Some years ago I watched an amazing reality TV show. The producers took five men to the Gulf coast of Central America and they had to trek across the jungle to the Pacific coast. What made it interesting is that all five suffered from a disability. One fellow was in a wheelchair–having lost the use of his legs through polio. One man was blind. Another was deaf. The fourth suffered from chronic depression. The last had learning difficulties.
The camera crew followed their trek through the jungle. At one point the deaf man takes the blind man by the hand to lead him through. The team encourages the depressed man to continue. They all help the man in the wheelchair drag himself and his wheelchair up a muddy hill and across a swollen river. It made for riveting viewing and was a reminder to me all the way through of our shared pilgrimage through this life.
After one particularly gruelling day the man in the wheelchair was interviewed. “Why are you doing this?” the interviewer asked. With his eyes welling up the big fellow in the wheelchair said in his deep voice. “It’s the beautiful struggle man, it’s the beautiful struggle!”
So it is, and so sad that so much of our American world is consumed with the ambition to avoid the beautiful struggle rather than endure it or overcome? Think of all the money, time and effort we expend trying to create Disneyland-type perfect worlds for ourselves. Think of all the money, time and effort we expend creating worlds that are “practically perfect (and practically plastic) in every way.”
What is nauseatingly frustrating is that we do the same in the church. In fact, religion in its worst form is one big escape route from reality. We take refuge in our pretty liturgies, our ecclesiastical finery and our comfortable lives. The bishops behave like Renaissance courtiers with arrogance and disdain for the laity while mouthing soothing platitudes in the face of a shocking crisis of morality and corruption. All of this is part of the avoidance of the beautiful struggle.
What if we were to expend the same money, time and effort to face the beautiful struggle and conquer the problems rather than papering over the cracks, filling in the holes and pretending the problems do not exist? What if we were to engage in the beautiful struggle with the true grit of a warrior and the courage of a champion? Instead we too often expend that same determination and courage and grit to simply beat the other guy, come out on top, be a winner and this usually means getting more money and plastic prizes than anyone else.
Here’s a story of another guy. Philipe Croizon is a Frenchman who had all four limbs amputated after an electrical accident. He went on to swim the English channel and other long distance swims. It’s the beautiful struggle man!
The spiritual struggle is the same. How often we seek the perfect church rather than trying to be a perfect Christian ourselves. How often we seek spiritual consolations or some sort of gooey, emotional religious experience. What suckers we are for a kind of religious Disneyland in which everything is perfect and spray painted and plastic. How much anguish and trouble we expend trying to search for or build these false utopias instead of dealing with life’s difficulties the way they are and learning to overcome or endure.
Are the present wave of church scandals depressing and getting you angry and despairing? One of the reasons I began my podcast series Triumphs and Tragedies was to help people get the big view and to realize that the whole history of the church is one long struggle against waves of persecution from without and corruption and immorality within. This struggle is not some kind of anomaly or aberration. It is the default setting. When you view the life of the church as one long war with many defeats and failures, your perception on the whole problem changes.
The fact of the matter is, it is in the difficulties that we are closest to God and he is closest to us. It is in overcoming and enduring that we are closest to the experience of the gospel. What happened to Jesus Christ? From the very moment of his birth he was thrust into the beautiful struggle. From the moment of his baptism the gospel says he was ‘thrust out’ into the desert to endure temptation and enter into the beautiful struggle. From that moment onwards in the story of the gospel Jesus goes through battle after battle and faces conflict every day.
So be encouraged today. If you are in the middle of getting your hands dirty and life is messy, if you are discouraged by the scandals in the church and the incompetence and heresy of some of the hierarchy, then be re assured that it is the beautiful struggle man, the beautiful struggle! That’s what life is for. It’s a beautiful struggle to make a soul…it’s a beautiful struggle to make a saint. It’s the beautiful struggle to purify the church beginning with me and beginning with you.
What are you waiting for?