I really wish I could tell you that I’ve always experienced the victory of Christ. But for most of my life, I’ve experienced disappointment instead.
It began when I first learned about being filled with the Spirit in college. Using Ephesians 5, parachurch ministry staff taught me that walking in lock-step with the Holy Spirit would free me from persistent sin.
I felt excited as I looked down at the curriculum. I was desperate for whole-life transformation.
But I also felt nervous. What if I failed?
I wish my fears had been groundless. But in truth, in the years that followed, I grew bitterly disappointed about how far away victory seemed. I was pretty convinced that either the training had been garbage, life didn’t work like Paul described, or I was just the most incompetent Christian on earth.
One night, I fell on my knees before God, weeping that I was not the Christian I wanted to be. I felt naked and ashamed—but being that honest with God opened my eyes to Christ’s presence and power. Ironically, my moment of weakness began to unleash the Spirit’s power I’d yearned for.
In the years since, I’ve come to see my persistent struggles in a new light. I’ve become both more realistic and also more hopeful about the possibility of whole-life transformation. Now I see I misunderstood what finding victory would look like—and what to do instead.
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Reimagine What "Perfect" Means
I’ll be honest: Matthew 5:48 has never been my favorite verse. In it, Jesus counsels, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Yeah right, Jesus, I’ve always thought. I’ll just become twinsies with the Creator of the universe.
But recently, my understanding of that word perfect changed.
In Bob Johnson’s The Genesis Project, I learned that the word translated “perfect” is teleios. Johnson explains, “[teleios is] when something becomes what it was created to be… For example, when an acorn becomes an oak tree, that is teleios.”
This is a different kind of perfection. My idea of perfect felt cold, inhuman, and unreachable. A fully flourishing oak, on the other hand, sounds gorgeous. Also, I have never met someone perfect, but I have held an acorn in my hand.
Rather than pointing us to unreachable perfection, Jesus is actually urging us to be who God created us to be. And God created us to be human. We are called to be like God only in that God is the great I am—perfectly who God is, eternally whole.
Re-reading “perfect” as teleios invites us to tell a more human story about what God expects. Yes, sin and struggle are serious problems. But flourishing is God’s goal, not perfect sin management.
But even if we do focus on flourishing instead of perfect execution, what do we do about persistent struggles that grieve us every day?
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Look at God's Model of Transformation in Nature
I used to think of healing like a computer update. Through spiritual disciplines, I’d open my brain for renewal, God would download a new set of code into my synapses, and when I rebooted, my problems would be solved.
Spoiler alert: computers do not appear in Christ’s teachings. Instead, when he preaches God’s Kingdom, he often talks about living, growing things. What if we used nature for our model of transformation?
1. Nature is full of repetition: The sun rises and falls, seasons cycle predictably every year. It shouldn’t surprise us when we encounter old struggles over and over.
2. Nature involves death and life: Plants blossom and die. Seeds disappear to sprout. Dead things break down to feed new life. We should not expect a faith stuck in springtime, but both positive and negative experiences.
3. Nature takes time: Sequoias, tortoises and elephants take decades to mature. We often can’t perceive the incremental growth of our own children. So why do we expect instant, obvious results in our faith?
I want to solve my problems, but we would never talk about solving a struggling plant. Gardeners might notice it has pests, disease, or inadequate sunlight, but wouldn’t expect it to be problem-free, get rid of aphids once and for all, or transplant a mangrove tree to the desert. Expecting limitations and difficulties are the rule in nature; why do we not give ourselves the same grace?
As we desire to change, we need to have realistic expectations. To do so, we need to avoid technological mindsets and get inspiration from creation.
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Try New Approaches with Grace
Of course, if we expect all spiritual change to be imperceptible, we might get dangerously passive and settle for staying stuck in unhealthy patterns.
Take my struggle with anxiety. Most of my Christian life, I had what seemed like an airtight plan for dealing with it. I committed to praying more, reading my Bible more, and doing other worthy spiritual things. Surely, the anxiety would stop if I just stuck to the plan.
When it didn’t work, I told myself I hadn’t tried hard enough, and doubled down. Then, I gave up altogether, feeling ashamed and cynical.
Notice what I did not do: I did not try anything new.
Look, I believe in the power of prayer or other spiritual disciplines to transform lives. I just don’t think God only calls us to seek spiritual solutions. Over and over, when God calls people to repentance and transformation, they’re asked to change their lives, not just bow their heads.
In my case, I did not make serious inroads into my anxiety until I began to do very practical things:
1. I got therapy.
2. I grieved previous trauma.
3. I began to have better, healthier boundaries in my relationships.
4. I started saying no to activities and commitments that increased my anxiety.
5. I learned how to care for myself when I felt anxious.
6. I pursued joy in my spiritual life instead of dull obligation.
Prayer, scripture, or other spiritual practices can absolutely help us find victory over our struggles—but they are not God’s only tools.
If you have struggled with a particular problem for years and nothing has worked, try something different. Get wise counsel to see past your blind spots. Consider how your past, priorities, mental health, family life, or other areas keep you from changing. Put everything on the table to find wholeness.
Of course, trying new things can feel incredibly scary. Every time I’ve tried a new approach to an old struggle, I’ve had to grieve how previous attempts didn’t work, and find courage to keep hope alive. Just the idea of new approaches brings up anger, cynicism, and bitterness.
As best as you can, lower the stakes for new approaches. Commit to trying new things, not succeeding at them. Remember that growth is messy and unpredictable. Give yourself permission to be honest with yourself and God about how you feel. Then, step by baby step, move toward new ideas.
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Remember to Dance
I grew up studying ballet. In class, after each exercise, the teacher would call out one or two students for corrections, telling them how to fix a mistake. It was considered an honor; teachers only corrected the best students.
One day, a professional dancer took our class, and I watched her in awe. The joy of her craft shone through her face during the simplest, most basic exercises. Rather than executing steps dutifully, she danced.
I don’t want to discount the importance of confessing and repenting of sin. Like my ballet classes, being open to God’s correction is a life-giving part of faith.
But if we solely focus on avoiding mistakes, we have lost sight of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. We can forget to dance.
In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert said that fear is boring. Sin is the same way. It does not deserve the bulk of our attention because it is, by definition, not God’s best for us.
Struggles are a reality of faith, and being honest about them is part of God’s healing work in our lives. But only focusing on our weaknesses is not the point of the Kingdom. Instead, God wants us to humbly look past our limitations, become more fully ourselves, honor the growth patterns of natural things, and be willing to try new approaches when we get stuck.
In the end, we are not the ones that overcome our struggles, atone for our sins, or grow in the Spirit. God does those things for us. Like a ballerina lifted and carried by a partner, it becomes possible to be freed from the weight of the world.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Photo Credit: © Unsplash/Matthew Hamilton
Originally published Monday, 25 November 2019.