Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?

by Craig Thompson on June 28, 2017

“Are you thriving?”

It was during our first term on the field, and our pastor asked me this question in a Skype chat in front of our home congregation. My answer? As I remember, it was in the neighborhood of “Well, I’m not sure we’re thriving, but, uh, hmmm, something, something, something, not always easy, but . . . uh . . . we’re doing fine.”

Thriving is a big topic when it comes to living and working overseas, as in “Don’t just survive, thrive!” It’s a great goal, and there are many who reach it, including some whom I know well. But I’m afraid that thriving was something that eluded me during my time as a missionary. And experience tells me that I’m far from alone. A missionary who came back to the States a few years ago told me that while he had hoped to thrive, “just” surviving was a more pressing need most days. Any amens?

But let’s say you’re able to put a check mark in the survival box, but thriving still seems out of reach. Where does that leave you? Is there another alternative?

Earlier this year, Anisha Hopkinson wrote here about what success looks like overseas. Struggling, she says, is not the same thing as failing. In fact, “struggling” is another way of saying “endeavoring,” “going all out,” “making every effort,” “plugging away,” “trying your hardest,” . . . and “striving.”

Maybe it’s because it rhymes, but I think striving is a great third way.

Survive. Thrive. Strive.

There’s a lot of “striving” in the Bible, even though it’s not always rendered that way in modern translations. One of the biblical Greek words that carries the meaning “to strive” is agōnizomai. Occurring eight times in different forms in the New Testament, it comes from the root agon, representing an assemblage of people coming together to watch athletic games. Therefore, agōnizomai means “to labor fervently,” “to fight against an adversary,” “to struggle for victory” or, literally, “to contend for a prize in a competition.” (And, yes, this is also where we get our English word agony.)

Here is how agōnizomai is used by New Testament writers, as presented in the American Standard Version:

Strive to enter in by the narrow door. . . .” Luke 13:24

“Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews. . . .” John 18:36

“And every man that striveth in the games exerciseth self-control in all things.” I Corinthians 9:25

“. . . I labor also, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” Colossians 1:29

“Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, saluteth you, always striving for you in his prayers. . . .” Colossians 4:12

“For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God. . . .” I Timothy 4:10

Fight the good fight of the faith, lay hold on the life eternal. . . .” I Timothy 6:12

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7

The metaphor of an athlete straining for a prize is fleshed out by Paul in I Corinthians 9. It’s an image applied to the whole of our lives as Christians, not dependent on a location or vocation or station in life. It is the entire practice of following Jesus, and the reward is the crown of eternal life.

We often hear that our time here on earth “is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” But I’m thinking it’s actually more of a steeple chase. That’s the race where competitors run around a track fitted with hurdles and water jumps. Today’s steeplechase, though, whether on foot or horseback, is a somewhat sanitized version of the original races. Long ago, riders aimed at a church steeple on the horizon, the only structure rising above the trees, and took whatever route necessary to get there—navigating streams, rocky bluffs, fences, and bramble-filled gullies. Sounds like discipleship to me.

“Are you thriving?” If I were asked that question again, on or off the field, I think I’d have a better answer now. It would be something like this: “No, I can’t say that I’m thriving. But I am striving. Living life is often hard, but I’m striving. Working at my job is often hard, but I’m striving. Transitioning between cultures is often hard, but I’m striving. Sharing the good news is often hard, but I’m striving. Practicing what I preach is often hard, but I’m striving. Fixing my eyes on the steeple in spite of all the trees is often hard, but I’m striving. And I hope to keep striving until the end. Pray for me that that will be true.”


[photo: “Cross Country,” by stephrox, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Craig! Your first paragraph gave me the giggles! And I just kept on giggling throughout.

    In all seriousness, though, I wonder if this new focus on thriving overseas, however well-intentioned it may be, has placed yet another pressure on cross-cultural workers. Now, on top of all the other things that have always been expected of us, we have to also “feel like we are thriving.”

    Honestly, after 5 1/2 years we are *still* frustrated by the sheer number of things that break down here, or just plain don’t work as well as we are accustomed to. Sometimes instead taking the day off that we need, we have to spend that time fixing things or getting other people to fix things. On days like that, we only feel like we are surviving — or, as you are perhaps renaming the feeling, “striving.”

    I love me an alternative to binary thinking, and this post offers one: Life doesn’t have to be either thriving or surviving. Maybe we can settle on striving.

