Deep Spiritual Struggles Are Often Right on Schedule

Recently, I received a letter from a godly, hungry, humble, and dear brother in the Lord who I have fellowship with regularly. With his permission, I want to share it with you and my response.

Dear Mack,

Over the weekend, I dove into John Bunyan’s book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, after seeing you mention it in our correspondence from last week. I wanted to share how I felt after reading it, and along with my wife, I feel you are the only other brother I can really share something like this with, in the hope of getting godly counsel.

The testimony of Bunyan’s struggles prior to and after his conversion left me feeling uneasy, uncertain, and troubled about the state of my soul. This is not to say it wasn’t a blessing, because much of what I read caused me to rejoice, though it was overruled by this sense of weight on soul. I know this might not be the clearest representation, but some of it is hard to put into words.
Philippians 2:12-13 ‘Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’.
That verse in particular has been sounding in my mind for the past couple of days again and again. I am troubled about myself, my sin, and my weakness to do anything good. I feel crippled and helpless at times. The uneasiness comes from me looking back over my life. I had prayed with my pastor in his office at a Baptist church in December of 1997 to be saved. I have grown up most of my Christian life hearing his preaching and never really getting even a small picture of the “whole counsel of God” until my desire was ignighted a year ago or so. I have often thought about how maybe I wasn’t really converted at 17 years old….maybe it was later on or even much later on (like a year or two ago). Then as I read Bunyan’s testimony, seeing his struggles, his fight, but more so the sweetness of the numerous occasions where God illuminated things to him, I began to be greatly concerned, feeling like I have not had such experiences as he had.

I don’t want to get into trouble by comparing my life solely with his life, but at the same time I feel a sadness that most of what I have learned is from reading the Scriptures and books; I do not really recall a time where I felt as though the Lord was personally teaching me, revealing or illuminating Scripture to me. Maybe I am off base, as I do feel I have learned much, but still see it as though I learned it from men. I realize also that there are Christians who speak the language very well and know the doctrines, even the doctrines of grace, yet are lost and without Christ. I do not want to be among that number.

Part of my concern and troubled feeling has to do with my life, my fruit…I feel like if I really believed the gospel, the realities / beauties of heaven, the horrors of hell, my union with Christ, and my position in the family of God, then my life would be radically different. I would not worry myself with the temporal, I would surrender my life to a much greater extent, I would give all away, I would be spent for the work of the kingdom, leaving nothing on the table and never looking back.

Even this morning, when I began to pray, I found it hard to pray…I feel like I can’t even pray right at times. I also saw in Bunyan’s book more of the craftiness of the devil than I had ever considered. I sure do not want to be deceived in thinking I have been born again and I sure do not want to be deceived or “cooled” as Bunyan described so that I am ineffective.

I am nearly to tears, as I type this, as I feel my heart only longs to be with the Lord, but I am utterly incapable of growing, believing, or surrendering. I don’t want to be a fake. I know He must do this, but I feel alone right now. Thanks for listening and being there for me, brother. If you have any advice, I would be grateful.

