In 2003, I was closing up my third semester of Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and frankly, I was glad to be done. I had worn my fingertips raw on notecards and parsed enough verbs (I thought) for a lifetime.
One day, as the semester was getting close to the end, my professor blindsided me with one of the greatest pieces of wisdom I was able to accumulate throughout those years of graduate school. And it actually had very little to do with Hebrews.
As such things often are with the wise, it was a kind of off hand comment that didn’t relate much to the subject at hand; one of those sayings he probably has no recollection of, but it has rung in my head in the decade since he said it:
“You know what seminary is, students? It’s passing from unconscious to conscious ignorance.” And he was right. I came out of that Hebrew class alone with a few vocabulary words that have stuck with me, but greater and more lasting than that, I came out with a greater sense of how much I do not know.
Sanctification is a little like that, I think. This process that all of us Christians are engaged in – the process by which we grow more and more like Jesus – is at once moving forward and moving backward. It seems to me that the closer you come to Jesus, paradoxically, the more conscious you are of how far you have yet to go. The Holy Spirit exposes one element of your sinfulness only for you to see a hundred more in which you fall short.
Daily you come face to face with your good works only to discover that you’re motivated by selfishness. And you realize at an ever-increasing frequency the truth of this statement: even the tears of the saints must be washed in the blood of the lamb.
So how do you keep going and not fall into despair when you realize how far you still have to go? And how can we, as church leaders, help others to do the same? I would suggest three ways:
1. Celebrate progress rather than perfection. Everyone who is growing in Jesus wants to be free from sin. Everyone wants to have an aligned heart that is free from duplicity. All of us know what it’s like to be frustrated at our inability to conquer temptation. But even in the midst of the struggle, we can choose to celebrate progress. Think of it practically in a very simple scenario:
You challenge others to read their Bibles every day. Specifically, there’s one person you are mentoring closely and holding accountable. Things go well for a while, but then this person “falls off the wagon.” He read his Bible only three times that week, not seven. There’s a choice to make here. Either you heap guilt and shame on that person for not living up to their commitment or you can choose to celebrate the progress:
“Brother, do you remember when you didn’t want to read the Bible at all? And now look at you! You are grieved because you missed four days! What great evidence of the work of God in your life!” And suddenly you are celebrating not perfection, but the gradual process that’s happening.
2. Emphasize the value of the fight. Sanctification is work. It’s a fight moment-by-moment and day-by-day. If we want to take heart instead of being discouraged in the process, then we must learn to value the fight itself.
Sure, some battles will be lost. It’s inevitable. But the question is what happens next. Will you or someone close to you be defeated or will they continue to fight on? If they are in the fight, then they are in the process, so emphasize the fight itself rather than the victory.
3. Remember the finished work of Christ. I take great encouragement from what Paul says in Romans 8. In that passage, he uses the past tense form of sanctification. To Him, the work of Jesus is so final that those who are in Him are already, in an eternal sense, sanctified and glorified. That’s good news for all of us who get discouraged at our seeming lack of progress.
When we remember the finished work of Jesus, we will remember that there is no pride for us in the process of sanctification. We are working out what He has already worked in. We can keep going not because we are strong but because our position has already been secured in Him.
That’s how we keep going. That’s how we get in the fight. That’s how we celebrate the progress. It’s because we know that no matter what happens in the individual battles, the war has already been won.