In the past year or so I have had a few moments where I wondered how I would be able to make it through my PhD. Trying to get through both my languages and my coursework while fulfilling all of my other life responsibilities in life and ministry has felt like scaling a mountain, and at times I have felt overwhelmed. But each time, I find, the feeling of being overwhelmed does not last. It comes—and then it passes. And once it is past, I am able to move forward with new energy and vitality.
What I’ve learned through this is that the very experience of being overwhelmed is itself part of the educational process. I would not learn what I need to learn without it. Its a purifying, refining, and energizing ingredient that is necessary for me to be at my best, necessary for producing the kind of drive and edge involved in really good thinking and writing. Without failure, without being overwhelmed, without getting punched in the nose now and again, we would grow flat-footed, complacent. When a punch sneaks through our defenses and smacks us in the face, we become poised, on our toes, alert, eager. That is why I think there are few healthier experiences in life than failing at something. Failing a test, for example, teaches us humility, teaches us our need for gospel identity, teaches us just how much we don’t know yet. Maybe the most telling thing about our character is how we take a punch. That bitter first moment right after we realize we have fallen flat on our faces—what we do there says more about our view of the gospel than any of our systematic constructs or formulae.
I wonder if this pattern of struggle –> resolution is how all true growth occurs, including spiritual growth. We get overwhelmed, we hang on, and then we know what to do. We hit roadblocks, we persevere through them, and then we surge forward. The way forward therefore often looks like we’re stalling out. It seems, for instance, that spiritual breakthrough often comes after long patterns of discouragement, or after extended seasons of dryness or doubt. This is, of course, the pattern left behind for us by the cross and empty tomb, and I think it is the fundamental analogue for all true progress, the archetypal pattern of all true and lasting accomplishment.
If all true progress is resurrection progress, and therefore all true progress requires some kind of death and apparent failure, one immediate application point is, don’t lose heart when faithfulness appears to be getting you nowhere. Sometimes the way forward comes by persevering through failure, walking straight into our fears, getting back up after taking a punch to the nose. After all, Jesus’ death is our paradigm as well as our salvation. It is the mechanism of our salvation, but also the pattern we must follow. Lord, teach us to walk by faith, trusting that bitter Friday afternoons on the path of obedience will always lead to bright Sunday mornings.