In this new year, most of us will probably set some resolutions that we hope will change our lives for the better. We do this because all of us believe that self-improvement is a worthy goal. For the Christian, the most important kind of self-improvement is called “sanctification,” or growth in holiness. We resolve every New Year to finish new Bible reading plans, stick to new prayer schedules, and master new spiritual disciplines. We look forward to a year of greater holiness, greater joy in God, and fuller experiences of his presence.
At the same time, we hope for a year of easier circumstances. We often look back at the past year, with all its struggles and surprises, and pray that this new year will be somewhat different. We look to the new year expecting the troubles of the past to stay in the past and anticipating the new year to be full of ease. But does this hope for a lighter load at the dawn of a new year align with a desire to grow in holiness? What does this say about how we understand our sanctification?
Life in the Monastery vs. Life in the Trenches
2015 was a year full of difficult transitions for my family. Many times I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs in frustration and confusion at the disappointment I felt, not only in myself and my family, but also in God.
I found myself asking questions like these:
God, why are things so difficult? Why couldn’t you orchestrate things differently? Why do I need to constantly justify your love and care for me by pointing to your sovereignty?
In the midst of these difficulties, I was hoping the new year would come quickly. Surely, a new year, bringing with it the hope of easier times, would mean a new chance at this Christian walk. A new chance to grow in my faith and become more like Christ.
But this mindset betrays a conception of sanctification and the Christian life that is at odds with the Bible.
You see, so many of us want sanctification to happen in the monastery of private prayer and meditation, when in reality, growth into Christ-likeness happens only in the trenches of everyday life. We’ve convinced ourselves that the calling of the Christian life, the calling to become more like Christ, means embodying the glory and perfection of Christ without experiencing the death of Christ. We want his glory without his suffering, his crown without his cross, his resurrection without his death.
What I’ve learned again this past year (oh, probably just for the 100th time) is that true sanctification doesn’t happen on that week-long mission trip to Mexico, away from the temptations and troubles of “this world.” It doesn’t happen on that 3-day mountainside retreat, where like-minded brothers and sisters enjoy uninterrupted sessions of worship and prayer. It doesn’t even happen in that moment of spiritual breakthrough when God seems to finally answer my long-suffering prayers.
Rather, sanctification happens when I don’t feel God’s presence, when I feel that my prayers are hitting a brick wall and God is nowhere to be found. Sanctification happens when the weight of the world bears down on my shoulders and my once proud gait has been reduced to a limp crawl. That was the case for me too often in 2015, and I doubt things will change drastically in 2016.
Too many in the church today approach sanctification from the perspective of a monk. I confess that I too am guilty of this in my worst moments. I tell myself, if only my neighborhood had fewer problems, if only my church were more perfect, or if only my family situation were healthier, THEN I would have the mental capacity and spiritual strength to practice my spiritual disciplines. THEN I would begin to slowly look more like Christ. The only solution then is an escape from the temptations of worldly existence. I need that weekend retreat or mission trip to get my fix of spiritual energy before returning to the dark world of Godlessness (otherwise known as career, family issues, and the mundanity of everyday life).
Christ as the Goal and Pattern of our Sanctification
This understanding of sanctification, which says we need to escape from the world’s temptations and troubles to grow in faith, is quite frankly, unbiblical. It divorces the process of sanctification from its goal, which is Christ-likeness. It turns “sanctification” into just another term for self-glorification.
The church needs to recover a Christ-centered view of sanctification – growth in holiness that has Christ as its goal and Christ’s life as its pattern.
Romans 8:28 offers much comfort to those in the midst of suffering: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
God works all things for good – even the suffering. This is according to his purpose: “…to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29).
God worked all things for good in 2015 to conform you into the image of his Son, and he will do the same in 2016. This is the goal of sanctification, which is the will of God for you (1 Thess 4:3).
But how is God working all things to conform you into the image of his Son? By bringing you through suffering unto glory.
He has united you to Christ in his death and resurrection, that you might, like Christ, be made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10), and not apart from it. A Christ-centered view of sanctification recognizes Christ as both goal and pattern of our sanctification. We are being conformed into Christ’s image by following the pattern he set in place: suffering unto glory.
Romans 8:17 says we are fellow heirs with Christ “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10). Peter tells us that our sufferings are not a cause for dismay, but rather that we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13).
We are so quick to look to his glory, but we won’t get there without sharing in his sufferings.
Hebrews 13:12 says Jesus suffered “outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” The area “outside the gate” refers to Jesus’ death outside the walls of Jerusalem. We are exhorted in the next verse to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” The reference to the area “outside the camp” likely alludes to the area outside the camp of Israel in the Old Testament, where things that were unclean were burned (Lev 16:27). Hebrews is telling us that we are sanctified by Jesus when we follow him by going “outside the camp” to the unholy or unclean areas. Sanctification is pictured as following Jesus into the uncleanness of the world, not as a retreat into a figurative, heavenly city. Here, we have “no lasting city” (Heb 13:14).
The decisive moment of your sanctification in 2016 will not happen when you escape from the troubles of ____ (raising a child, balancing school and work, difficult coworkers, etc.). The decisive moment of your sanctification will happen precisely in the troubles of ____, when you are pushed to the brink, and are able with the smallest shred of faith to look to Christ as your only hope. Your sanctification will happen when you’ve prayed for weeks on end and hear no response from God. When you’re about to give up in what feels like spiritual abandonment, and yet persevere, “hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18) that God is good and true, even if he doesn’t always seem to be. These trials are the moments that will define your life as a Christian, not your ecstatic prayer retreats, wonderful though they may be.
Your greatest joy in 2016 will come from digging deep into the trenches of everyday life and holding tightly to your Savior, even when he seems so far away. Remember that living in the trenches was the experience of Jesus at his most needy hour, when he was abandoned by his closest friends and even by his own Father (Matt 26:36-46). Christian joy is experiencing this intimacy with Christ in his suffering and death, that you might know fellowship with him in his resurrection by the Spirit.
Resolve today, at the beginning of this new year, to pursue Christ-likeness by joining him outside the camp, so that you might know the sweetness of his presence, comfort, and promises deep in the trenches of everyday life.