Since ancient times struggle has been recognized as a major factor in the process of spiritual growth. The Bible is filled with stories that demonstrate how struggle is the testing ground for our deepest beliefs and the forge of our mettle and character. From Job to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) these stories point to the powerful presence of God to work in us and through us in the midst of our struggles.
A few months after I left home for college, my closest friend was killed in an accident. It was the first overwhelming struggle I had ever faced. Losing a lifelong friend was like losing a huge part of myself. What was just as overwhelming was God’s presence. As much as I struggled to make sense of the tragedy and the void this lose left behind, God was at work in the struggle. While God did not force me one way or another, God provided a rich opportunity to lean on his love and receive a deeper awareness of his grace.
It began a journey to understand God at a deeply personal level. Part of the struggle was realizing that no one could fix the pain, confusion, doubt, and fear that filled the place in my life that my friend had once occupied. It was a journey for me alone. But in the journey, I realized God was completely present in every step I took. As I struggled to move forward, discovered more of God.
Does God cause the struggle? How could God be the creator of love if he is the creator of the struggle? If God does not create the struggle then who does? We all will wrestle with these questions. No one can do it for us. While I have come to believe God does not create pain or struggle (it is a result of our choices and resistance to God), God never wastes the suffering. Through grace, God uses suffering to guide us to what is good. This rings out from Job to the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).
In recent days, our world has become challenged by intense division. Demonstrations, protests, and violence has broken out on a scale that has not been seen in decades. There are people claiming the spiritual high ground but using violence to support their cause. Heartbreaking consequences have unfolded – including the death of a young activist and the death of two Virginia State Police Officers who were monitoring the protests from a helicopter. Lost in the grief, outrage, and confusion is a much more substantial problem in our society. We need a more constructive way to struggle for change. We need a spirituality of struggle.
Joan Chittister claims: “Clearly we are living in an era more in need of a spirituality of struggle than perhaps any other time in history” (Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2003). Just as a person is shaped by struggle, so is a group of people or an entire society. And just as people willing to move through the struggle have an opportunity to rediscover God at a deeper level, so does our society. The spirituality that emerges from struggles requires us to face the source and credibility of our hate and anger.
At the time I experienced the heartbreak of losing my friend, I was also learning to read New Testament Greek. Eventually, Greek students would be put to the test translate 1 John. A huge breakthrough in my grief came when we worked through 1 John 4 – the vivid image of God’s love for us and what God has done for us through Jesus. This week, however, I have been challenged to remember the sober warning of 1 John 4:20. No one can claim to love God and hate a people. In fact, the one who chooses hate is incapable of loving God. Hate separates us from God.
May we all seek our guidance, at this time, from God rather than our age-old agendas and fears. May we draw close to his love, most fully revealed and in the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Jesus. May the love of God lead us all to constructive struggle that leads to a better world. May it motivate us to put an end to hate and violence in all its forms.
Dr. Neil Routh is pastor at Grace Moravian Church.