“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]