What Does Faithfulness Feel Like?
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
The other night, just back home after a long and vigorous bike ride, I was slumped in a chair catching my breath. One of my children asked me what was wrong, and I told them that I was just really tired and my legs hurt from the workout. Their response: "Dad, you aren't very good at exercise."
Their logic, to a child, was irrefutable. I was in pain, therefore I must be doing something wrong. Only as they get older will they understand that a certain sort of hurt is a mark of exercising well. A workout that doesn't leave you spent at the end means you haven't fully given yourself to the endeavor. They misunderstood what it means to work out because they misunderstood what success should feel like.
This is precisely the struggle many American Christians have with faithfulness.
Physical exercise aside, our culture tends to apply my children's logic to almost everything. If something feels good, and especially if it feels good in the moment, it must be good. If it is painful or hard, that is a sign that we are doing it wrong. This is true in little ways - all the studies in the world about how social media leads to depression and isolation cannot overcome the little hit of pleasure we feel when we check our phone and find new notifications. It is also true in the big stuff. Often, the first sign of a collapsing marriage comes with the following logic: "I should be happy in a good marriage. I am not happy working at marriage. Therefore, I'm going to stop trying to make it good."
There are those who try to sell this logic in the guise of Christian hope. Rarely do they just come out and say it bluntly - a religion that promises persecution and praises a crucified Lord is hard to fully coopt into consumerism. However, they tend to focus only on the joy, the fulfillment, and a "believe it and you'll receive it" attitude. Interminable sermons and books about the blessings and successes of the faithful life leave us with the impression that, if we aren't feeling blessed and rolling in success, something has gone wrong.
Contrast this with the approach of Jesus. He turns to the large crowds following Him and said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26-27) Faithfulness, he tells them, will be costly, and they should count those costs when they start on the journey. It can lead to relational loss, personal loss, and pain. In fact, we should expect that it will.
The above texts and many others speak to this same expectation of pain. Paul pictures affliction and confusion as the natural results of "carrying in [our] body the death of Jesus." Peter pictures fiery trials as the unsurprising outworking of "sharing in Christ's sufferings." These are not bugs in the Christian program; they are some of its core features. We should expect Christian faithfulness to be deeply painful and hard.
That should be a deeply encouraging fact.
One of the biggest issues I notice in my own heart and in many fellow Christians is that, because we have implicitly bought into our culture's expectations, we take suffering as a sign of spiritual failure. We work at something, we try to follow Jesus, but it is tough going and we are inconsistent and the world seems set against us. As a result, we despair. We assume we must be doing something wrong.
The truth is that such a place of struggle is precisely what faithfulness feels like. We should be feeling the burn. It is not hardship and pain that is a mark of failure in the Christian life. Rather, it is when we feel comfortable and unchallenged that we should fear for our souls.
To use a specific example - I remember someone telling me they didn't think they were a Christian because they were failing in their struggle with sin. I asked what they meant, and they said, "Well, I'm trying to grow in some areas. Not losing my temper, not lusting, things like that. I work at them and I do really good for a while, but then I screw up. I fail. And I feel terrible. I try again and succeed for a while, and then fail again."
My response was simple: "Actually, that pretty much sounds like faithfulness to me."
The author of Hebrews describes resisting temptation like this: "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." (Hebrews 12:4) Which is to say, "While you have fought and it has been brutal, it hasn't killed you yet. Count that as encouragement." Of course, over the Christian life, there should be some measure of success in our fight with certain sins. We should grow in maturity. That growth, though, is the stuff of years, not days, and it will often feel like a process of overcoming one struggle only to realize there are ten more we are being called to engage.
So be encouraged, you saint. You who keeps standing up and getting knocked down. You who feels like there is always something more to learn or overcome. You who, at the end of the day, falls into bed exhausted from the battle of living faithfully. You are following in the footsteps of Jesus, and it is on such a path that you will find yourself truly blessed - not in the superficial way our world means it, but in the biblical sense of being a vessel through which the glory of God shines.
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