My Reply
My brother,
Your letter is real, special, and very important because it addresses the deepest issues of the spiritual and emotional struggles many Christians go through when they really begin to see and experience the deeper workings of God in their soul.
One thing we need to realize is that we (meaning most believers during the 20th and 21st centuries) have grown up in a shallow atmosphere regarding the depth of spiritual reality that happened in previous centuries. When we first become stirred and hungry for God in a real way, and then begin to read the lives of Christians from the past and see their experiences, we suddenly see that what they went through is often foreign to those of our shallow generation. We read of the deep struggles and spiritual battles of a Bunyan, a David Brainerd, a Robert Murray M’Cheyne or a Jim Elliott, and we begin immediately to say to ourselves, “I’ve never experienced that; I’ve never known that kind of conviction of sin, I’ve never felt the depths that he felt; God has never been that real to me–I must not be a real Christian because I’ve never experienced what he’s talking about.”
So when we then begin to compare our experience with theirs, it is here that we can fall into a subtle trap–that of thinking that all Christian experience, if it is genuine, will somehow be uniform–that is, the same always for every Christian. It is true that such struggles do come to lost people when God begins to draw them to Christ and show them they are lost. But also we must realize that different people can and do have differing levels of understanding and experience in their conversion experience, and in their s anctification, growth, and spiritual experiences. There is no set pattern. Some people are overwhelmed mainly by the deepest guilt and sense of evil within them, and feel the wrath of God is going to swallow them up, and are utterly crushed by a sense of vileness and unworthiness. Others are overwhelmed by a sweet sense of the love and free mercy of God in Christ and how free God’s grace is, and suddenly the goodness of God deeply leads them to repentance.
It is true that there will be conviction, surrender, self-denial, etc in every genuine conversion, but the level, depth, degree, and even the particular truth that is made real at such times can vary with every Christian. There is no set experience or even one particular emphasis the Holy Spirit always uses in a person’s conversion and deeper growth. If the work of the Spirit is compared to the wind, as Jesus told Nicodemus, then there can be gentle breezes at times, stronger currents at times, then even stronger winds, and then sometimes powerful gales of His workings. His work is not uniform or static, though its nature and essence will always be the same. Wind is always wind, whether a small gentle breeze or a tornado or hurricane. The quantity, degrees of intensity, and the resulting effects may vary, but it is still wind. This is God’s way with the workings of the Holy Spirit in the souls of men. Experience may vary widely and often does, and we should not compare ourselves with others, which is often unwise and can bring us into bondage and defeat.
Many true Christians do not know exactly when they were saved; the time you think it may have happened is not nearly as important as the reality that a real change has occurred; we don’t have to know when–we just have to be able to truly say, “Once I was blind, but now I see.” Few people have the kind of experience Bunyan had; if all were measured by his experience, many true Christians would have to be judged as being still unconverted.

The real issue now is, as stated in your own words–“your desire was ignited”; are you now being taught of God? Is truth being made real to your heart that you now rejoice in? Do you hate sin and love the Saviour? It is not just truth to the mind that we intellectually see, but truth ignites our affections and our hearts love Christ and all His truth.

What you are going through is what Jesus meant when he talked about “blessed are the poor in spirit”; the fact is, deep spiritual struggles are often right on schedule in our lives and are the greatest proof one can have of real grace.

The true Christian often feels the way you have expressed; we mourn over our lack, we grieve over our need, we feel utterly incapable–this sense of our utter helplessness in ourselves drives us to Christ and casts us upon Him alone; Unbelievers don’t care about holiness or any of these realities; they are not concerned about their hearts, only in the sense of how much more sin they can have; it’s the godly ones, real Christians, who feel these things and grieve, become concerned, and then fight the good fight of faith.

What you feel and are going through is one of the best signs you could have–no unbeliever even cares at all about any of these things.

So keep seeking the Lord, keep praying, cry out to Him for grace; He’s teaching you to walk by faith, not feelings, etc;

Even the godliest Christians there are often don’t feel like praying and feel coldness at times; the very fact that a person is concerned about it and wants to be different is the great sign of having a heart for the Father;

Let’s keep talking about this as you need to;

Read the Psalms and pray them; and seek the Lord!

I love you, brother


  1. I read the same book by Bunyan and had precisely the same response many, many years ago. I struggled with assurance for years until I understood Calvin's theology of assurance, namely, that assurance is of the essence of faith. In his view, one could not believe Jn. 3:16 without knowing that he had eternal life. One is not saved by believing Jn. 3:16 and then assured that it is so by a changed life. Rather, one is saved and assured by Jn. 3:16. Assurance and faith are inseparable. So if I do not know that I am saved, my problem is that I do not presently believe Jn. 3:16. If I contemplate the simple and plain statement made there, I will surely come to believe it and I will know that I am saved. To do anything else is ruinous. Calvin said that "to contemplate oneself is sure damnation," that is, it will inevitably lead to a sense of guilt and hopelessness, the sense of condemnation that one is surely headed to hell. Assurance is found by looking to the promise of God and nothing else.

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