Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Hebrews 12: 1-4
This unit on “Where I am and Where I Want to Be in My Faith” is based in large part on answers and comments submitted several months ago in a survey. This part of the unit is about a survey statement about the struggle to practice what we believe. One of the comments was “I struggle with disciplines such as prayer and fasting, and I struggle to resist temptation. I also struggle with pride, depression and self-esteem.” I am thankful for these honest and vulnerable comments and I want to address this particular one and the subject of struggle.
One of the most encouraging lines of the Divine Liturgy comes shortly before Holy Communion, when the priest says “The Holy Gifts for the Holy People of God.” In Greek it is “Ta Agia Tis Agiis.” And some English translations say more simply, “The Holy for the Holy.” You might wonder why is this encouraging? After all, who is holy? Doesn’t this line of the Liturgy sort of set us up for failure? I’ve wondered these things as well.
The Spiritual Life is a journey. Salvation is the destination. And holiness is a struggle. It is a struggle to be like Christ. No one can be like Christ, but we can struggle to be like Him. We can struggle to love, forgive, serve, obey. We will not do these things with perfection, because we are imperfect. We can struggle to do them. I once heard a commentary on this line of the Divine Liturgy, that we should hear it as “The Holy Gifts are for the people of God who are struggling for holiness.” After all, no one has achieved holiness. Our approach to the chalice should be based on our struggle for holiness, not our achievement of it.
There are two postures a Christian can have in this life—the struggle for holiness, and the absence of struggle, or simply giving in to temptation and not even trying. If a person is struggling but still in the game, that’s a good place to be. If a person is not struggling, if he or she has just given in to temptation, that’s a more problematic place.
Let’s say that a person has a bad habit, like looking at pornography. He or she does it every day, they just give into that temptation every day, if they don’t even think it is wrong but think it’s okay, there is no evidence of a struggle for holiness. Perhaps that is the time to stay away from Holy Communion. If a person struggles hard to abstain from this sin for six days and falls on the seventh day, while that is still a sin, it is a struggle—they have won the battle for six days and lost on the seventh, which is better than losing the battle on all seven days, or worse yet, not being in the battle at all. We need to focus on the struggle. Struggle is good. Staying in the game is good. An occasional fall is part of the struggle. Not trying indicates no struggle.
So when a person says they are struggling with prayer and fasting, I take that to mean that they pray and fast at least sometimes. Otherwise, the person would say I never pray or fast. I personally struggle with both of these. Have I ever made it through a year where I prayed 365 out of 365 days? I confess the answer is no. Do I pray regularly? Yes. Do I fast regularly? Yes. Have I missed a day or two here and there? Yes. These are struggles. My spiritual father says, and I have written many times before, that 80% of life is showing up. Struggling means showing up. It doesn’t mean that we’ve mastered something. It doesn’t even mean we do it with great fervor each time out. There are times when I have celebrated the Divine Liturgy and gotten hardly anything out of it. I’ve struggled to get something out of it. There are other days when the Divine Liturgy has been like pure ecstasy, a powerful encounter with God. There are days when I go and I know it’s going to be a great day. And days when I’m not sure. But I go each week, and some weeks it is a struggle but I go. The key with struggling is don’t give up. Stay in the struggle.
We all struggle to resist temptation. Everyone does. Everyone falls to temptation. That is what sin is. When we fall, we are supposed to ask for forgiveness, repent and move on. When we fall, we get up again and start walking. If we fall to sin on the seventh day after six good days, then the next day we start again. We shouldn’t wallow in sin and think “well I fell once, it doesn’t matter if I fall again.” When we fall, we should just start again. In some ways, we can rejoice in struggle, because it means we are in the game and haven’t quit. The week that we struggle is the week we should approach for Holy Communion. It is the week we don’t struggle that we need to wonder.
There are certain struggles that we shouldn’t approach alone. Our spiritual struggles should be share with a Spiritual Father/Father Confessor in the sacrament of confession. Discussing struggles in confession not only helps us lessen shame and get some encouragement, it helps us to identify some of the habits that lead us to sin. There are other struggles that are outside the scope of spirituality. A struggle with depression or anxiety might lend itself to the expertise of a mental health professional. Just like a struggle with high cholesterol lends itself to the expertise of a medical doctor. The human being is composed of mind, body and spirit. The church and the clergy help primarily in the spiritual struggle. God has enabled and empowered others to assist in the medical and mental struggles we all have.
Lord, sometimes I struggle. (list some of the things you struggle with) Help me Lord in these struggles. Help me to resist temptations. Forgive me when I fall to temptation. Help me to get up each time I fall, and to move back into the struggle when I become complacent. Give me strength in the struggle. Surround me with people who can encourage me in my struggles. Lord also be with those who help me in my struggles (parish priest, spiritual father, friends who encourage you). Thank You for sending them into my life. Amen.
Keep struggling. That’s good. We are either in a posture of struggle or complacency. We will never reach mastery over sin. If you are complacent, get back in the struggle. If you have fallen, get back in the struggle. If you are struggling, that’s good. Pray for strength in the struggle!