There’s an undercurrent in North American Christianity that says the Christian life is a good one, that God protects us and gives us all good things and keeps us well. That’s all true, but only when we understand that God is, and sets the definition of, “good.” Alas, we tend to interpret this to mean that when we follow Jesus, things go our way, the way we want them to. We tend to assume that it is our definition of good that matters most. If you ask anyone, they’ll deny they think this—or most will. I certainly would. I would tell you that God gives us all good things and God decides what those are. I’m going to tell you that in this essay. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I act, however, as though following God is easy and things turn out the way I want them to. Most of us act this way. We’re surprised when we struggle or when faith is hard. That’s what tells us what we really believe.
I recently gave some students one of John Chrysostom’s baptismal homilies to read. In the third homily, he gives to those about to be baptized, he tells the group that when they are baptized—that is, when they become Christians and enter the Christian life, when they enter the church—they enter the arena. He means the old gladiator-style arena where Satan is their opponent. Chrysostom says not to worry, because in this fight the judge, who is Christ, is not objective and apart from the contest; he is entirely on our side. He’s even rigged the fight by chaining the devil hand and foot so the devil hobbles around comically as he tries to knock us down. And if we do fall, if we sin, if we don’t always do what Christ has asked us to do or do something we’ve been asked not to do, Christ will pick us up off the ground, dust us off, and set us on our feet again. I find it encouraging because it helps me to see Christ beside me, fighting with me.
What surprised me was my students’ reaction to the piece. They found it encouraging too, but for very different reasons. Many of them were at a place in life and in faith where they found faith difficult. They had questions, and they struggled to stick with God or with the church. To them, it was encouraging to hear that it was completely normal to experience the Christian life as a struggle. No one had ever told them that before. Other students gave me a similar reaction when they read John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. They found it so liberating that they didn’t have to be happy all of the time, or that their questions and wrestlings with God didn’t make them bad Christians. That’s what they thought: that wrestling with God made them unfaithful.
So let it be said: wrestling with God is not only not unfaithful, but it is normal. It is not only normal, but it is faithful. It is refusing to let go until God blesses. The trick is understanding God’s blessing. It may not be what we think is good for us. It may not be an easy life. The Christian life is one of following God, and that’s not easy. Jesus says to follow him we must take up our crosses; we must be willing to suffer. Jesus prays, “Thy will be done, not mine.” And for us to pray the same is to recognize that our will and God’s will may not be the same thing. God’s will may lead to crucifixion.
The Christian life is not an easy life. It wasn’t designed to be. It was designed to sanctify us. It was designed to sculpt us into the image of Christ, and sculpting involves chisels and hammers. This isn’t to glorify suffering. That’s something altogether different and unhealthy. Some suffering happens. But with discernment, especially communal discernment, we can understand where the struggle is sanctifying work. I want students to know that struggling doesn’t make them bad Christians. To know that struggling with their faith and their life is like struggling in the gym. They are building muscle. Or God is working on them, and it can hurt in the way that surgery can hurt. And all of it means that God wants them to be closer and to be more like him.
The work of following God is not for the faint of heart. It is not always hard, perhaps, but it is sometimes so. If this is where you are, take heart. You are not a failure. God has not abandoned you. He is closer than you can see, in the arena with you. Making you into a saint. Making you into the image of Christ. Thanks be to God.