Some Christians prefer to struggle.
The thought was first suggested to me as I listened to Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment” podcast a few years ago. During his 7/7/15 conversation with author Seth Godin, Koppelman relates an anecdote about a young writer who reached out to him for help in trying to get his work recognized but seemed hesitant to follow the steps Koppelman recommended.
Godin’s response is pure gold: “His problem is he likes being an unsuccessful creator of writing.”
Surprised, Koppelman asks, “What’s the comfort in that?” to which Godin replies, “Oh the comfort is fabulous! It’s fabulous because the story you get to carry around with you is bulletproof, it’s insulation, it’s ‘The outside world doesn’t understand me, the outside world is against me, the outside world won’t give me a break. If only they would, then my genius would come out, but right now, I’m just an outsider.’ And as long as you are carrying that around, you are safe. It has completely transferred all the responsibility to something that is not you.”1
Certain narratives are appealing to us because they allow us to continue as we are. In the Godin quote above, the narrative of the starving artist is appealing because it allows the unsuccessful artist to transfer accountability for his failure to causes outside of his control and that has tremendous emotional appeal. As long as the problem is the industry that refuses to recognize the artist’s genius, the artist is free to continue without having to change anything. This narrative, as Godin points out, is extremely comforting.
I have discovered in over a decade of Christian counseling that people usually articulate their problems in the way that is least threatening to them and their way of life. As long as the perceived source of conflict can be located within a narrative that absolves the individual from personal responsibility, that narrative will have a powerful pull on the imagination. We tend to be allergic to change, which leads us to find consolation in narratives that don’t require it.
There is a certain narrative in the church that offers this kind of cheap comfort. I call it the “struggling Christian” myth.
It goes something like this: Jesus said that this life was going to be hard, and I’m authentic enough to admit that mine is. I’m not just a Christian who struggles; I’m a struggling Christian. When you see me, there’s usually some catastrophic circumstance that I’m going through. I wear my suffering, not as a means to make Jesus known, but as an identity that I wish to be known by. I’ve embraced the struggle, and I don’t expect it to ever end. In certain ways, my faith is validated by the degree of my struggle. People who don’t struggle like me, are dishonest at worst and inauthentic at best.
People living with the “struggling Christian” myth have a hard time admitting when times are good.
A few years ago, I was meeting with a couple of close friends for discipleship, and, as was our custom, we began our meeting with prayer. Both of them opened up about some very personal struggles, and when it became my turn to update, I quickly realized that I didn’t really have anything on the level of what they had shared. At that point a battle ensued within my heart to find something with enough struggle-worthiness to share. I feared that I would lose authenticity points if I admitted that everything was actually going pretty well that particular week.
I fear that many Christians live daily with that same kind of pressure. To be considered real and transparent means to be struggling and to be sharing about those struggles. In order to conform to the expected narrative, we make everything a struggle. But suffering loses meaning when suffering includes everything.
Working a full-time job is hard, but I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind when he talked about filling up the afflictions of Christ (Col. 1:24). Parenting is laborious and, at times, terrifying, but it’s also what generations of our ancestors considered normal life. “Adulting” may be genuinely hard for millennials, but we don’t need to equate it with taking up our crosses to follow Jesus.
If everything is a struggle, nothing is.
The problem with the “struggling Christian” myth is twofold. First, as long as we are living this narrative, there remains very little incentive to ever get beyond our struggles. We make an identity out of failure. We never expect to move past our struggles, and quite frankly, we don’t really want to. That would mean change, and we don’t like change.
It may sound crazy, but I believe there are multitudes of struggling Christians who have embraced the identity of being a struggling Christian to the degree that they never want to stop being a struggling Christian. They don’t want to improve. Struggling is who they are. To cease to struggle against daily circumstances would feel like losing a huge part of themselves.
Second, the “struggling Christian” myth is narcissistic. It allows us to tell a story about our lives in which we get to play the hero. Under the banner of taking up our crosses to follow Jesus, we keep checking our Instagram feeds to make sure those watching catch our best side. We feverishly count our Facebook likes to ensure people are noticing how much courage it took to open up and share that gut-wrenching status update about our struggles.
It’s too easy to convince ourselves we’re following Jesus and yet leave off the part where we must decrease so that he might increase. We love it when people notice how hard we have it, and we try to leverage that attention into authenticity points for opening up about what we’re going through. The struggle becomes a badge of validation that we show off to the world.
Instead of suffering for the cause of the glory of Christ and the good of our fellow man, we use our trials to set ourselves apart from the common crowd. As long as this kind of “suffering” holds such pride of place in our lives, we will constantly face pressure to invent new areas of struggle. That is, after all, the sign that we’re authentic.
Contrast the “struggling Christian” myth with Paul’s cruciform perspective on his own suffering. The first thing we notice about Paul is that when he talks about suffering, he’s not playing around. He lists his sufferings in 2 Cor. 11:23-33, and the list includes beatings, imprisonments, stonings, and being hungry and exhausted.
However, for Paul, his suffering was never the point. He saw his suffering as a way to show Jesus to the world. The gospel comes in these fragile bodies in order “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Paul didn’t hide his sufferings. He was authentic in sharing them. However, the struggle never receives the emphasis. Yes, he was afflicted in every way, but it didn’t crush him (2 Cor. 4:8a), and he was perplexed, but he refused to despair (2 Cor. 4:8b). In spite of being persecuted and struck down, he wanted to make it clear that, because of Jesus, he wasn’t forsaken or destroyed (2 Cor. 4:9). Paul refused to accept the “struggling Christian” myth. The resurrection wouldn’t allow it.
From Paul’s perspective, God allows his children to suffer, not to draw attention to them as heroes of their own stories, but to display to the watching world that there’s only one real hero, the one who died and rose again. “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).
This life will inevitably bring struggles, but those struggles were never intended to become an identity. In Christ, our struggles don’t have the final say. The resurrection means eventual victory over every struggle. We may not fully experience that victory this side of Jesus’ return, but we get to taste it daily by joy-producing faith.
Let’s exchange the “struggling Christian” myth for the “united to Christ in his death and resurrection” story. Let’s prefer victory over death. Let’s commit to displaying the power of the gospel through our daily circumstances.