount of effort. Under the rubric of “being true to yourself,” people are discouraged from going against the grain of what comes naturally, as if virtues that arise after a process of struggle are somehow contrived and artificial. According to this way of thinking, the best we can do is be like Elsa in the Disney film “Frozen”: stop trying to be the good girl everyone expects you to be, since the only path to true redemption lies in learning to “let it go” and be who you really are. Realizing your authentic self is often correlated with following the path of least resistance and struggle. The implication is that spending years to develop habits and dispositions that do not come naturally is somehow repressive, hypocritical, less “true to yourself” than following your natural impulses.

The Church of Least Resistance
Sadly, Christians throughout the contemporary West have often colluded with these worldly assumptions.

One example is worship. If you read the writings of megachurch pastors who defend what is sometimes referred to as “seeker-friendly contemporary worship,” they often explicitly state that worship should make as little demand as possible on the participants, and that going to church should be just as fun as going to the mall. The notion that Christian worship should involve struggle and effort seems strange to many throughout the contemporary West. Some churches are now installing coffee bars and couches in their sanctuary so a congregant can comfortably sip a latte while watching a worship service that is more entertainment than prayer.

Another example is the Christian life itself. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many Christian teachers taught that a believer’s strength is offensive to God, and that consequently spiritual transformation is most authentic when evacuated of instrumentalities such as human effort. “If you’re struggling to be holy,” many people teach, “that just shows you’re working in your own strength rather than God’s.” (For more about this, see my blog posts “Struggle is Good” and “Does Cooperation Limit God?”)

This path-of-least-resistance approach to Christianity is at odds with the most ancient expressions of the faith, which put such a premium on spiritual struggle. The early Christians even set aside periods of time specifically for believers to struggle, through disciplines like fasting and other ascetic practices.

Exercise Yourself toward Godliness
When struggle is perceived to be a bad thing, we will naturally gravitate towards those expressions of the faith that require minimal effort. On the other hand, if we realign our thinking with Scripture, then we can recognize that struggle is an integral part of the sanctified life. We are then liberated to grow in, and work through, struggle, frustration, confusion, pain, and even failure, rather than trying to find short cuts to sanctification that eliminate struggle from the spiritual calculus.

Of course, struggle isn’t the most important part of the Christian life, and just because something is hard, that doesn’t make it right. After all, one can struggle toward hell just as one can struggle toward heaven (in fact, it is sometimes more of a struggle to follow the devil than to follow Christ, as I have suggested here). However, within the context of a Spirit-filled life, struggle can play a positive role, as we literally exercise ourselves toward godliness (1 Timothy 4:7) and follow Christ’s example of running the race with endurance:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Looking Unto Jesus
“Looking unto Jesus” is key here. It is the difference between the type of struggle that leads to discouragement, defeat, despair, and depression, and the type of struggle that leads to joy and sanctification, joy, and theosis (becoming united with God). An analogy should make my meaning clear.

Imagine a girl named Calista who dwells in the Greek lowlands and works as a milkmaid during the day. Calista loves a shepherd boy named Damarion, who lives in the highlands. Every day after she’s milked the last cow, Calista makes the journey up to where Damarion is guarding his sheep, waiting patiently for her to come. Calista’s joy is to spend the evening with Damarion, where they kiss and talk fondly of the time when they will be free to marry. When first light appears, Calista makes the journey down the mountain, where she catches a little sleep before its time to begin work again.

Now Calista’s journey up the mountain is not easy. She has to navigate challenging terrain, climb difficult rocks, and sometimes even fight off dangerous beasts. Sometimes she feels that she will never make it to the top, or that if she does, her lover won’t be there. Often she arrives at her lover’s side exhausted, scratched, and sometimes even bleeding from all the thorns she had to pass through. Sometimes her clothes are even torn. On top of this, Calista also struggles with the typical symptoms of sleep deprivation. However, Calista doesn’t even think of these hardships as a struggle; it is her joy to endure these things in order to spend time with her lover.

Calista often fails. On numerous occasions she slips and falls, yet instead of feeling defeated and discouraged, she gets right back up and presses on towards her goal.

Eager to lighten her load, Damarion gradually teaches Calista skills to ease the burden of her nocturnal traveling. He shows her activities she can do during the day to strengthen her climbing muscles, and exercises she can practice to increase her aptitude at scaring off wild beasts. He also gives her mental techniques she can apply when her tired mind begins playing tricks on her and she is worried that she will never make it to the top.