    • Craig Thompson

      I wish I were thriving. I wish you were thriving. But if that doesn’t happen, we need to figure out a way to accept that as something other than failing God . . . or others . . . or ourselves. Yes, I like multiple-choice questions to offer more than two answers – maybe even an “all of the above” or “none of the above.” There’s got to be something that’s not quite thriving that’s OK, whatever we call it. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  • Erika Loftis

    I’ve wondered if “thriving” is even possible. Certainly doesn’t seem that way. Living in “Missionary Ville” I know a total of 0% of people who would say they are thriving. Or even “fine”. The rest 100% will attest to “being a mess”, a people who are desperately “trying”. It’s hard to know how much mess is ok, and how much we can push through to relieve the pressure we put on ourselves to BE JESUS to everyone. I understand what you mean by striving. But striving also sounds like “trying” and it’s the trying that seems to be the weight dragging us all under water. Trying to keep our neighbors impressed with us, trying to learn language, trying to keep people from thinking we are too rich or too poor. Trying trying trying… I wonder if striving, in the holy sense, comes from some semblance of settled and embracing our life and surroundings… If I’m honest, I had a strong reaction, a sense of hope seeping away, that I or anyone around me, has any chance off this well beaten path towards burn out (which is sort of the modern day martyr… except for anyone who knows the burnt out/burning out missionary). If striving is the best we will ever achieve, we will stay on this path of strive/trying and ultimately end up at the bottom of Burn Out Canyon. Strive/Trying to still be a Christian. Or not trying anymore…

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Erika, for your heartfelt words. I can tell that you are living this out, not just talking *about* it. Even though I say I know people who are thriving, I’m not sure they’d say that about themselves.

      I certainly don’t mean to add to anyone’s burden by saying “strive more” or “try harder.” Instead, my hope is to say that striving is not less acceptable than thriving—it’s just where we often find ourselves.

      “I wonder if striving, in the holy sense . . .” Yes, “holy” striving is what I want to practice, and I guess I’m still figuring out what that looks like. Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but I’m not always able to take hold of that truth. The burdens we pick up can sure feel hard and heavy. I hope that we will all keep trying (and ultimately I’m talking about our walk with Christ, not about a particular ministry or situation), while trusting that God’s grace will meet us more than halfway.

      • Erika Loftis

        I was thinking and thinking about this… Not just this post, but this whole concept. Are our expectations too high? Are we defining thriving incorrectly? Is our theology all out of whack? (yes… that one’s easy) 😉 How do we live with the constant tension of needing to live at peace with all people, but also fight for the causes that are important? Sometimes, the tension is so overwhelming. Sometimes watching person after person slit their own throats on the altar of the glorious call of the Lord’s work is so discouraging it’s hard to see clearly. My husband and I came here to try to help keep missionaries healthy, and serving. Now we try to keep them healthy-ish and maintaining a faith wherever they are… (usually by the time a missionary gets counseling they need to be locked up in a sanitarium for while) 🙂 So, I think, yes. Perhaps striving is all we will ever achieve. Striving to maintain a faith in a loving and merciful God, whose yoke, somehow IS easy, and His burden IS light… if we wouldn’t pile it so high. In talking to my husband, I have realized that thriving doesn’t always look like a field of poppies. Sometimes it’s a tree in the dead of winter. I appreciate the you taking on the task of perhaps redefining things. It’s a very relevant topic to me. And I’m grateful to have this new idea to think about. 🙂

        • Craig Thompson

          And I’m grateful that you’ve continued the conversation. Even though I finished writing the post, I’m still thinking on this, too (and having conversations on the topic with my wife, as you are with your husband). Yes, I think we miss-define thriving when we think it means that all difficulties are gone (I like the image of the tree in winter). And we miss-define striving when we think it’s not enough.

          I want to thank you and your husband for helping missionaries, not just to keep them serving but to “keep them healthy-ish and maintaining a faith wherever they are.” God bless you in your striving, as well.

  • Dave Lewis

    One more passage about striving (and I think this is key): Hebrews 4:9-11 “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself rested from his works, as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent [labor, strive] to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.”

    • Craig Thompson

      Yes, there are a lot of verses in the NT that encourage us toward “striving,” using other Greek words. Thanks, Dave, for reminding us of these.

  • Rick

    Great post bringing us back to Biblical norms rather than modern cultural cliches. Thanks.

    • Craig Thompson

      I appreciate the comment, Rick. This turned out to be a really interesting word study for me. Glad you find it helpful.

  • Thomas

    Thanks Craig, really enjoyed the image of steeplechasing. Resonated as a former track guy and also as a metaphor, not just for discipleship, but for life in general!

    • Craig Thompson

      I’ve always thought of myself as a “track guy”—but without the desire to run. I guess there’s a metaphor in there, too. Ha! Thanks, Thomas.

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