Struggling with Life in Christ (Lenten theme)

January 10th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

The following essay comes from Chapter Four of Life in Christ by Steve Harper. The topic and the book are suitable for Lenten study and reflection with help from a study guide.

For many years my ministry included air travel, going here and there to preach revivals, speak at conferences, lead retreats, and so on. It was not unusual to board my flight when weather conditions were less than ideal. Almost always, however, I knew that it would only be a little while before the pilot would point the plane’s nose upward, and we would leave the clouds behind. We would break through into bright sunshine. All the bad weather would be left behind.

Unfortunately, we have adopted this “nose up, break through, leave the clouds behind” mentality with respect to the spiritual life. In North America in particular, the prosperity gospel (which is actually no gospel) has misled people into believing that somewhere down the line, they will leave the clouds behind, but this is not true. It is not what the Bible teaches. It is not the testimony of the saints across the centuries. Life in Christ inevitably includes struggle, sometimes intense and prolonged struggle. If we leave the reality of struggle out of the story, then we become spiritual “snake oil” salespersons, not spiritual guides.

Thankfully, Paul did not leave this out of his letter to the Galatians. He included it, speaking first about his own struggle upon learning that the believers had taken a U-turn away from grace (Gal 5:4). Paul re-entered the lives of the Galatians because they were headed in the wrong direction. He did so honestly and realistically, writing that he was “going through labor pains” until they got back on track (Gal 4:19). The Greek text is very strong, as are the labor pains they refer to. Paul wanted the Galatians to know that their detour had saddened him in a painful way, and done so at a deep level. His attempted renewal effort via the letter was no small thing.

Reading Paul’s words reminded me of another of Paul’s testimonies about the struggle he experienced in his faith. At the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, he told them about the troubles he and his companions faced in Asia. He pulled no punches in his description of their experience: “We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty” (2 Cor 1:8-9). What? God’s “thirteenth apostle” writing like this? The one whose conversion is still touted in some circles for its drama, power, and transformation? Paul . . . despairing of life in general, not just his Christian life? What? Yes, Paul, and those traveling with him. Truth be told, this is true for every follower of Jesus. This is the Christian story. Simply put, the spiritual life includes struggle, trouble, labor pains, and travail. Lest we forget, these commenced in Jesus himself. Immediately after his baptism, he experienced temptation from Satan himself. Emerging from that and beginning his ministry in Nazareth, the townspeople tried to throw Jesus over a cliff minutes after he delivered his inaugural sermon. After he hit the road, he was then in hot water with the religious leaders before things had barely begun. In fact, the heat never let up, so that even the night he was betrayed, Jesus told three of his disciples, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying” (Matt 26:38). Struggle is the Christian story, and Jesus experienced the struggle himself! How did we ever come to think it would be different for us?

Every Christian passes through the desert on the way to the promised land. Abundant living is not a vaccination against struggle. In fact, it sets the stage for struggle because (as we have already seen) the ego is dethroned, and the way of life we often choose is at cross purposes with the world. We experience struggle internally and externally, personally and socially. When considered against a basic philosophy, “people seek pleasure and avoid pain,” we wonder why anyone keeps going with Jesus after they figure this out. Henri Nouwen, who experienced a lot of struggle himself, provides the clue: “All brokenness, and all dying, and all suffering is there to allow you to enter into solidarity with the whole human family, and to give yourselves to others so that your life can bear fruit. God asks you not to have a successful life, but to have a fruitful life.”[1]

Life in Christ includes struggle because the whole of life contributes to our spiritual formation. Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, and all of them contain the means by which we grow. Our predecessors in the faith knew this. We are the ones who have changed the story to make it seem as though only “the positive side” is contributive. As we will see, Paul understood this too, and it comes through in his letter to the Galatians. In classic spiritual formation this idea is described as consolation and desolation. In times of consolation we experience a state of lightness, joy, and freedom. In times of desolation we experience heaviness, sadness, and bondage. Consolation places us in the light; desolation takes us into the darkness.[2]

Along with many of you who are reading this, I have experienced both, and I continue to do so. The important thing to see is that both consolation and desolation are formative parts of the spiritual life. Paul labored to help the Galatians understand this. In our day, Richard Rohr has written a lot about this, making it part of what he means when he writes, “everything belongs.”[3] It is the phase of formation that he calls “disorder,” which we looked at in chapter two. In other places Rohr refers to it as “necessary suffering.”[4]

The challenge of our struggle is simply this: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”[5]

In Galatia, the Judaisers had transmitted their pain by transferring their legalism onto the new Christians, making them feel they had done something wrong by following Paul, believing the gospel of grace, and embracing life in the Spirit. Paul knew he could not let the Judaisers prevail. He challenged the Galatians to reverse course and return to life in the Spirit, so that they would not become party to transmitting legalism on to others. To do this would be a struggle because it would require them to say “No” to the Judaisers’ group-think approach.[6] An inevitable stage in our spiritual formation is when we have to say “No” to something in order to say “Yes” to something better.

When we recognize the consolation/desolation pattern, we can see it running from the beginning of the Bible to the end. We see people in both the Old Testament and the New Testament experiencing struggle. Today, people experience struggle in a variety of ways. Now, we will turn to look at some of the main expressions of struggle.

