The Struggle of Following Jesus

canstockphoto0757732What does it mean to be “close to the Lord”? That’s a phrase that I’ve heard all my life, though I’m not sure it was ever defined for me. It was never a phrase that a person would use to describe themselves; no one who was truly close to the Lord would ever tell someone, “I’m close to the Lord.” It was always used to describe another person. “John sure is close to the Lord.” “I love my Bible study leader; she’s so close to the Lord.”

But just what is was about those persons that caused someone to make that claim about them was never clearly stated, like it was one of those things you knew when you saw it even if you couldn’t quite put it into words.

Thinking back on it, a person who was close to the Lord seemed to have a more than just a good working knowledge of the Bible—they had deep insights into Scripture, perhaps were able to quote various verses by heart. And when they prayed the words just rolled out easily in a soothing tone, no repetition, no hesitation, no churchy catch-phrases, just a conversation (albeit one-sided) between two friends.

A person close to the Lord was prominent in church, not in a bossy, power-wielding way, but in a humble way that seemed to draw people to them. They used religious language skillfully and naturally; it never seemed forced or showy.

A person close to the Lord was kind and gentle and shared their faith effortlessly. In fact, that seemed to be the singular trait of everyone who was close to the Lord—it all seemed so effortless, so natural, almost intuitive.

I’m sure I wanted to be like that—who doesn’t want to be close to the Lord?—but I never was. To be honest, when I tried to act like that it seemed forced. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t how the Christian life was for me.

The Christian life for me was mostly a struggle. About the only thing that was easy for me was showing up for church. While some people talked easily of their quiet time, I struggled to establish a routine of prayer and Bible study. Some people talked of the joy they found in reading the Bible, while I often found myself bored or confused or both.

Some people talked about being “led by the Lord” or that God had told them to do something, and while I sometimes had ideas about something I should do or felt a certain way about things, there was no way to distinguish whether the feeling was the leading of the Lord or whether a thought was from God or not. Feeling like I should give an offering felt pretty much the same as when I felt I wanted some ice cream.

For some people prayer seemed so intimate and friendly, as if God was just sitting down next to them, while for me I could never shake the feeling that I was just talking to myself and hoping that God would overhear.

And sharing my faith was never easy, and I never felt it ever would be. For an introvert, it was excruciating.

So while living the Christian life seemed effortless for those who were close to the Lord, it was always a struggle for me.

Still is.

I reckon I’m better and more skilled at certain things now, but I don’t know that I would call any aspect of the Christian life effortless. At best it’s an effort, and at worst it’s a struggle that makes me question whether I’m making any progress at all.

I have begun to take some solace, however, in the voices I find in Scripture. The psalmist, for instance, who cries out that his soul thirsts and his flesh faints like a dry and waterless land. And Paul who wrote to the Christians that he was afflicted by “disputes without and fears within.” And Jesus, who knew who he was and knew what the Father needed him to do but nonetheless confessed that his soul was troubled.

And I think of the saints of the church throughout history who spoke repeatedly of the dark night of the soul, an extended period in which God seemed distant and even the simplest act of Christian duty seemed excruciatingly pointless. And those who struggled with doubt and faithlessness and yet hung in there in spite of it all.

Maybe, just maybe, those who are close to the Lord aren’t those for whom the things of faith are so effortless, but those for whom it is an absolute struggle, and yet struggle they do. In their perseverance they most demonstrate the essence of faith, that it is continuing to pray even when their prayers fall flat; and continuing to study Scripture when all is confusing and even boring; continuing to cry out to the Lord when he doesn’t seem to be listening.

Maybe that is the very point at which true communion with God begins.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / kk5hy

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