At the end of this past summer, I found myself at a picnic bench having an interesting conversation with one of the student leaders from my youth ministry. We talked about the retreats she attended this past summer. Unfortunately, she wasn’t satisfied with any of them. They didn’t solve the problems she wanted solved. Actually, she felt like the retreat I led particularly made things worse. Rather than removing her struggles, this retreat increased them. She went on to describe how she had been struggling with a number of issues that revolved around the core of her faith. She was burdened and exhausted from the wrestling match. She wanted to be done. She had hoped the retreats would remove the struggle. They didn’t, and she was disappointed.
But the conversation took an unexpected turn. Out of the blue, she asked me, “How does someone learn humility?” I responded by saying, “You may not like this answer, but you learn humility through the various struggles you’ve had this past summer.” I was right; she didn’t like my answer. Yet, that didn’t make my answer any less true.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about a time in his life when he had a number of struggles. He says, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (1:8-9). This sounds very similar to the conversation I had with this teenage girl–burdened, exhausted. Why did this happen to Paul? For this very reason: “…to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9). All of the affliction he encountered–all of the wrestling he endured–happened so that he would not rely on himself, but on the God who raises the dead. It humbled him. That was his formational experience.
It’s typical for us to rely on retreats for our formational experiences. If we want to learn how to pray, we look for a weekend prayer retreat. If we want to learn how to serve, we look for a service retreat or a missions trip. If we looked hard enough, we could probably find a retreat that promised to teach us humility. Although retreats are popular, it seems like they don’t have lasting effect. The formation disappears as quickly as it was formed. The reality is that much of what I’ve learned was not during a retreat, but through struggle. I am learning to pray as God repeatedly brings me to my knees and I have no other place to go. I am learning to serve–to truly serve–through regular, inconvenient opportunities to serve my neighbors; not during the convenience of a weeklong missions trip. God is teaching me humility through the numerous struggles I’ve encountered over the years, and still regularly encounter.
All of these struggles and more happen in everyday life. Much like my student leader, we often overlook what God is doing in our daily lives because we rely so heavily on retreats and manufactured experiences to shape our faith. In so doing, we actually miss the slow, steady, daily, and natural formational experiences that God gives us.
Take a moment to look at your life. What struggles are you dealing with? What wrestling match do you find yourself in? Take a moment to ask God what He is trying to teach you. How is he forming you through this experience? How will He use this formational experience to change our world?
We might not like the answer, but that doesn’t make it any less true.