When we hear the word jihad our minds race to the horrific scenes of 9/11 or to the many other acts of terror that have been perpetrated in the name of religion. However, some Muslim scholars have distinguished between the “lesser jihad,” which is the struggle against the enemies of Islam, and the “greater jihad,” which is the inner personal struggle against sin and to fulfill one’s religious duties. I have spoken with my Muslim friends who believe that it is this internal suffering as one struggles with human nature which is the true understanding of jihad (al-jihad fi subil Allah; striving in the way of God).
There is a certain affinity here with our Christian understanding of sanctification, which is the divine process or work in the soul of the believer whereby he/she comes to exhibit the life and character of Jesus Christ. Sanctification is composed of two basic parts which happen in us at the same time: mortification and quickening. Mortification is where we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in “crucifying the old man,” “putting to death the flesh,” “denying ourselves”; various ways of describing the ongoing struggle against our human nature. At the same time, God’s Spirit continues to quicken our souls with new life; where our desire for holiness increases, and where a new course in life is set and promoted. Someone has likened it to the old structures of sin being torn down and the new structures of God gradually erected. Sanctification is a work of God, but we are engaged in the process—and it is a struggle.
I think we have failed to realize what a struggle it is to be a follower of Christ. We tend to define suffering in the Christian life as the result of persecution or the effects of sin and sickness in this world. Rarely do we hear of struggle and suffering as part of the drama of discipleship as we say “no” to our nature’s attachment to this world and “yes” to the narrow gate obedience (Luke 13:24) to God. In fact, we are almost embarrassed to talk of our struggles. We certainly must not be very good Christians if we continue to struggle with sin.
Is it any wonder then that we can’t imagine a God who would give us a sexual ethic that is so pure and exclusive that it often demands suffering in order to live up to it? I can’t have two wives, but I must limit myself to one regardless of what my culture says. We cannot simply live together, enjoying conjugal freedoms like so many in our culture, without first committing ourselves to each other by entering into the covenant of marriage. My marriage must be to a woman and not to another man; the same sex attraction of my human nature does not invalidate a creation mandate and design. Celibacy is the alternative to marriage’s sexual intimacy. And within my marriage, I must be monogamous in my sexual intimacy—this excludes emotional affairs as well as pornographic fantasy.
All of the above is a part of my discipleship and it involves suffering because I must deny what my flesh craves and what my culture views as normative. Yet, it is through suffering that I am driven to a deeper trust in a redemptive God who has a purpose for me, and that purpose cannot be found apart from his sanctifying love. He is shaping me to look like Jesus and that process is going to be a painful one because it is antithetical to my sinful human nature. So let’s talk about our struggles and about our pain because they are a vital part of our discipleship.
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? My son, do not regard lightly the disciples of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:3-5).