A few years ago there was a time where I hit the wall — just could not handle anything else and crashed in bed for a few days. There was a lot going on, but in particular I felt overwhelmed by the stories I heard from so many people — stories of tragedy and grief and loss and you name it, and I was trying to slog through under the weight of all that and somehow also be a wife and mother and daughter and friend. I was exhausted. And part of the reason I was exhausted was that I was trying to “handle” all of that while continuing to “perform” at the same level at work and at home. It was crushing.
I was reminded of this recently as I was looking over the posts on this blog so far and thinking how hard it can be to see our disobedience as it really is — and how easy it is to slide into despair when we see it. So few Christians (including me, for a long time) really understand what the process of sanctification is really supposed to look like! We hear all these words (like sanctification) in church and kind of nod and smile, but so frequently we really don’t know what it’s supposed to look like or feel like and are afraid to ask because we think everyone else has got it figured out. (There are actually about a million things that are like that in Christianity — things that people don’t really know what they mean and are afraid to ask about, and that everyone assumes everyone else understands, but that is a blog post for another time.) People kept talking about sanctification, but no one really explained who is supposed to do what in that process. I wondered:
- What does God do in the process of sanctification and what do I do?
- How do I pursue holiness?
- How does change happen in the life of a Christian?
- How does change happen in my heart and not just in my actions?
I think one of the most difficult things to get my head around has been the reality that only God can change my heart. I can choose the right behavior, “do the right thing”, but my heart doesn’t get there until God moves in it. What I have found is that I will see something through Scripture — a place where I don’t match up with what God commands, where I don’t match up with the example that Jesus set — and then it feels like I see it EVERYWHERE in my life and in my heart for a while. A lot of times my tendency is then to start trying to “fix” myself: making resolutions, coming up with a plan, memorizing a verse or two or ten, etc.. I inevitably get frustrated because it feels like change is SO SLOW, and frustrated because even when I am able to “act right”, I can’t change my own heart — and it is the heart that my actions are coming out of, after all:
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”(Luke 6:45, ESV).
You can see how I would end up exhausted. There’s nothing like trying to fix yourself to wear a person out! When I was sitting there in bed recovering, the verse that came to mind was this:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
And then this:
“He who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Look at what those verses are saying! They were exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and still need to be reminded of frequently: I am — we are – His workmanship! He began a good work in me — in us! He will not forsake the work of His hands! What they said to me was that I didn’t create myself, I didn’t begin anything good in myself, I am not the one who saved myself, and I am not the one who will complete myself by making myself into a project!
What I realized in all this is that if I try to set the agenda for who I am supposed to be, if I make the plan, if I make a project of myself, I am in essence trying to make myself God. I am not seeking Him and His will in that way of thinking. The other thing I realized is that I am voluntarily giving up the freedom Christ has given us through His death and resurrection if I try to “achieve” righteousness through my own efforts:
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:19-21, emphasis mine).
Christ died so that we are no longer under the law, but under grace instead, so if I am putting myself back under the law (essentially, trying to “get it right” all the time, and then punishing myself mentally when I don’t), it’s like there was no point in Christ dying for me!
And when I’m trying to “get it right”, I am missing out on the good news of the gospel — the rest and freedom that we have through Christ:
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:27-30, my emphasis).
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4, my emphasis).
The “captives” and the “bound” in this are us — who are captive and bound to sin without Christ’s intervention — but because we have forgiveness through Him, we have liberty! (And then, at least in my case, we go back and forth between basking in that freedom and then putting ourselves back in chains by trying to ‘get it right’!) And through that freedom, instead of boasting of “my” work or successes, I can boast of Him — who He is, and what He has done in and through me:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).
Sanctification, as I understand it, is beyond our ability to do on our own. As God reveals more and more of Himself to us, as we come to know Him more and more through His word, as we come to see ourselves more and more clearly, we are to grow in dependence on Him — not to grow by our own will and efforts. We do need to pursue Him — to come to know Him more and more through His word and prayer, and to willingly choose to depend more and more on Him — but He will work the change in our hearts, not us. My hope and prayer is that we will all experience more and more of the freedom to be had in Christ and less and less of the slavery of performance, and that our response to conviction would be to throw ourselves at the feet of the cross and not to torture ourselves with regret and despair. He did begin that good work in us and He will be faithful to complete it.