The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

Powers and Principalities

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

I’ve been reading Tony Campolo and Brian McLauren’s Adventures in Missing the Point, and a line from Campolo’s part of chapter one really got my attention:

“The Bible makes it clear that he [Satan] is a seductive beast that raises havok in our personal lives as well as being incarnated in the principalities and powers (i.e., the political and economic systems, the educational and familial systems, and the media), with which we must wrestle every day.” (Emphasis added).

Campolo is referencing Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (NASB)

And that hit me like a rocket. You see, I’ve been forcibly denying the degree of unhealth and corruption inherent in our systems for a long time. Mostly because I didn’t want to give in to cynicism and despair.

But the problem is, these systems are far too big for any one person to change … even the President of the United States. These systems, however well-meant they were in the beginning, have become instruments for the powerful to consolidate, protect, and expand their power and privilege.

Government “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” (thanks, President Lincoln) can bail out the banks and corporations that created this mess, sure. But bail out a family that lost their jobs, and is in danger of losing their home? We don’t have enough money for that.

Education can provide six-figure salaries (in Mississippi, that’s a lot of money) for superintendents and consultants, but the kids and the teachers? Expendable. We’ve got test scores to game.

Soldiers struggle to support their families, but big defense contractors get $154 million per jet fighter, plus tens of billions for research.  Taxi cab drivers in New York work long hours, but can’t afford a half-million dollar license to go into business for themselves. Why is the license so expensive? It benefits the powerful.

I could go on, but I’d only get angry. You see, it’s not the people that are the problem, per se. It’s the systems. The labyrinths of written and unwritten rules that govern their interactions. It’s invisible, and bigger than any one of us.

But this passage, and Campolo’s response to it, got me thinking. There are plenty of pieces of the puzzle that are small enough for one person, or one congregation, to affect.

Financially, I can make a difference, especially in the lives of people in lesser developed nations, where even $25 goes a long way.

Physically, I can volunteer. I can get my hands dirty in my local community.

Socially, I can talk to people and try to find ways to help.

Authorially, I can write here, journaling my own efforts and drawing attention to other worthy causes.

Spiritually, I can pray, I can study, and I can step out bravely in faith. And given my default level of social anxiety, there’s going to have to be a lot of stepping out in faith if I’m going to do anything at all.

The greater structures, the systems, the powers and principalities are beyond our reach, true. But there is a lot within our reach, a lot that can be done to create a more just and merciful world.

We just have to have the guts to do it.