The practice, the exercise, the development of skill, the constant struggle—all these things remain a joy to Calista, not because these things are good in themselves, but because of her goal.

We are in the same position with the spiritual life. When the struggle toward holiness becomes too much for us and we fail, we may be tempted to give into a sense of discouragement and defeat. We may be tempted to ruminate on how bad we are, or to compare ourselves to others who are more advanced. We may be tempted to stay down and not get back up. However, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus our goal, and the joy that is set before us at the end when we are fully united with Him, we can find the energy we need to get right back up and keep struggling. Before our spiritual muscles are fully developed (and even afterwards), we may stumble and fall more times than we can count, but what do we do? We get up and keep struggling, fixing our gaze on Christ.

Sadly, many Christians throughout the centuries have approached struggle as if it were an end in itself, rather than a means towards greater intimacy with Christ. This is the error of legalism, and it has given credence to those who have followed Nietzsche in seeing Christianity as stifling joy and introducing a life-killing nausea. But the reality is that our struggles have no intrinsic value for their own sake, just as Calista’s struggles had no value apart from her ultimate goal of reaching Damarion.

One of Saint Paul’s critiques of the Judaizers was that the burdens they were placing on Christians to keep the law of Moses were completely useless, since they were not directed towards Christ who is the telos of the law (Romans 10:4). It is only Christ and our hope of future union with Him (initially when we die, but ultimately in resurrection) that our spiritual struggles in the present have any value at all. That is why Saint Paul could tell the Christians in Corinth that their struggles were meaningless outside the context of the life to come:

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. . . . If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!’” (1 Cor. 15:19 & 32)

Skills of the Spiritual Life
Just as Damarion taught Calista skills to make her struggle easier, so there are skills we can practice every day to make our struggle in the spiritual life easier. Much of Holy Scripture is devoted to teaching us skills to lighten our burden, but I will mention just a few:

  • Struggle to Suffer Like a Saint. As soon as we begin suffering, often our first impulse is not to ask “How can I grow through this?” but “How can I rearrange my life so I don’t have to be so uncomfortable?” By contrast, the saints were people who embraced suffering as coming from the hand of God for our benefit. Through practice, we can learn to reframe our suffering as something beneficial rather than harmful. (See Saint Dorotheos of Gaza’s remarks about this in my blog post “Theological Reframing during Times of Suffering.”)
  • Struggle to Develop the Discipline of Prayer. The discipline of regular prayer can offer strength in the spiritual struggle. In addition to a regular prayer time, many Christians find it helpful to have a simple prayer (such as the Jesus Prayer) that they can recite during times of temptation or suffering.
  • Struggle to Develop the Skill of Peace. In 1 Tim. 6:11–12, Paul talks about virtues like love, patience, and gentleness as part of what it means to fight the good fight as we struggle to lay hold of eternal life. These virtues, when pursued, can offer a sense of lightness to the spiritual struggle and ease our burden. Love, patience and gentleness are hard work and do not come easy in our day and age. One of the things that makes them so hard is that we don’t normally think of these things (especially love) as being skills. But they are. 2 Peter 1:5–7 mentions love as being connected to self-control and perseverance—things that only come with much practice.
  • Struggle to Develop the Skill of Gratitude. Gratitude is a skill that can be developed with practice. As with any skill, the more we practice it, the easier it becomes. Once gratitude has become habitual, it eases the burden of the spiritual struggle. If you don’t believe me, just look into the face of someone who perpetually grumbles and then look into the face of someone who has learned to be grateful in all things. Which person seems to be carrying more of a burden? Which person seems to find life more of a struggle? (To learn more, see my ongoing series of blog posts on gratefuness.)
  • Struggle to Take Every Thought Captive. More than half the struggle of the spiritual life happens in our minds. Developing single-minded focus on our goals and values can be a powerful antidote to the temptations of the devil. And the good news is that there are exercises you can practice to gain control of your brain. I have shared some of these skills in the fourth article in my series on attentiveness.


Robin Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press). In addition to his work as a contributing editor of Salvo, he contributes to a variety of publications including Touchstone and the Colson Center. Robin has debated social issues on international television and has spoken at conferences throughout the world. He is currently finishing a Ph.M in historical theology through King’s College, London.