This morning, a friend of mine linked to this post http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/11/30/so-you-want-my-job-master-penman/#.WRNVMGOH43w.facebook from the generally amusing and readable blog The Art of Manliness. It’s about Jake Weidmann, one of only 11 people in the United States to hold the title of Master Penman. He’s a calligrapher of awe-inspiring ability, and in the post, he details the massive amount of work and practice it took him to reach his current eminence.
Weidmann has a lot of interesting things to say (I’m particularly amused that his primary hobby is weightlifting), but one comment of his struck me as downright profound. The AoM blogger asked him for life advice, and his first comment was, “Choose to struggle with something.” He observes that most people in our society are impatient and lazy. As a result, they’re unwilling to devote years to the patient development of true skill.
Choose to struggle. That’s got some resonance to it! Certainly, there are struggles in everyone’s lives, but choosing to struggle is not about enduring the crises that are forced upon us. Choosing to struggle is about finding a mountain (whether literal or metaphorical), determining to climb it, and then doing so. Nobody is making you climb the mountain, climbing the mountain isn’t going to be fun in the couch-potato sense of the word, but you climb the mountain anyway, for the sake of excellence.
This is an attitude with profound spiritual implications, and that’s true even outside of the Christian sphere. For instance, I recently read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and a prestigious job with a Washington think-tank, but he chucked it all to open a vintage motorcycle-repair shop. He decided that the feeling of accomplishment, of overcoming challenges and expanding his hard-won skill, mattered more to him than money and prestige. He’s not at all religious (so far as I could tell), but his intuitions accord well with the Bible’s observations about the emptiness of wealth and fame.
Of course, I am particularly concerned with the Christian sphere, and from a Scriptural perspective, choosing to struggle accomplishes several important goals:
It makes us useful. Paul observes in 2 Timothy 2:20-23 that not all Christians are equally useful in the kingdom. However, usefulness or its lack do not result from the gifts we have been given. Instead, it results from our determination to be holy. Christians who get caught up in youthful passions and don’t bother to develop virtue will never rise above a wood-and-clay level. They will never be vessels that glorify God’s house. However, Christians who struggle to master these things can attain to the silver-and-gold level, useful for every work that God needs done.
It builds our character. In James 1:2-4, the Lord’s brother famously discusses the importance of trial in the development of spiritual maturity. Unless we are tested, we will never grow. This may be even truer of the testing we invite than of the testing that is forced upon us.
Here, I think we have an opportunity to learn about spiritual fitness by considering bodily fitness. I have a life with a low to moderate amount of bodily testing, just as most Christians in the U.S. face a low to moderate amount of spiritual trial (as compared to, for instance, Stephen in Acts 7). I have a lot of nervous energy and spend a fair amount of time every day pacing. I shovel my driveway in winter, mow my yard in summer, and periodically take on various home-improvement projects. All of that keeps me at a certain baseline level of fitness, but it doesn’t push me to my limits.
Instead, I bump up that baseline and push those limits by my choice to work out for half an hour a day, six days a week. My increased fitness then makes me better able to handle the physical tests that are part of my normal existence. For instance, I can help brethren move without worrying that I’m going to blow my back out because I know that my core is in good shape.
The same is true of spiritual self-discipline. If I constantly work on increasing my usefulness to Christ, that spiritual struggle cannot help but benefit me in my striving against sin. I can bear up more easily under spiritual hardship as well because I’m used to subjecting myself to it.
It honors God. One of my favorite stories about David appears in 1 Chronicles 21. To summarize, David disobeys God by ordering a census of Israel. God punishes him by sending a pestilence. He then instructs him to keep the pestilence away from Jerusalem by building an altar and offering sacrifices at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (where, incidentally, David’s son Solomon would build the temple).
Ornan is overawed by the coming of the king and offers to give him the wood and sacrifices for the offering without being paid. However, in 21:24, David replies, “No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” He recognized that sacrifices (in the denotative sense) require sacrifice (in the connotative sense).
Sadly, all too many Christians want to get away with offering to the Lord that which costs them nothing. In areas of service where skill is important, they don’t want to put in the time and effort that will allow them to excel. As a result, there are an awful lot of mediocre worshipers, Bible students, song leaders, Bible-class teachers, and yes, even elders, deacons, and preachers in the Lord’s kingdom.
This is tragic. God deserves better than lackluster results stemming from halfhearted effort. His people ought to strive for excellence in His service. Of course, we may never actually get to excellence because of the limitations imposed by our gifts. I will never be an A+ song leader because I don’t have the voice for it. There’s no shame in giving our best, no matter how good that best is. However, when we don’t even know what our best is because we don’t try to reach it, that is a shame.
Next time: areas of service where we can increase our usefulness by choosing to struggle!
– Matthew Bassford