October 19, 2017

A Real Fight Of Faith

It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle … the notion of a physical combat was fit only for a savage. If only it were as simple as that. (Perelandra by C.S. Lewis)

I have been watching a lot of boxing on TV lately. I’ve always liked boxing–“the sweet science”–but had not really watched much in the past few years. Not much has changed though. You still have two men (I have yet to watch two women square off in the ring) who are nearly equal in weight spend three minutes at a time trying their best to hit the other in just the right way to knock him to the ground, hopefully to stay. While it can look brutish and needlessly violent, there really is a lot more science and math involved in boxing than there is raw strength. A skilled fighter can take down a stronger but unskilled fighter every time.

I have been watching a lot of boxing, but I feel like I have been in the ring myself much of this week. The past several weeks, in fact. Maybe the last couple of months. And I feel neither skilled nor strong. I have been battered and beaten, and right now am struggling to make it to my feet before the referee counts to ten. Who knew that when Paul wrote to Timothy about fighting the good fight of faith he meant it would be a real fight.

I am not talking about “spiritual warfare” here, or at least not in the way those words have been misused over the last couple of decades. This is not about hunting demons in your laundry basket or anything like that. As Lewis says, if only it were as simple as that. Smith Wigglesworth supposedly was awakened one night to sense a demon at the foot of his bed. His response? “Oh, it’s just you.” Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

This is a spiritual battle I am in, no doubt about it. But because we are triune beings–spirit, soul, body–and all three are interconnected, the battle spills over into the soul and body as well. Or maybe it began in the soul. I’m not really sure at this point. And I don’t know that it really matters. All I know is the bell is ringing for the start of the next round, and I am trying to find a way not to get my head bashed in. When I am fighting with my emotions, it affects my body. My back aches so badly I cannot sleep. And without sleep, my emotions are a wreck the next day. And both the physical and emotional pain keeps me from being sensitive of spirit in listening for the still, small voice of the Lord. So this is a “whole man” fight, if you will. I cannot just say it is affecting me mentally or emotionally and the rest of me is fine. No, it is a battle that affects all of me.

I am not going to go into details as to what my battle is about. Does it matter? Not to you, I’m sure. You have your own battles. What I find amazing is the number of Christians I encounter who seem to waltz through life always “living in victory,” celebrating the fact they are “overcomers” and never, ever suffering defeat. I see their faces on books telling me that they have the secret for the victorious life, that my miracle is just around the corner, that the breakthrough God wants to give me is just about here. If I watched religious TV–which, other than EWTN, I never do–I would hear them sharing their stories of how they walk in abundance and prosperity 24/7.

It makes me want to take them into the ring for a three-minute dance.

We all face battles. If you are not in a fight for your life right now, you soon will be. Anyone who says differently than that is a liar, a fool, or dead. Biologists will tell you that struggle is the only sign of life in living organisms. And just because one trusts Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and enters into a life of following Jesus as a disciple does not excuse that one from life’s struggles. Life is hell much of the time, for the Christian or the non-Christian. It is an endless boxing match, wearing us down to where we think we cannot go on.

When you said this was a fight
You weren’t kidding
When you said this was a fight
You weren’t kidding, kidding
‘Cuz my ribs are bruised
And it’s just round two

Sara Groves wrote these words for her song, The Boxer. It is from the heart of a believer crying out to God. Walking in this life is hard, God. It feels like I am in an awful fight. Just round two and already I am having trouble breathing from these bruised ribs.

When you said this was a fight
You weren’t kidding
When you said this was a fight
You were not kidding
‘Cuz there’s a cut on my eye
And it’s just round five

Now I have a cut over my eye. This is the worst possible place for a boxer to take a cut. The nose, the ear, the cheek–yes, there is a lot of blood, but that is just cosmetic. When there is a cut over the eye, blood streams into the eye so the boxer can’t see. And if he can’t see, how will he defend himself from the next punch about to be thrown?

And I used to be quick
I used to see it coming
I used to know how to move my feet
Now I can’t duck
And I can’t land nothin’
And I forgot how to bob and weave
Bob and weave

The boxer who lives to fight another day is one who keeps his feet and shoulders and head moving. He ducks punches, he weaves with his feet and bobs with his torso. But when his stamina and strength give out, he stands still like a statue and takes punch after punch. It is brutal to watch. A fight I saw this weekend had a fighter wearing black trunks and a fighter wearing black with a white stripe. They were fairly evenly matched through the first five rounds. In round six, you could see that white stripe was flagging–he was not as fast as he had been, spent more time trying to clinch with black trunks just to keep the round going. Soon black trunks had white stripe against the ropes and landed a left jab to the head. The only thing that kept white stripe from falling over were the ropes. Black trunks reared back and hit him again with another hard left. And again. The fight should have been stopped right there. Three, four, five more punches. Why is the ref not stopping this thing? Six, seven. Even black trunks was wondering why he was still punching. Eight. Where is the ref? Nine. White stripes slipped down the ropes and fell out toward the floor. If the referee had not caught his feet, he would have fallen all the way out of the ring. A brutal beat-down.

