No progress without resistance

No Progress Without Resistance
Photo by Where There Be Dragons, Flickr
“Lot of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right.”
Bob Dylan

Nobody enjoys difficulty. No one likes opposition. No one appreciates pain. But they are necessary to progress. You can see it in business; competition and problem-solving drive innovation. You can see it in history; the great creeds of the Christian faith developed to refute heretics. The truth is that if you’re paying attention, you can see just about anywhere you look.

I recently heard a sermon by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon explain how basic a truth this is. A bird cannot fly without the resistance of the air, he said. A fish cannot swim without the resistance of the water. A human cannot walk without the resistance of the ground. It’s simple kinetics. Climbing the mountain, said Fr. Pat, is difficult and also only possible because the slope rises up against us.

This doesn’t suit many of us very well, me included. We crave expediency and ease. We want to walk through life unopposed. We want to implement our plans, purposes, and proposals without pushback, friction, or frustration. But the earth doesn’t spin on that axis. A world without difficulties is not the utopia so easily imagined. The simple and surprising truth is that nothing happens in a world without difficulty. That’s true for physics, economics, politics, and the spiritual life.

Whether we know it or not, our troubles are means of growth and grace. St. James tells us to “count it all joy” when we face trials because they lead to maturity and perfection. Spiritual effort and exertion are tiring and rewarding in ways similar to physical effort and exertion. We push against what resists us, and we overcome.

This is even true—maybe especially true—for high-torque spiritual warfare and temptation. Naturally, we’d rather never face these sorts of tests, but, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “[w]ithout temptations, God’s concern is not perceived, nor is freedom of speech with Him acquired, nor is spiritual wisdom learnt, nor does the love of God become grounded in the soul.”

For those who have emerged victorious on the other side of such bouts, St. Isaac’s words ring true. Trust, spiritual intimacy, wisdom, and confidence all increase as the result of our trials. And as St. James says, it is only after we prevail in our temptations that we receive the crown of life.

The irony is that we resent difficulty and opposition, though they are the very things that move us forward. Through the special alchemy of resistance, our pain and trouble turn to progress and triumph. It’s a truth simple and surprising but also (speaking personally here) challenging, though for me it is one of the surest footholds when I find myself wearied on the mountain trail. The painful climb up the slope is the same ascent that inclines my heart evermore toward my God and savior.

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  • Grateful for the way this ministered to me this morning. An important, pressing reminder of how pain and resistance make us stronger, even more worthy vessels for Him. Thank you.

    • Glad it helped. I need to remind myself constantly of this. (That’s really why I wrote it.)

  • Well said and I believe to be true. Applying physical principles to spiritual and mental processes works for me. My attempt at that analogy was titled “Making Rope”.

  • @kurtlytle

    Just what I needed to hear this morning, Joel. Thanks! Well written!

  • Thanks for the encouraging words this morning. Going through a difficult time with a major customer and wondering why are we here. This reminded me that there is no separation in my business life and spiritual life. God is allowing this difficulty to teach us and “move us forward”. Good stuff!

    • I think this is an important point. Our work life is one more avenue down which to pursue our sanctification. God uses everything we face to bring us closer to him.

  • Excellent.

  • Thanks for reminding me of James 1 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” All things come from God’s almighty hand

    • Thanks for sharing the rest with us, Scott. It’s a great reminder.

  • Nice beginning with “Lot of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right.”
    —Bob Dylan

    Thanks for including the quote on pure joy. Some days it’s so hard to face trials. I’ve wanted to quit learning and walk downhill for awhile.

    • Walking downhill spiritually has a certain pull. I think, however, it usually turns out harder than going up. The journey up is hard and exhausting. The journey down usually shows itself vexing and depleting for different reasons.

  • Joel,

    Great post and oh so true. Darn it. On second thought (as I push), I’m glad for resistance.


    • I’ve been reflecting further on this point today — not so much from the spiritual, but from the practical side of creativity. I find the resistance and pressure of deadlines often helps not only me, but other writers, too. I encounter author after author who could never have accomplished what they have without the squeeze of time.

  • I agree greatly. Think about what makes a good story. It’s not just a happy-go-lucky character that always travels the easy road. It’s the person who has overcome many challenges and obstacles and finds success/fulfillment/happiness in the end. And what makes a good story is based on reality. That’s why we (in general) enjoy such stories. We can see ourselves in the character or feel empathy and encouragement in rising above the circumstances. To rise above means there is something that is below, some resistance pulling back or down.

    As you mentioned, there are so many great examples in the Bible of the joy and blessings to be found in resistance. To me, these examples are always powerful, which helps to show the benefit of resistance to progress.

    I love the first and last lines of your concluding paragraph.

    Great post today, Joel. Thank you. I need to print this out and post it by my computer to read and remember each day.

    • Great point about stories. The reason we take vicarious joy in them is that we read aspects of our own difficulties in the twists and turns of the plot. They give us a lens on our own struggles.

  • Joel, great post. Thank you for this wise reminder. At times when the going gets tough I often reflect on Romans 5:4 “Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character.”

    Keeping God in my heart at all times, knowing God’s Spirit is guiding me keeps me sure that the obstacles are not insurmountable. So in effect, by anchoring my roots in God I believe I will prevail in the most pure and perfect way.