Struggle is Good

In the spiritual life, is struggle a virtue or a vice?
In the spiritual life, is struggle a virtue or a vice?

“Let go and let God.”

“Human effort plays no part in the spiritual life.”

“If you’re struggling to be holy, that just shows you’re working in your own strength rather than God’s.”

Do these cliches sound familiar? Having spent most of my life in evangelical circles, I can’t begin to count the amount of times I was told that a spirit-led life should not be a struggle, but should come easy. One teacher told me that the Christian life should be as easy as a boy rolling down hill, while other mentors told me that frustration, confusion and struggle are the signs that someone is living in the flesh rather than the Spirit. One book that was recommended to me by almost all my evangelical friends said that will-power played no part in the life of someone surrendered to Jesus.

I evaluated this notion of the easy Christian life a few years ago in my Colson Center article ‘Is Will-Power Good or Bad?‘ At the time my interest was in the theological implications of thinking that struggle and will-power are bad. But recently I’ve become interested in viewing this issue from a psychological angle. I became interested in cross-cultural psychology through David Livermore’s fascinating course ‘Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are.’ (The Great Courses used to be so expensive that not even libraries could get them in, but Amazon is now making them available through their company Audible.’) One of the benefits to studying about the psychology of other cultures is that we are invited to question some of the assumptions of our own culture that we might otherwise take for granted.

One of the assumptions prevalent throughout Western culture is that struggle, frustration and confusion are bad. From fast food outlets to get-rich quick schemes to sex without relationships, our entire culture is oriented around the belief that intensive struggle over time is to be avoided at all costs. This notion has infected religion with the insidious notion that the Christian life should be easy. Church services often reflect this assumption by making as little demands as possible on the participants, and in aiming to make going to church just as fun as going to the mall.

We see how strange our culture’s orientation towards struggle is when we turn to look at Asian cultures. Last week I had the privilege of doing research on education in Asia as part of the Taylor Study Method’s ongoing series on study myths. My article, ‘Why Struggle and Frustration Are Good‘ began by showing that our educational experiences are usually structured around the assumption that struggle, frustration and confusion are the signs that someone is doing something wrong, not the sign that someone is doing something right:

“From our earliest school days, most of us were conditioned to think that the purpose of learning is not to fail but to easily achieve straight A’s and to be able to get our homework done as quickly as possible. Accordingly, we think that one indicator of whether someone is a smart student is whether he or she can learn concepts and finish homework with a minimum of struggle. By contrast, we tend to think that poor or merely average students experience struggle, confusion and frustration with school work…. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned.”

The TIMSS video study of classrooms in America confirmed this notion, and revealed that teachers believe it is their responsibility to eliminate struggle by trying their best to minimize struggle, confusion and frustration. My article quoted Stigler and Hiebert’s book The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom where they reported on their findings in American classrooms:

“Confusion and frustration, in this traditional American view, should be minimized… Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs that they have not done their job. When they notice confusion, they quickly assist students by providing whatever information it takes to get the students back on track. Teachers in the United States try hard to reduce confusion by presenting full information about how to solve problems.”

My article contrasted this American mentality with the experience of students in Asia. In Asia, not only is everyone expected to struggle in the process of learning, but it is assumed that the best students will be those who struggle the most. By struggling, good students show that they have what it takes emotionally to persist through struggle, and to persevere through frustration and confusion.

How a person thinks about struggle has implications whether you are learning a musical instrument, a foreign language, a new skill, or studying to pass an exam. If we think that struggle indicates weakness and low-ability, we will be less inclined to do what it takes to master material and to persevere through difficulty to reach our goals. We may even give up prematurely, concluding we just don’t have what it takes to succeed. In my article I quote Alix Spiegel who summarized the cash-value implicit in these two different mentalities:

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“Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.”

My recent TSM article about struggle I didn’t get into the spiritual ramifications of this, but it should not be difficult to connect the dots. If struggle is perceived to be a bad thing, then we will naturally gravitate towards those expressions of the Christian faith that require minimal effort and which approach struggle as a vice rather than a virtue. On the other hand, if we realign our thinking with scripture so we recognize that struggle is an integral part of the sanctified life (see the verses I quoted in my will-power article), then the emphasis will be on working through frustration and confusion rather than eliminating them as quickly as possible.

To read my entire TSM article, click on the link below:

Why Struggle and Frustration Are Good (Study Myths Part 4)

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