I feel like white stripe right about now.

When you said this was a fight
You weren’t kidding
When you said this was a fight
You weren’t kidding, kidding, kidding
‘Cuz this room’s in a spin
And it’s just round ten

Just round ten? There are more to go? How much longer, Lord–how much longer?

If you care at all
Take that towel from your neck
‘Cuz I’ve reached down deep
And there is nothing left
I’ve got nothing
I’ve got nothing
I’ve got nothing

I am ready for God to toss in the towel. I have had about all I can take. Why won’t he throw the towel?

And I was talkin’ big
I was talkin’
But now, now what?

Greater is He who is in me
Greater is He who is in me
Okay, okay, okay
Greater is He who is in me
Greater is He who is in me
Greater, greater, okay

Oh, I can talk the talk all right. I have been around long enough to be able to wear the Christian mask and say all the right things about how God is my victory and all that. And I can make you believe it as I say it. Greater is he, etc. etc. But it ain’t the truth. And if I let you get close enough to me, you would see the bruises and cuts and know I am lying. So I don’t let you get close. I isolate myself and say I am “praying about it.” But I want, long for, something real. Something that will help me to keep my hands up, to get my feet to move again.

And I can’t just know it
I’ve got to feel it
And I can’t just feel it
I’ve got to believe it
And I can’t just believe it
I’ve got to live it
And I can’t just live it
(You’ve got, you’ve got to believe it)

Obedience comes easily for me. I can obey God without too much trouble. I obey out of my will. And I can be pretty strong-willed at times. It’s trust that is so much harder for me. Trusting God is a lot more difficult than pleasing God. Trusting means standing on something I can’t see and that I have no control over. It means staggering in the ring with a blindfold on, trusting the Spirit to guide my hands and feet. (Imagine Luke donning the blaster shield helmet while practicing with his light saber. Or don’t, if you don’t like Star Wars illustrations.)

I’m not going to end this on a happy note, I’m sorry to say. I don’t have any nice answers. If I did, I would apply them to myself and get out of the ring. I am tired of being hit, tired of being knocked down and told to get back on my feet, tired of the blood and the cuts. I’m tired. The enemy I am fighting is not so much the enemy of our souls as it is garbage and junk and anger and frustrations I have let build up in my soul over the years. These are principalities and powers just as much as demons are. Or maybe these emotions are demons. I don’t really know, and to tell the truth, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter to me. A punch thrown is a punch thrown. But to give up now means to climb out of the ring, bloodied and bruised and broken, but with nothing to show for it. So I stay and fight another round.

I don’t have the victory. I don’t really feel much like an overcomer. I have landed a few good jabs, and once a solid uppercut, but my opponent is still standing. I have a great Corner Man–the Holy Spirit–and I have heard encouragement once or twice from the crowd. I have ignored those who are hawking their wares in the isle (Get your red hot Seven Secrets To A Victorious Life book! Get your His Pain, Your Gain t-shirt! Get your I’m Walking In Abundance CD!) and concentrated on standing until the bell sounds. I think I have given up trying to win this fight. Right now, I just want to survive.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

(The Boxer lyrics used by permission from Sara and Troy Groves. You can hear it on her album The Other Side Of Something. Sara is one of the very few Christian musicians and songwriters I listen to. Why? She is real, that’s why.)

Comments

  1. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.(Rom5)

    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. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
    “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
    For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”
    It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
    …For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
    Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.(Heb12)

  2. Does anyone else ever feel like this?

    Heh. Used to feel like this on a weekly basis at my old (conservative evangelical fundamentalist baptist) church. Got tired of fighting and being attacked by the people that were supposed to be on my side. I detailed some of my struggle in this post on my blog. Getting out of that environment was the best thing that ever happened to my spiritual life. Staying might have caused me to lose my faith entirely.

    I don’t know what your current struggle is, but sometimes getting out of the ring and leaving the fight is the best thing you can do. Some fights aren’t worth fighting.

    I’ll be praying for you.

    • This is not a battle with my church, nor is it one I can just walk away from. It is within. I have to face it. Thanks for your prayers!

