Inner struggles are a part of our process of spiritual rebirth. There are many words used to describe these spiritual struggles: Temptation. The dark night of the soul. Spiritual anguish. Depression. The book of Revelation calls these dark and troublesome times “the hour of trial” (Revelation 3:10).
Why is all this struggle and heartbreak necessary?
Why can’t our life just be easy and happy?
Because it is the times of darkness and struggle that sift our soul.
We all have parts of ourselves that are not so good. And we cling to them. Our times of trial and suffering bring us face to face with those destructive parts of ourselves. Through these struggles, their grip on us is loosened. We gradually let go of our self-centeredness and our focus on material things, and learn compassion for others and trust in God.
Our times of depression and despair are never pleasant. Yet these are the passages that define our life. These are the moments when we choose whether to move upward or downward.
As painful as they are, our times of spiritual struggle forge us into the deeper, wiser, and more compassionate person that God created us to be.
Why Is Life So Hard?
We all have difficult times. Sometimes they are sparked by a particular event in our life. Someone we love dies or becomes seriously ill. We become seriously ill ourselves. A relationship breaks up. We find ourselves out of work. A friend betrays our trust.
Other times we can’t put our finger on any particular event that brought on our depression and struggle. We just have a general feeling that everything is wrong. Or there may be a whole series of events that build up and build up until we’ve reached the breaking point.
Sometimes depression is brought on by the very thought that nothing at all seems to have happened in our life for much too long a time—that we are stuck in a rut. We may begin to wonder whether it’s really worth it to keep on going.
Whatever the reason, we all have times when the going is rough.
Why does life have to be so hard? Wouldn’t it be a lot better if only good things happened to us, and no bad things?
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) points us toward an answer to these difficult questions. He says:
Before being reduced to order, it is very common for everything to fall into confusion that looks like chaos. This allows things that do not go well together to separate from each other, and once they are separated, the Lord arranges them into their proper places. (Secrets of Heaven #842)
Things that don’t go well together
The fact is, all of us have things in our life that don’t belong there.
There are things we believe that just aren’t true. One of our most common wrong beliefs is that we are in some way better or more special than everyone else. On the other hand, some of us believe that we are the worst person on earth, which is also not true.
There are things we feel, or want to do, that just aren’t good. Impatience, unwarranted anger, self-centeredness. The list could go on and on. We all have parts of ourselves that do not fit in with the person God created us to be.
And we cling tenaciously to these parts of ourselves. We like to think we’re better or smarter or nicer than other people. We feel justified in being impatient and angry when things don’t go the way we think they should. And putting ourselves at the center seems easier than taking all those other people’s feelings into account.
On our own, we’re not likely to do anything about any of these flaws in our character. Unless something comes along to shake us up, these hurtful parts of ourselves will continue right along with the good parts.
There is death in the air . . . and in the blood
In fact, it’s worse than that. If something doesn’t come along to break us out of our bad habit patterns, they will build up and become worse and worse until they choke out our life.
Swedenborg gives us two memorable images of how this happens.
It is like the weather, he says. If there weren’t storms and wind, the noxious gases in the air would build up until they became deadly. City dwellers know that windless days and weeks mean smoggy, oppressive air. And we have all experienced the beautiful, clear, calm air after a raging storm. Without wind and storms, we lose our supply of fresh, healthful air. Without wind and storms, it could get to the point where we can’t breathe at all.
Inner struggles are also like the circulation of our blood. If the heart did not continually pump the blood around our body and mix it together on its way through, the natural processes of clotting and congealing would take over. Without the chaos of mixing that takes place in our heart and arteries, our lifeblood would literally freeze solid in our veins.
It is the same with the spiritual breath of our thoughts and beliefs, and with our spiritual lifeblood of love and compassion. As long as we have within us the pollutants and toxins of self-centeredness and materialism, and all the wrong thoughts and feelings that come from them, we need the storms of inner struggle and temptation to stir things up so that God can help us to remove the bad parts of ourselves while strengthening the good parts.
In the Gospels we find a picture of what this struggle can be like:
They went to a place named Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch.”
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. And when he returned he found them sleeping again, because their eyes were heavy, and they did not know how to answer him. (Mark 14:32-40)
For Jesus, this struggle took the form of anguished prayer before he was to undergo his most difficult struggle of all: the crucifixion. Even his closest friends and followers, Peter, James, and John, could not stay awake and support him at that time. From a human perspective, he was all alone in his suffering. And that is just how we feel when we hit the skids of depression and despair: alone, without a friend in the world.
We may or may not have a friend in the world. Usually we do, but we may feel too paralyzed to turn to any of our friends. Of course, like Jesus, we do have a friend in heaven. God will never abandon us, even when we abandon God. But when we are in the hour of trial we usually don’t realize that. We feel that we must face the inner storm clouds on our own.
Whether or not we realize that God is still with us, the way we face our inner struggles will determine whether we grow as a result of them, or sink deeper into the pit.
Spiritual struggle or material anxiety?
Before looking into this further, though, it might be helpful to mention that not all of our tough times involve spiritual struggles. Some of them are simply material anxieties.
