We’ve all been there. Slowly climbing the narrow road of the Christian life, we suddenly take a bad step and end up blowing it . . . again. The progress we had made along that precarious path becomes pointless as we slide down that craggy ledge and find ourselves once again brushing the dirt off our white robes and bandaging bruises that mark us as defeated saints. As we ponder whether it’s even worth pressing on, Satan taunts us from the nearby outcroppings, urging us to just give up. Even worse, our more “saintly” brothers and sisters in Christ shake their heads and cluck their tongues as they peer at us accusingly from farther up the slope.
The life of spiritual growth, impressively called “sanctification,” can often feel like an exercise in absolute and utter futility. Frustration, exasperation, exhaustion, disillusionment, depression—sadly, these are some of the feelings that accompany the failures of struggling saints as they desperately try to live the Christian life, putting to death the desires of the flesh and living out the fruit of the Spirit. The seemingly endless cycle of sin, repentance, sin, repentance, sin, repentance can nauseate us, making us wonder whether real sanctification is even possible in this life . . . convincing many that it’s not.
Let’s face it, in many of our approaches to the Christian life, it’s easy to get burned out, wiped out, worn out . . . sancti-fried.
Broken Promises or False Hopes?
One cause of our frustration with sanctification is our unrealistic expectation. We’ve heard so many stories about people being “delivered” from alcoholism, drug addiction, or sexual immorality. Testimonies shine brilliantly with flashy conversions in which a person’s life alters dramatically, in which a new birth seems to have completely killed the old man. The struggling Christian who endures the painfully slow process of sanctification might be able to handle hearing about these miraculous transformations if it wasn’t for those few who try to force their amazing experiences on everybody else. “God saved me and delivered me instantly from such-and-such . . . and He’ll do the same for you!” But when my instant deliverance doesn’t come, whose fault is it? God’s? Surely not! It must, of course, be my fault because I’m just too weak, too faithless, too immature, too carnal. Or maybe I’m just not really saved. If the Spirit of God did it for her, why won’t He do it for me?
It is true that God promised to work in us “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), and that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10), and that it is His mighty Spirit, not our weak flesh, who yields through us the fruit of good works against which “there is no law” (Galatians 5:23). However, it is also true that God produces in some thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was sown (Matthew 13:8, 23). We forget that God displays His glory in us and through us according to His own timing and for His own purposes. It is not for the clay in the Potter’s hands to say that God would get greater glory if He would fire us in His kiln today rather than constantly form us in His hands through a painful process of molding, making, casting, and re-casting. As Paul said, “The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Romans 9:20). Trusting God for sanctification means trusting that He will work in different ways and at different times with different saints.
As Good as It Gets?
In the movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays an author with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder struggling to cope with the real world. In one scene Nicholson’s character, after trying to barge in on his psychiatrist for an emergency meeting, stares into the waiting room filled with nervous clients and blurts out, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
After many years of struggling with temptation and sin, growing sometimes in great leaps and other times in almost imperceptible steps, I have learned that a common experience among most Christians is struggle. Just when our struggle brings victory, it opens up to a whole new (or even old), conflict with sin. And in the midst of the conflict, with no end in sight, we can easily grow disillusioned, wondering, “Is this even real? Does God even want me to be righteous? Why doesn’t He help?”
I’ll never forget the words of an older professor of mine back in Bible College when he answered a question about struggling with sin. “Young Christians are always coming to me saying, ‘I’m struggling with this sin, or I keep struggling with that sin,’ as if there’s something wrong with struggling with sin. That’s good! Struggle! It’s when you give up struggling that something’s wrong.”
Those words are golden. And they have helped lead me to a very important conclusion about sanctification—the struggle is normal. Absolute victory and absolute defeat should not be the common experience of the Christian life. The frustrating, unending, wearisome struggle between the flesh and the Spirit and the resulting ups and downs of the Christian life is, in most cases, as good as it gets.
Are you struggling with sin? Wondering if God is hearing your desperate pleas for strength to break the unending cycle of temptation and transgression? Ready to just give up, surrender to the flesh? Are you sancti-fried?
Join the club. We’re all there. And if you’re not there with us—if you’re a super-saint who thinks you have sanctification down to a science—go away. I want to hang out with fellow dirty, ragged, beaten-up pilgrims struggling with daily sin, putting up a brutal fight against temptation, and hoping for deliverance with an irrational faith. Oh, and if you’re one of those who has given up, who thinks the promise of sanctification is a sham, come back. The promises you believed about the nature and process (and even the means) of spiritual growth were probably not the promises of God, but of men.
Listen, saints, until we’ve struggled with sin to the very end (Hebrews 12:4), our journey on the rocky road of sanctification isn’t over. The good news—and the one we so quickly forget—is that none of us is on this journey alone.
[Want more on a classical and community-oriented approach to the Christian life? Read Part 4, “RetroSpirituality” in RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith available at Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.]