Struggle, Progress, and Beauty

It is a struggle to live out our faith. But we can see that in ways that owe more to secular trends than to Scripture and obscure the teaching that our lives can show the beauty of life in Christ and his gospel.

     There is a tendency in Christian circles today to emphasize struggle, brokenness, woundedness, and failure. This is commendable in certain ways. It corrects the baleful effects of the prosperity gospel and soft perfectionism. A false accent on the victories of believers presents an impossible ideal. It tends to silence people who fear that their struggles represent shameful aberrations, so that they decide they cannot seek help. Beyond that, Scripture encourages realism. With dozens of psalms of lament and confession and candid accounts of the woes endured by heroes of the faith, from Abraham to Jesus to Paul, we have ample reasons to affirm that discipleship is arduous.

     Nonetheless, a constant emphasis on struggle and brokenness misrepresents biblical theology. We ought to grow in faith, as Abraham did (Rom. 4: 20, 2 Thess. 1:3). We should lay aside the sin that entangles us (Heb. 12:1), “cast off the works of darkness” (Rom. 13:11) and “put off the old self” with its “deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22-23). To be direct, believers can and should grow morally and spiritually. We should aspire to grow toward maturity and it is not prideful to recognize that we make progress, nor is it wrong for us to say so - for example, “A year ago, I would have lost my temper instead of walking away.”

     In recent years, however, it seems increasingly difficult to say, “I am making progress” or even “I’m living in a pleasant place” (Ps. 16:6). We live in a culture of complaint. When we honor victims and scorn the privileged, people will not publicly say they have a great family, or enjoyed an excellent education, or have marketable skills and emotional resources that let them live without anxiety. No, people trumpet their suffering and compete to see who can claim more pain or betrayal. This has gained the force of habit, but we also know that those who suffer receive the stamp of authenticity and therefore gain the right to be heard.

     It is necessary to question all this and many have started to do so. In 2018, actress Ali Wentworth wrote an article asking “When Did a Happy Marriage Become So Taboo?”[1] She starts with a faux confession: “I have a dirty little secret… I’m happily married. It might be my most boring attribute, and there’s nothing I can do about it! I love my husband and he loves me.” Unfortunately, this makes her a social misfit at “girly soirees.” When the talk “turns to marital affairs… I feel anxiety course through me” since she feels that she doesn’t belong. One music critic proposed 1991 as the year musical discourse changed. That was the year of grunge rock, led by Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, and “anti-happy” songs about abuse, violence, drugs, war and depression suddenly prevailed.[2]

     It is misguided to succumb to this mentality for at least three reasons. First, Scripture both invites and commands God’s children to be thankful, to let gratitude fill our hearts and mouths. We should sing “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:2) and the praise should not be confined to corporate worship. When God’s Spirit fills us, we give thanks “always” (Eph. 5:18-20). Even the psalms of lament end with gratitude or triumph, almost every time:

     “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”

          —let Israel now say—

     “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,

          yet they have not prevailed against me

     The LORD is righteous;

          he has cut the cords of the wicked” (Ps. 129:1-2, 4).

     Second, Scripture teaches disciples that their lives can and should adorn the gospel and let its beauty show. Paul told Titus, his formidable representative, “Show yourself… to be a model of good works” and urged women and slaves to do the same in order that “they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:7-10, 1 Tim. 2:9, 1 Pet. 3:5). At best, Jesus says, our light so shines that the world will “see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

     Third, as Matthew 5:16 suggests, a beautiful life can lead to evangelism. As Christians see their status shift from “minority” to “scorned minority,” they must consider how they engage the world. Classic apologetic methods from decades ago have lost efficacy. Almost no one wants to hear evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus. And it is almost impossible to advance biblical views of marriage and sexuality in the public square today. This had led Rod Dreher to advance “The Benedict Option,” the quasi-monastic formation of semi-isolated communities of the faithful who form their lives without the constant intrusion of this secular age. Dreher, who is the first to list the weaknesses in his proposal, hopes that islands of faith and virtue can preserve genuine Christianity (much as monasteries did in the Middle Ages) and eventually refresh societies that have lost their way.

     We can respect Dreher’s core insight without endorsing his program. Many Protestant theologians believe that the best way to advance the biblical view of marriage is through practices, not lectures (secularists aren’t listening). But we can form good marriages and healthy families and then open our homes. By God’s grace, we can adorn the gospel and so win people to it. People may not ask the questions we want them to ask: Who is Jesus? How can I overcome the problem of guilt?” But they do ask legitimate questions: Who am I? Does life have meaning? How can I find the joy, strength, fulfillment, and virtue I long for?[3] Because of our union with Christ and the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, believers can make moral progress. We can strive, without an ironic wink, for a beautiful life. This pleases the Lord and verifies his word, which says that those who trust God and heed his word “will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4, 6). Furthermore, sin ensnares people (Prov. 5:23. 1 Tim. 6:9) and most eventually notice it. When they do, they may look for alternatives, observe that Christian practices seem to work, and then explore the faith.

     So yes, let us admit that we struggle, but let us also humbly say this: Because of our union with Christ and the transforming work of God’s Spirit, our lives can be beautiful and point, however imperfectly, to Christ.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.

[1] Ali Wentworth, “When Did a Happy Marriage Become So Taboo?” (Town & Country, April 8, 2018).

[2] Brian Wawzenek, “In Defense of… R.E.M.’s Shiny Happy People” (Diffuser, November 10, 2017).

[3] See Dan Strange, Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith with What you Watch, Read, and Play.


Dan Doriani