Struggle. The word itself may make us shudder inside. In this culture of “live for yourself; do what feels good; if it doesn’t work for you, quit,” struggle is often labeled as evil, and we feel inclined to avoid it at all costs. Throughout time, humans have disliked struggle and attempted to be freed from it. Some have even considered struggle to be evidence of sin or wrongdoing, even touting freedom from struggle as evidence of godliness.
So, what’s an Orthodox Christian supposed to do with struggle? Should we try to evade it? If we are struggling, does that mean that we are failing in our Christian life?
Let’s begin by taking a look at the scriptures to see what they say about struggle. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for struggle is ἀγωνίζομαι, or agónizomai. It translates to English in different ways, including “to contend for a prize,” as well as “struggle.” We find it in Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able”. We also find it in 1 Corinthians 9:25, “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” I Timothy 4:8-10 also uses the word: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” And we find it again in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” According to the scriptures, struggle is necessary for the Christian life. Striving, competing, laboring, and fighting the good fight all help to urge us in the right direction: toward a deeper faith in God and His Kingdom.
What about the holy fathers? Do they teach us about struggle?
Yes, they do. If we examine their lives, we can learn much about struggle! But they also use words to teach us about it. Here are a handful of their many teachings about struggle:
“Nothing is so incongruous in a Christian, and foreign to his character, as to seek ease and rest.” ~ St John Chrysostom
“Of course, it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!” ~ Elder Anthony of Optina
“Do not grow despondent and enfeebled in spirit, seeing the constant struggle within you of evil against good, but like a good and valiant soldier of Jesus Christ, our great Founder, struggle courageously against evil, looking at the crown, prepared by the Lord for all who conquer evil in this world and in their flesh. ‘To him that overcometh, will I grant to sit with Me in My Throne’(Rev. 3:21).” ~ St. John of Kronstadt
“Brothers, as long as you have breath in your bodies, strive for your salvation. Before the hour comes in which we shall weep for ourselves, let us practice virtue eagerly. For I tell you that if you knew what good things are in heaven, what promise is laid up for the saints and how those who have fallen away from God are punished and also what torments are laid up for those who have been negligent – especially those who have known the truth and have not led a way of life worthy of it so as to inherit that blessedness which is reserved for the saints and to flee the punishments of these torments – then you would endure every pain in order to be made perfect in the virtue which is according to Christ.” ~ St Pachomius
“It is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” ~ St. Tikhon of Voronezh
Struggle. Sometimes it hurts. Always, it is hard. But, according to the scriptures and the holy fathers, it is necessary. Struggle allows us to embrace our Lord more tightly. It enables us to see His hand at work in our life. It provides us with opportunities to trust Him more fully. So, although we may not like struggle, and we may be tempted to try to be freed from it, we must not. Struggle helps us grow away from sin and towards godliness.
May the Lord strengthen us and help us to struggle.
Struggle is not just for us as adults to learn about and embrace. Here are a few ideas to help us teach our Sunday Church School students about struggle:
Poor Ping. He is usually able to grow anything. When the emperor gives out seeds to all of the children and tells them to bring back their plants in one year – and that the plants will choose his successor, Ping cannot get his seed to grow. He struggles all year with that seed, trying everything he can think of, but nothing grows. He has to take the seed, in the dirt, ungrown, to the emperor at the end of the year… This retelling of a Chinese folktale, “The Empty Pot,” by Demi, will be an excellent addition to a lesson on struggle. (You can see the pictures and hear the story here: https://youtube.com/watch?v=nSoqBWPq8U0)
Although these picture books are grouped together as books “addressing perseverance,” some of them definitely feature struggle and could be a great help to a class discussion. https://selfsufficientkids.com/childrens-books-perseverance/
This secular lesson on the benefits of struggle may give you some ideas for helping your students learn the value of this difficult task! https://blog.classcreator.io/teaching-kids-to-struggle-growthmindset/
Show younger students photos or video footage of an animal that needs to struggle in order to thrive. Here are some video links that may be helpful:
Birds emerging from their nest: http://earthporm.com/someone-put-camera-birds-nest-see-caught/
A butterfly emerging from its chrysalis:
Talk together about what you’ve just learned. If these creatures need to physically struggle as part of their normal growth, how much more should we humans both physically and spiritually struggle in order to grow!
Share quotes about struggle from holy people with middle-years or older students as part of a discussion. Choose from those we wrote about in our discussion of struggle, and/or some of these: “Just as people do not enter a war in order to enjoy war, but in order to be saved from war, so we do not enter this world in order to enjoy this world, but in order to be saved from it. People go to war for the sake of something greater than war. So we also enter this temporal life for the sake of something greater: for eternal life. And as soldiers think with joy about returning home, so also Christians constantly remember the end of their lives and their return to their heavenly fatherland.” ~ St. Nikolai Velimirovich
“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched.
What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.” ~ St. John Maximovitch
“Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us, this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.” ~Amma Theodora
Send middle-years or older students searching in the scriptures. What do the scriptures say about struggle? Talk about how, according to the Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for struggle is ἀγωνίζομαι, or agónizomai, which does not just mean struggle. It translates to English in different ways, including “to contend for a prize,” as well as “struggle.” Send them to find it in Luke 13:24, (“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able”.) Can they locate it in 1 Corinthians 9:25? (“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”) How about in I Timothy 4:8-10? (“For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”) The same word is used in 2 Timothy 4:7! (“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”) Comparing these four passages should give the students a better grasp on what agónizomai means, as well as an idea of how important it is to the Christian life! Ask them what they can conclude about it, based on these four passages. (Striving, competing, laboring, and fighting the good fight all help to urge us in the right direction: toward a deeper faith in God and His Kingdom.)
With older students, begin a class on struggle by sharing this article to launch the discussion. The article points out how, in nature, struggle is necessary for growth.
“We can choose to look at all of life’s circumstances as opportunities to be sanctified. We can turn towards Christ instead of trying to face our passions on our own. And lastly, we should take heart and not be discouraged nor become judgmental of others who struggle against passions different from our own.” Teens and adults alike will benefit from reading this blog post on three lessons learned from St. Porphyrios, and it could be easily incorporated into a class on struggle. https://blogs.goarch.org/blog/-/blogs/three-lessons-from-saint-porphyrios