Endless Struggle

Is it well with my soul? Hard to say.

It’s not just other people asking me how I can still be a Christian when (insert horrible thing done in the name of Christ here) happens.

As if the battle only takes place around me.

As if the battle isn’t also deep within this wrestling soul.

Which probably has something to do with the way in which I feebly answer the question for myself. How can you be a Christian when Christians do X?

The answer is quite simple: I can recognise myself and my own complicity in that very same thing. I recognise both the destructive and life-giving forces at play within us. These forces are at play within me.

They are at play within all members of the human community and the whole community of Creation.

When I reflect on my youth pastor’s infidelity, that early turning point in my faith, I can no longer do it with a pointed finger and sense of superiority. While that may not be my particular struggle or situation, I can still recognise the impulse to infidelity that lies within me: infidelity to God, to other people, and to all that was created out of Love.

There are times I still marvel at how strange and messed up it can seem that this experience of humanity’s deep brokenness has become so pivotal to a deepening life of faith. How can it be that the profoundly earthy, natural shit of life fertilizes new growth?

This isn’t, of course, the same as saying “everything happens for a reason,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” That’s a different kind of bullshit. People throughout the world are regularly given more than they can handle for no good reason. More often than not, it’s doled out by other humans completely ignorant of the effects of their own actions on others. But that is, perhaps, another topic for another day.

I guess what I’m hoping to say is that resilience can only be built in the face of trial and testing. It is only in the face of the storm that the statement “it is well with my soul” can have any semblance of meaning. Saying “it is well” in the midst of privilege, power, and relative peace is suspect, at best.

Which leaves this white, middle-class, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual north american settler of a man with a few things to sort out, doesn’t it?

Saying “it is well” in the face of the storm is what I call faith. It’s what I call hope. It’s what I call true and self-sacrificing love. But what do I know about that? Faith, hope and love that are true and resilient, are proven through struggle.

No part of that triad can be marked by a naïve optimism that everything will work out, or that God will somehow step in to fix whatever problem it is we deliver in our sporadic, self-centered prayers. Faith, Hope and Love that are worth anything, are a function of struggle. Anything less, and it’s all untested fantasy.

For a teenaged version of myself, the event of my youth pastor’s infidelity sent me into the experience of emotional tumult. It sent me into the experience of losing a trusted leader, pastor, mentor and friend, causing a re-evaluation of many things I’d thought to be true.

This experience was a catalyst, but it wasn’t until years later when I started to actively process things that I had the sense of how it had dramatically changed my relationship to God, the church and my faith. It wasn’t until years of struggle later that I began to discover the breadth and depth of Christian hope that existed beyond the simple fait accompli version I’d been sold.

I suppose it should be obvious – it’s obvious to me now – that there was no choice but to come through that experience changed. It was, and continues to be an experience of wrestling with who I am, and most specifically who I am in relationship to God.

I feel like I’m in the midst of Jacob’s all-night cage match. I neither know nor understand the one with whom I struggle. I don’t know how long I can hold on, but I’m determined never to let go. I’m adamantly insistent that I receive a blessing, even if I have to walk away with a limp. 

I’ll tell you one thing, though: the one with whom I wrestle is far more complex than the God I grew up believing in. What do you do with that?

Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jon Brooks penned this great line that’s given me some clues:

My blood mixed with his blood.
I needed him; he needed me.
We were brothers and he knew that I loved him,
Even as his skull cracked under my heel.

– Jon Brooks, Cage Fighter (Delicate Cages, 2012)

These lyrics cause me to wonder: what if the purpose of the struggle is not so much to win or lose, but to come away better understanding the one with whom you struggle?

I had a battery acid smell in my throat
It was the smell of adrenaline
In the cage I felt Zen; I felt closest to God,
In the cage I loved and never feared a thing.

– Jon Brooks, Cage Fighter (Delicate Cages, 2012)


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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at www.empireremixed.com, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

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