  3. Matthew says:

    I related to the part about obeying from the will but with a lack of trust. When I was younger, it was easy to trust God – I’ve lived a fairly carefree life. But I grew up, and I’ve seen some bad stuff go down, and it’s left me cynical. Why did my friend’s brother die in a car accident? Why is God allowing a dear loved one to make horrible choices? Why did my family friend’s son die when a bunch of idiots broke into his house and shot him down?

    And how the hell am I supposed to trust God that that won’t happen to me? He let them down, what makes me different? And how am I supposed to dig in DEEPER than I already am and love more people and treat them as Jesus did, only to have the most terrible things life has to offer happen to them, and I watch them hurt and die?

    • Matthew says:

      And I know the correct theology, and that my comment doesn’t reflect it, but I don’t want theology…hard truths are not a comfort. I need to know I’m not the only one.

      • Jeff Dunn says:

        You are not the only one, Matthew. And God is big enough to handle tough questions. But then we have to be small enough to accept his answers. (And I’m not even sure what that means…)

        • Matthew says:

          Thanks for the article, and for this reminder. I do need to ask these questions of God and let Him be big. And your advice to be small makes sense, even if I don’t know how to do that yet.

  4. Survival is victory. The struggle is overcome by quiet persistence. I fight not to put the devil on the floor. No matter what how tough the opponent, no matter how vicious the injustice I witness and can do nothing about, no matter how deep are the wounds inflicted by others, no matter many obstacles repeatedly shut down my efforts to live for God, I will persist and even in my tears, I praise God.

    God has allowed me to experience evil and witness it in the lives of children and yet I still struggle to trust Him, refusing surrender to despair. Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.

  5. Denise Spencer says:

    Praying for you, Jeff.

  6. Yes! Thank you for your honesty and your willingness to say it. Sometimes religious stuff just sucks.

  7. There must be a time of the day when the man who
    makes plans forgets his plans,
    and acts as if he had no plans at all.

    There must be time of the day when the man who
    has to speak falls very silent.
    And he forms no more propositions,
    and he asks himself:
    Did they have a meaning?

    There must be a time
    when a man of prayer goes to pray
    as if it were the first time in his life
    he had ever prayed,
    when the man of resolutions puts his
    resolutions aside
    as if they had all been broken,
    and he learns a different wisdom:
    distinguishing the sun from the moon,
    the stars from the darkness,
    the sea from the dry land,
    and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.
    –Thomas Merton

    Pulling and praying for you Jeff.

  8. The music of Rich Mullins has often been a comfort to me in times like this…

    Now, People say maybe things will get better
    People say maybe it won’t be long
    And people say maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow
    And it’ll all be gone
    Well I only know that maybes just ain’t enough
    When you need something to hold on
    There’s only one thing that’s clear

    I know there’s bound to come some trouble to your life
    But that ain’t nothing to be afraid of
    I know there’s bound to come some tears up in your eyes
    That ain’t no reason to fear
    I know there’s bound to come some trouble to your life
    Reach out to Jesus, hold on tight
    He’s been there before and He knows what it’s like
    You’ll find He’s there

  9. I can relate, Jeff — though, these days, I don’t feel so much like I’m being beat up by life as it seems like I’m being slowly broken down by something akin to Chinese water torture. At this point, I would almost welcome some great disaster in my life — anything but this inch-by-inch descent into emotional numbness and self-imposed solitude. And, more and more, I am beginning to suspect that there is something in me that really needs to break but is doggedly refusing to do so. And, the maddening part is that I don’t even know what it is that needs to break or what inside me needs fixing or even how to pray about it. One voice whispers in my ear that this is just the way life is, and that I should try to resign myself to this gradual waning of emotion, the joy of living, and the hope for something better. Another voice insists that there has to be something better than this — and if I want it, I’m going to have to get out there and take it by force. And yet another voice seems to be saying, “It’s okay. I still love you. Just cling to me and I’ll see you through it.”

    • Sounds as if you are hearing the call of the dangerous God. I am right there with you. There has to be more, and I want it. Well said!

  10. just one christ follower says:

    I’ve never commented before, but this post pulled me out of my silence. I only recently (four months and one week ago today) had my world implode and then cried out to God to find a real, living God finally. A friend sent me an archived post by Michael Spencer, who I’d never heard of, about strength in weakness. I’ve been coming back here ever since.
    I grew up in the church. I always wanted to draw close to God. I always believed the prosperity gospel and the Jesus of my own making, not the Jesus of the bible. It almost destroyed me when my world was falling apart.
    Today, I’m different. I’m changed. I’m held by the Lord. My world is looking up. But I am not a perfect, shiny Christian and I am not basking in victory. Sure, I experience victory here and sometimes there, but I am battling my own private war and learning surrender. Learning true worship. Learning who Jesus really is. Learning what really matters. I don’t know if I’ll come back to read if anyone comments on my comment. It would sting. I’m what I am. A sinner saved by grace. A Christ follower and seeker. One who will arrive at my final home with bloody wounds and scars, but by real love and grace, I’ll arrive anyway.
    Thank you for this post. I do so relate. Finally.

    • Well, if you do come back and read follow-ups to your comment, I hope you will read this: You are not alone. What you are experiencing is what Michael Spencer called “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” It is very real, and thus comes with very real-world hurts. But it is the only path that leads to living in the Kingdom. Welcome. Welcome to the iMonk community, and welcome into the boxing ring with me. Perhaps we could form a tag-team partnership.

      Remember the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

      • just one christ follower says:

        Thank you, Jeff. My short time here must have given me hope that there was a possibility of acceptance since I did come back to see what might have been said. It’s not that I’m seeking acceptance, but I guess I am to some degree; I just don’t want to go to battle about truth as I’ve really learned it. I have shared Michael Spencer’s strength in weakness post with others since he articulated so well what I have been experiencing. My marriage was in sudden crisis; the kind of crises that destroys most relationships. I found God while lying on the ground screaming, “You say you stand at the door and knock, but I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you. If you’re real, please God, let me hear you.” The transformation is mine as much as my spouse’s. It’s not what well-meaning Christian friends and family seem to understand. I’m not a super hero for forgiving. I’m not strong. I’m terribly weak and terribly hurt. It’s not at all about me. Surrender, not victory gospel. Pain, sorrow, gasp, anti-depressants, but held. Knowing I will be OK and that OK means nothing that is used to. I wouldn’t go back to the day before four months and one week ago today if I could. And I really thought I had it all. I looked good in church on Sundays too. Perfect, happy shiny is a facade I can no longer accept for myself.

  11. You’re in my head. Spooky. Fights within, temptation, outward calm, admiration of others at church while you feel like sin personified. Obedience not the issue, just trust. I acknowledge His sovereignty, but have trouble acknowledging His grace.
    All I can say, Jeff, is that I have seen better days. And I have heard Him speak to me, wretch that I am.

  12. Charles Fines says:

    Many years back my life situation was crumbling underneath and all around me. I had a dream, one of those maybe should be called a vision it was so vivid. Anyway I remember it as clearly today as back then, perhaps twenty-five years ago..

    I was clinging to the end of a rope, a big rope, maybe an inch in diameter. All around me was a thick fog and a strong wind was blowing across making the rope sway and shudder. I was secure, my legs wrapped around the rope and my feet jammed on a knot at the end, but all I could see was the fog rushing past me and the rope disappearing up into it perhaps ten feet above me. I could have been three feet above the ground or three thousand, there was no way to tell. For all I knew I was hanging from a sky hook in a cloud.

    And then.the recognition hit me. I wasn’t hanging suspended on this rope in a wind with gravity pulling me down, I was being whirled around and around like a planet around a sun by someone at the other end of the rope, and it was centrifugal force, not gravity, that kept the rope taut and me hanging on to the end of it. And I knew it was Jesus, feet planted and dug in, more than strong enough to swing me around like that, and that’s all there was– me, the rope, the fog, and Jesus on the other end, unseen. There wasn’t anything else. Period. Everything else was gone. All I had to do was hang on. That’s all I could do.

    And that’s it. There wasn’t any resolution or ending. I woke up and realized this was my real life situation. It still is, even tho sometimes I get distracted by the movie of my life. It is my understanding that Jesus fought his way to the cross his whole life on Earth and it was not easy. I believe he relates to our struggles from first hand experience. It is also my understanding that life on this planet is much more difficult than other places, It is like we have been accepted in the best school available anywhere. Sometimes I just have to shrug and say “Life is hard”. It still seems like the better alternative to letting go of the rope.

    I find it encouraging that you recognize our triune nature. Our understandings might differ but in my experience few are even aware of its existence, never mind its importance. May God bless and strengthen you, body, soul, and spirit, and light your path with wisdom and love.

  13. Christopher Lake says:

    Jeff,

    At 1:52 A.M. on a Sunday morning, feeling a bit bewildered by recent changes in my life… I want you to know that you are not alone. I will be praying for you. I am reminded of a quote that I read from an Eastern Orthodox priest: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

    Truthfully, I am currently in the midst of many battles. The only one that I’m sure of consistently winning is the battle to simply survive from one day to another. Due to recent major “shake-ups” in my theology and ecclesiology, I don’t currently have a church home. No church, no job, no wife, and no family members where I currently live. I’m reaching out and actively searching for a church (and trying to move to where my job prospects might be better), but right now, things are pretty tough. Lord, have mercy.