How can we tell the difference?
If we are upset only about physical or material things, such as being sick or having a financial setback, then it is material anxiety, not spiritual temptation that we are dealing with. Yes, we do have to take care of our material circumstances, but by themselves they do not affect our spiritual development all that much.
However, if our struggles are about spiritual things—about our relationships with other people and with God—then it is a spiritual trial that we are experiencing. If we are dealing with issues of whether we can believe in God and love God, and whether we can love, understand, and care for the people in our life, including ourselves, then we are struggling with the deeper aspects of our life.
The result of these struggles will deeply affect our spiritual development. If we come out with a renewed sense that loving others is what is most important to us, and that we have work to do, the spiritual course of our life will be very different than if we give in to despair, and let the self-absorbed and materialistic parts of ourselves rule our life.
Sooner or later, the outcome will affect the physical course of our life as well. When push comes to shove, we will act differently if we are motivated by love for God and the neighbor than if we are motivated only by self-love and a desire for material possessions and pleasures.
When it comes to spiritual temptations, the stakes are high: it is our eternal life that is in the balance. Will we spend eternity in the heavenly community that is formed within us and around us when we love and care for each other? Or will we spend eternity in the hell that we create for ourselves when we care only for ourselves and our own pleasure and possessions, and use others as a means to achieve our own ends?
Facing our spiritual struggles
With this perspective on our spiritual struggles, let’s look at a few things that might be helpful when we are faced with them.
There is no magic formula that will pull us through every time. The reason we are struggling in the first place is that we are facing issues that are deep and difficult for us. The chaos of conflicting emotions is an essential part of the sorting out process that must take place before calm and clarity can come to our inner life. It would be a mistake to try to short-circuit that process by jumping to quick solutions.
Still, there are things that help.
Simply knowing that these bouts of confusion and depression are a normal part of our spiritual growth can in itself help us to weather them through. It’s like seeing where we are on a map. It doesn’t make the trip any shorter, but it certainly is nice to know that we’re on the right road!
One of our best weapons in facing the hour of trial is the spiritual truth we have learned from the Bible, from our church, from spiritual teachers, or from any other source. When we are in the middle of an internal struggle, all sorts of arguments are flying back and forth in our head. One side is saying it’s not worth it, and we should just give up. The other side is saying it certainly is worth it, and we have to see this through to the end. If, in the time of struggle, we remind ourselves of what we’ve learned about God’s constant presence with us, about the vital importance of loving each other, and about the process of temptation and spiritual growth itself, we can strengthen the side of us that cares about what happens, and help ourselves to achieve victory in our inner battles.
A very present help in trouble
Another thing that can help is to break out of the isolation that we often go into when we are feeling down, and reach out to someone we love and trust. After all, one of the main lessons that we are here on earth to learn is how to support and care for each other. When we share our pain and confusion with someone else, we find that we are not alone. We also experience something of mutual love by the very act of letting someone else into our pain, and letting them show their love and concern for us. This strengthens the spiritual love within us, and weakens our self-absorption—which is the very thing that needs to be sifted out of us during this period of confusion and chaos.
In the end, though, it is only when we turn to God that we will fully experience the new life that can come after we weather the storm of temptation. God is the source of all love and understanding. Without a conscious recognition of God in our life, we can’t tap directly into the source of everything good that happens to us. If we do not recognize that it is really God who is fighting and winning for us, we will eventually fall back into ourselves, and plunge right back into the same mess we were trying to get out of.
We will not always feel God’s presence when we are in the middle of the struggles. But afterwards we can realize that without God’s help, we would never have been able to pull through. The trust and reliance on God that this builds in us lays the foundation for a lasting spiritual life.
The calm after the storm
We have all faced struggles of one kind or another, and we will all face them again. But we are not left without help in the hour of trial. The cup of anguish will not always be taken away from us. Yet if through the difficult passages of our life we gain more compassion for one another. And if we also gain greater faith in God’s presence within and among us, then the storm of temptation will eventually turn into the beautiful, calm, sunny day of mutual love and understanding.
Thoughts from Emanuel Swedenborg
We go through spiritual struggles only if we are being reborn. Spiritual struggle is psychological distress brought on by evil spirits when we do good things and have true ideas. We experience the anguish of inner struggle when these evil spirits stir up the bad traits in us. Since we do not realize that this is the source of these struggles, we have no idea where they come from. . . .
People who do not do good things or have true ideas can also have inner anguish, but it is materialistic, not spiritual. You can tell the difference because materialistic anguish is about material things, while spiritual anguish is about heavenly things.
Our inner struggles are fought over whether our good traits will have control over our bad ones, or the other way around. The bad traits that want to get control of us are in our outer, material self, while the good ones are in our inner, spiritual self. If our bad traits win, our material self will be in control of us. If the good ones win, our spiritual self will be in control. (The New Jerusalem #187, 189–190)
This article is © 2016 by Lee Woofenden
For further reading:
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- How does God Govern Humankind? Is God Actively Involved in our Lives?
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth