This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: No faith without struggle

When we visit family in Lima, Peru, that cement city hustling under a concrete sky, we’re always a little taken aback by the traffic. Though our surprise could be chalked up to country-mouse sensibilities, Lima’s streets are genuinely jammed after two decades of urbanization and economic growth during which public transport has failed to keep up. People edge their vehicles into the flow, motorcycles wriggling between them, executing sleights of wheel in a stop-and-go, ride-the-clutch judo of honking and metal.

Brad Roth

It all seems like it ought to be a metaphor for something. Maybe the struggle for authentic human life.

In the Book of Nehemiah, Ezra the priest prays out long-form the story of the people of Israel as they struggle to live out the authentic human life. It’s a prayer of confession, part of Ezra’s project to rebuild the people of Israel, just as Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem and Zerubbabel rebuilds the temple.

And while the prayer emphasizes the sins of the people and God’s justice in punishing Israel by means of the exile in Babylon, Ezra also prays that God “not treat lightly all the hardship that has come upon us” (Neh. 9:32).

It’s a subtle snag that keeps the story complicated. Ezra’s is no two-dimensional morality tale: right/wrong, sin/righteousness, do this/don’t do that. Morality tales can never do justice to the bioluminescent human story.

Ezra’s is a story of struggle. There’s sin and failure and the soul-deep grief of fall and exile. But above all there’s the story of faith’s struggle, of Abram going out and Moses going in, of manna and mercy and God’s faithfulness, which is not corroded by human unfaithfulness.

Faith is a form of struggle. Of course, faith also involves belief, but belief is a growing thing, a sometimes wavering thing, that we live out in fragmentary fits and starts. Biblical faith is defined by struggle: the internal struggle with self and sin but also the external struggle against all that threatens to keep human beings from being less than alive in God.

Struggle is a sculpted and three-dimensional concept: the drive to be fully human, walking before the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 116:9).

Struggle flows from commitment. We forget this too, imagining in our individualistic cultural moment that the spiritual journey is one of discovering and claiming our truest self, as if there were some pure nugget of soul hidden within us.

But the Scriptures don’t trust our capacity for self-discovery. The heart’s too devious to find its own way (Jer. 17:9). Even the prophet Nathan, the man of God who heard the voice of God, was led astray by his longing for a permanent temple. He told king David to follow his heart, “for the Lord is with you” (2 Sam. 7:3).

But God had a more complicated story in mind, and his word sent the prophet and the king down a different track.

In the Scriptures, the commitment worth struggling for is the commitment to God. God’s faithfulness is demonstrated by God’s steadfast commitment to his people, despite their failures (Neh. 9:32).

Human commitment plays out in the struggle to live faithful to God. Ezra’s prayer inspired the priests and Levites to seal their commitment in writing and for the rest of the people to make a vow of faithfulness to the stipulations of the law, separation from the surrounding nations, and support of the temple (Neh. 9:38-10:26; 10:28-39).

Biblical faith looks like commitment lived out in struggle. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, “Israel” was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God, and the name “Israel” is often taken to mean “struggle with God.”

In this faith, there are no easy answers, no easy path. But there will be the possibility of life lived authentically in Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 13:2).

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs at His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, was recently released by Herald Press.

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