For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. ~Jeremiah 29:11
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Confusion, Perfection, and Christianity's "S" Word
* I wrote this article for the haystack.tv blog and am just reposting it here! You also read the post at http://www.thehaystack.tv/confusion-perfection-and-christianitys-s-word/
“But sometimes I just don’t know how much I’m supposed to do and how much God’s just going to do!”
I was genuinely complaining to a friend because I was genuinely frustrated. I mean yeah, I understood the whole salvation by grace thing – in concept at least – but I also knew that after this accepting Jesus’ “justification” thing came this other thing: Sanctification. Oh that “s” word… I’d heard it described as the work of a lifetime – the process where after the “come as you are” saved but grace event, we are to change, to struggle, to fight sin, to eventually become “perfect?”
“Look Shell, they say we’re saved by grace, but you know that’s not all. After that you’re supposed to dress a certain way, give up certain things, become a vegetarian…. So whatever. I guess I’m going to hell then.”
This time it was an even more frustrated friend venting to me. And it stung me. But what could I say? I could try to assure them that “No, Jesus just accepts you like you are,” but what could I say to all the other “stuff?” Did I even know how this thing worked? All I knew was that if this “sanctification” issue was big enough that it could make someone just throw up their hands and give up on having a relationship with God, then I needed to figure it out.
To give some context to this “s” word discussion, I’ve found that as Christians, and specifically Adventist, we may allow certain statements and ideas to really scare us when it comes to sanctification:
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
“It is only by long, persevering effort, sore discipline, and stern conflict, that we shall overcome” (Acts of the Apostles p. 560).
“We are not yet perfect; but it is our privilege to cut away from the entanglements of self and sin, and to advance to perfection (ibid p. 565).
We read statements like these (often without surrounding context) and conclude that our “privilege” is to cut, to fight, to work really hard to advance toward some sanctified perfection that we might possibly measure up to if we really try hard enough.
But friends, that conclusion is simply not congruent with the gospel message. Nor do I believe it’s what either Ellen White or the Bible is trying to imply. But I’m not going to give a long theological discourse on sanctification, perfection, or the salvation process. Because I heard all those, I sat in the classes, I made the arguments – but it didn’t solve things. No, nothing solved the questions and fears – until I had a real experience with the God of the gospel.
You see, somewhere along the way, after I finally “gave up” and started to seek the heart of God, something began to change. I started to see God as the one who truly does accept me “just as I am.” I started to realize that His promises toward me really were true. And instead of trying to do this whole “sanctification” thing, I kind of just… quit. Yeah, it sounds bad…. But in quitting, I guess I finally started letting go. Instead of trying to do or be anything, I just found myself on my knees before Jesus over and over, saying, “Well, here’s me… You promised You could do something with this mess, so here You go!” I looked my lack of sanctification right in the eye, embraced it as reality, and then threw it down to the feet of Christ. And interestingly, I think more actual “sanctification” has happened since starting that habit than in many of my combined years of pursuing sanctification before. My life truly started to change. Things I’d struggled with for years just weren’t a big deal anymore. Wounds started to heal. Life started to be, well, real “life” again. And almost sacrilegious as it may seem to some, life with Jesus has become… fun!
In the light of all this, the other day I read one of those quotes again…
“So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained” (Acts of the Apostles p. 561).
In times past, I would have thought something like, “No stopping place?! Oh great… more work, more trying, and never enough… forever!!” But the other day I found myself saying instead, “No stopping place?! Wow. That’s great news! That means that what I’m experiencing with God now is only going to get better!”
Yes, I now believe that one of the greatest misunderstandings in the Christian life is the idea that once the new believer “honeymoon” stage is over (if we ever had one), life as a Christian kind of simmers down and levels out. That initial high wears off and we settle in for the long self-subduing haul. Yet I’ve come to realize that’s totally not true. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Christian life is meant to get better in time – just like a marriage is meant to deepen and grow, or how they say a fine wine gets better over time (wait, did I just analogize Christianity to fermenting wine? I’ll retract that ;).
Now I’m not trying to say we won’t have struggles nor imply that I don’t have to come face-to-face with my sinful, selfish self everyday. But I have realized something that I’d like to share with those who, like myself, have struggled with this “sanctification” thing: Biblical sanctification is not all about some grueling sacrifice or reaching some standard, and it’s definitely not about my works. By grace,sanctification simply says, “the best is yet to come.” The God who’s been changing my life in amazing ways is going to keep doing it, and He won’t stop short (see Philippians 1:6). You think Jesus is great now? Just wait. He’s only getting started. And that’s the sanctified truth.