Cheer Up! You’re Worse (and Better Off) than You Think
For most honest Christians, becoming like Jesus Christ—or what Scripture calls sanctification—can be a supremely anticlimactic process. No matter how much better we become over time, no matter how much more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled we are this year compared to last year (Galatians 5:22-23), we never progress in our character to the degree that we once hoped that we would. Ironically, the more like Jesus we actually become, the more unlike Jesus we realize that we are.
When I first became a Christian, I had a brimming optimism about becoming a better version of myself. This, after all, is the promise of God to all who trust in Jesus—He will not merely help us turn over a new leaf; he will actually give us a new life. As a newly born child of God, I was a new creation. The old Scott was gone, and the new Scott had come (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Holy Spirit had taken up residence in me, which meant that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead was living in me. This power would give me faith to trust and follow God’s word and God’s ways over my own flawed feelings, impulses, and ideas. It would give me hope in the face of life’s sorrows, letdowns and uncertainties. Most of all, it would enhance my ability to love God and others. Along the way, I could become the kind of friend, neighbor, spouse, and contributor that might even win an award or two someday.
Like many Christians in their newfound faith, I felt really good about the kind of person that I was destined to become in Christ. I would, as the Apostle has written, be able to “do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). It was only a matter of time before I would become the very best version of myself. Or so I thought.
Now, some twenty-nine years later, I am more of a realist. These days, I often feel more sinful and less holy and virtuous than I did in those first days as a brand new Christian. Although there are many ways in which I have become more like Christ, in other ways I still ignore and disobey and even deny him. At my best, those who are closest to me will tell you that the fruit of the Spirit is at work in my life. At my worst, those same people will tell you that I can be petty and even angry about the most insignificant things. I get road rage. I get way too irritated with people who eat a little too loudly. I think about money a lot more than I should. I find more satisfaction in the praise of people than I do in the grace of God. I can be selfish, cowardly, conflict-averse, jealous, and ambitious in all the wrong ways. I can, like the Pharisees, use my spiritual gifts and platform as a means to draw attention to myself and applause from others…applause that belongs only to God, who alone deserves the glory. Sometimes when an immodest movie scene flashes in front of my eyes, I don’t look away. I fear the future as much as I trust God for the future. I am a man who lives by fear as much as I am a man who lives by faith. When I see Jesus on the cross crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I often think, “My God, why haven’t you forsaken me?” I am with Herman Melville and Moby Dick on this one. I am “dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” Twenty-nine years a Christian and the words of Brennan Manning ring true now as much as ever:
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.
(Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel)
Can you relate to this also? Are we hopeless?
Thankfully, there is also plenty of reason not to despair. Because of Jesus, there is encouragement available to us as we experience the rupture of anticlimax, and as we face the fact that until Jesus returns, we will continue to fall short of the glory for which we have been created. Encouragement comes from knowing that even the greatest heroes of faith were also flawed and broken—wrecked, weary, restless, and sometimes tortured sinners—even at their spiritual peak.
The prophet Isaiah, whose lips were skilled at declaring the truth, beauty, and character of God to the people of Israel, had a vision of the holiness of God in the temple. This experience was enough to bring God’s prophet to his knees in grief. Isaiah became convinced that, in comparison to his Creator, even his most pure and virtuous body parts—his prophet and preacher’s lips—were flat out dirty: “Woe is me, I am ruined!” the prophet exclaimed, “For I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
Similarly, the Apostle Paul felt the gravity of his own hypocrisy even more at the end of his journey than he had at the beginning. Early on as a Christian, he referred to himself as “Paul, an Apostle.” Later, he became “Paul, the least of the Apostles,” then later, “Paul, the least of all the saints,” then finally, this: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). This is the same man who wrote about the inner conflict he experienced of living inconsistently with his inmost, Spirit-formed desires. He exclaimed, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:7-25)
There is great paradox to life in Jesus Christ. We are on our way home, but we aren’t there yet. We long to be better than we are, but can’t quite figure out how to move forward, or even where to begin. The new has come, but the old, fleshly self remains with us. We are being made more like Christ, but our sin and selfishness and narcissism and idolatrous leanings are always there, threatening—even promising—to stunt progress. We move two steps forward, then one step back, and sometimes three.
This is our shared, fearfully and wonderfully made yet frail human reality. Aren’t you relieved that those you respect most in the faith also have shortcomings? Aren’t you relieved that so many of the men and women in the Bible—people like Isaiah and Paul, and Rahab and Martha—are also men and women with deep, abiding flaws? Aren’t you relieved that every last one of them is an incomplete work in progress whose less flattering features remained with them until their dying day, even as they journeyed toward perfection? How awful and despairing it would be if the valiant, self-sacrificing, heroic disciples of Jesus weren’t also screw-ups just like us. Their failings bring me almost as much comfort as the promises of God, because if there is hope for busted-up sinners like them, then there is also hope for a busted-up sinner like me.
The beginning of blessedness—and the beginning of real change—is not the realization that we are okay, but the realization that we are not okay. It is not in becoming convinced that we are superior to everyone else, but that we are no better than anyone else. It is not in believing that we are strong and capable and competent, but in accepting that we are frail and incapable and weak, while also being fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). It is not in thinking that God expects us to be awesome and prettied-up and all put together, but in gaining confidence that God has first and foremost, in Christ, caused us to be forgiven, loved, faithful and free. It is from this humble place—and only from this place—that we have any chance of growing into the virtues of Christ. It is only when we can cry out, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner” that we are sent home justified, blameless in his sight, and confident in his love (Luke 18:9-14).
As my friend and Los Angeles pastor, Rankin Wilbourne says, “God does not love us to the degree that we are like Christ. Rather, God loves us to the degree that we are in Christ. And that’s one hundred percent.”
What could be better than this?