First, there is spiritual dryness. I think of this as the cycle of ups and downs where God sometimes seems near, and sometimes far away. The severity of this experience varies from everyday “blahs” to extended periods of an intense sense of deprivation.[7] The soul is mysterious, and it often mirrors the circumstances of our lives. When we are experiencing new life, the soul flourishes. When we are in distress, the soul reflects the disorientation.[8] Part of the struggle of the spiritual life is being honest about these fluctuations. John Wesley had a system in his diary for measuring his changes in temperament. By noting them, he could engage the best disciplines (sometimes doing more . . . sometimes doing less) for restoring his life to better balance and vitality. Other saints, ancient and modern, have found ways to stay in touch with their dryness rather than being in denial about it.

A second manifestation of the struggle is described by an ancient word, acedia[9] The early Christian monks (ammas and abbas) who lived in the desert, connected the struggle with the psalmist’s phrase, “destruction that ravages at noontime” (Ps 91:6). The description is worth pausing over. First, the psalmist says it happens at noontime—when things are at their brightest and best. This means that acedia usually comes surprisingly, when we are not expecting it. The early Christians associated acedia with being overly zealous and active in one’s faith. It comes close to what we call burnout. Second, acedia ravages, which is to say it is more than experiencing spiritual dryness. It is, says the psalmist, destructive. Acedia is not merely being “down,” it is feeling “down and out.” In spiritual dryness the emotions are affected, in acedia the will is infected. Acedia not only brings sadness, it also brings lethargy. Some have used the word boredom to describe acedia, but it is the kind of boredom that leads us to believe the best thing we can do is “hang it up” and be done with all this “religion crap” (as one person once described it to me). Evagrius Ponticus, an early-church father, described acedia as a weariness of soul that “instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very way of life, a hatred for manual labor”[1]0 Needless to say, this is serious.


There is more, however, and the writing of St. John of the Cross describes two additional forms of spiritual struggle: the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. Some have blended the two struggles into one, but John kept them separate, at least technically. When we are in the throes of either one, it may be difficult to distinguish one from the other. The dark night of the senses is a kind of deadness that no amount of spiritual activity can overcome, at least not while we’re in the midst of it. Notice that in acedia, the emotions are in full swing. This is not so in the dark night of the senses; this is more like a numbness of spirit.

The dark night of the soul is another form of malaise. It usually includes the dark night of the senses, but it is an even deeper struggle. It is the struggle to trust in the goodness, presence, and activity of God when none of our sensory or spiritual apparatus works. Nothing is incoming. We see it in the psalmist’s question, “Why are you hiding your face?” (Ps 44:26), and in other places in the Psalms where equally indicting questions are hurled at the almighty (e.g., Ps 77). We see it in Jesus’s anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane where his distress came out like drops of blood while crying out, “Take this cup of suffering away from me” (Matt 26:39), but it didn’t happen.

I don’t know about you, but even writing these words has led me to the place where I have to bob up for air. The depths to which our spiritual struggles can go are beyond where we normally let our minds go, but they are not beyond the ways we feel from time to time. That’s why we must not bypass Paul’s “travail,” the struggles of the Galatians, or ours. If there is anything to be said, it is this: spirituality is reality. No amount of glossing over it will suffice. In fact, artificiality will only further the downward spiral. So, what then shall we do when we come upon our struggles, whether they fall into any of these illustrative categories, or not? How shall we live in relation to our struggles? We have raised diagnostic questions, but leaving it there is not sufficient. We will experience struggles, and when we do, there are some things we can do to bear up under them.


From a review of Life in Christ: The Core of Intentional Spirituality 

"If you’re ready for an accessible, inclusive, prophetic, and profound book to study with a spiritual formation group or class, consider Life in Christ by Steve Harper.  Skillfully, he weaves together insights from classical Christian spirituality with contemporary spiritual writers in a new key. Ideal for a Lenten Study book, or a first dive into interspirituality, this is a book to share with a friend who may have given up on church, or is not yet a Christian, or anyone on the spiritual quest. And if you want to follow the paper trail to see how Steve Harper got from where he began his journey of faith to where he now is resting before his next book, read the footnotes!

At the end of 141 pages, Steve summarizes this friendly book, and reduces all that he has learned and said in 30 books and over 50 years of his life in Christ to one simple truth and invitation: “become a person in love, using Christ as your pattern....because you are made in God’s image. You are God’s beloved.” (p. 141). 

Michael Christiansen, Director of Shalom Ininitiative, Drew University.


[1] Henri Nouwen, You Are the Beloved (Convergent, 2017), 8/9/19.

[2] Keith Beasley-Topliffe, ed., The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (Upper Room Books, 2003), 66.

[3] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (Crossroad, 1999, 2003).

[4] Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us (CAC Publications, 2016), weeks 15 and 16.

[5] Rohr, A Spring Within Us, 119.

[6] Rohr, Everything Belongs, 94. Rohr says groupism is one of legalism’s strongest
traps and one of the most difficult from which to escape.

[7] I wrote about spiritual dryness in more detail in, Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Upper Room Books, 2007). In the book, I examine some of the common causes of dryness and how we can move beyond them—at least until it happens again.

[8] Bruce Demarest wrote a good book about this pattern: Seasons of the Soul (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[9] Kathleen Norris’s book, Acedia and Me (Riverhead Books, 2008), is an excellent exposition of this struggle, including her very honest writing about it in her life and in her marriage.

[10] Norris, Acedia and Me, 24–25.

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