January 29, 2019
Direction, not Destination
When I was in my early twenties, I listened to some teaching that emphasized the importance of obedience to Christ. Without question, this is an important emphasis. Far too often, Christians buy into a sort of “fire insurance” that wants Jesus as a Savior from Hell, but not as Lord of their life. Contrary to this idea, Scripture repeatedly speaks of how we demonstrate our love for Jesus through our obedience (John 15:1–11; James 2:14–26; 1 John 3:6–24).
However, at this point in my life, I took these biblical imperatives for obedience in a direction they weren’t intended to go. Specifically, I began to believe that true Christians reach a point in their lives at which we don’t struggle with sin anymore. If we do, then it is very, very minor and occasional.
This may sound crazy to you, but in my mind it made total sense. If the Holy Spirit is truly working in our hearts, then we will become more and more like Jesus (Galatians 5:22–24). Over time, this will lead us to become less and less sinful to the point that we no longer struggle with the same sins.
Here’s where it got ugly: I began to believe that I wasn’t truly saved if I was still struggling with the same sins (i.e. lust, unbelief, bitterness, etc.) after a period of time. Even worse, I began to believe that other people weren’t truly saved if they weren’t making progress in their battle with pornography or depression or pride or any other specific sin. Again, this made perfect sense to me. You could put the argument like this:
This conviction produced two devastating emotions within me: fearand pride.
Regarding the first, I was afraid because I didn’t have any assurance of my salvation. As a result, I would constantly re-pray for Jesus to save me. I would try to uncover and confess every sin in my heart that I was aware of. This left me spiritually and emotionally crippled, because I always questioned if there were sins I didn’t confess, because I wasn’t aware of them.
On the other hand, I found myself being very prideful. On my good days when I wasn’t wrestling with my assurance as much, I found myself looking down on other Christians because they didn’t read their Bible’s as much, didn’t listen to the “right” kind of music, or were engaging in behavior that I wasn’t (i.e. partying, getting drunk, etc.).
These two extremes characterized much of my Christian life at this point and all because I believed a twisted view of Christian maturity. Specifically, that somehow in this life, followers of Jesus will arrive at a place when we no longer struggle with the same sins. For me, Christian maturity was about a destination, not a direction.
The Struggle is Real
Thankfully, the Lord came after my heart and slowly began to correct my thinking. While not compromising on the fact that growth in obedience is truly an evidence of salvation, the Lord began to show me how imperfect and slow this growth often is.Both of these are so important for us to understand.
On the one hand, growth in obedience is always imperfect. In other words, it will not look as clean and clear as we would like it to—not in our lives or in the lives of others. Scripture actually makes this very clear. James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Paul exhorted the early Christians to “Stand firm and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1), because even after coming to know Jesus, their hearts—like ours—still have days in which they drift toward spiritual bondage, not freedom.
One of my favorite examples is the church in Corinth. This church was planted by Paul (Acts 18:1–17), received Paul’s preaching in person, and yet Paul wrote to them declaring:
For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? — 1 Corinthians 3:1–5 CSB
I find it so encouraging that Paul addressed these believers as “brothers and sisters,” yet they still struggled with immaturity (“babies in Christ”) and worldliness (“you are still worldly”). These believers were struggling with pride and immaturity, defining themselves by which teacher they followed (“I belong to Paul…I belong to Apollos”). Division, rivalry, selfishness—these sins were at work in the believer’s hearts.
And yet, Paul not only calls them “brothers and sisters,” but he opens his letter to them by saying they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called as saints…” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The Greek word for “saints” is the word hagios and it literally means “holy.” Paul is calling these immature, imperfect, selfish Christians holy. Why? Because through their faith in Christ, all their sins have been paid for and they have become holy in the sight of God (Ephesians 1:4–5, 5:27; Colossians 3:12).
To be clear, this doesn’t give any believer the excuse to live a life of unrepentant sin. Paul would later require church discipline for certain kinds of worldliness that was going un-checked in the hearts and lives of certain people (1 Corinthians 5:1–13). Unchecked, unrepentant sin in someone’s life should raise questions about their salvation, but that’s different than a believer who is engaged in the battle.
I think a helpful question to consider is this: are you struggling with your sin or are you surrendering to your sin?
In other words, are you “fight[ing] the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), seeking to bring all of life under the Lordship of Jesus? If so, then you are struggling with sin, not surrendering to it.
Dear friend: followers of Jesus struggle with sin. In fact, it’s an indication the Spirit of God is working in you “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). If you didn’t have the Holy Spirit in you, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t even care about this battle to begin with. Rest in this truth: you’re desire to follow Jesus is very likely an indication that His Spirit lives within you.
But, keep this in mind: your growth will take time. It will not only be imperfect, but it will also be slow. As Eugene Peterson put it, discipleship to Jesus is “A long obedience in the same direction.”Or, as one of my friends said to me years ago, “Fruit doesn’t fly off the trees!” As the son of a farmer, that one sentence resonates as deeply Biblical and accurate.
Indeed, no fruit grows overnight—not even the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Jesus acknowledged that sometimes there will be seasons where fruit is yielding “a hundred…sixty…[or] thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23).Different seasons have different fruit. It takes time. It’s slow. And that is okay—even Biblical.
In light of this, I hope you see that the Bible paints the picture of Christians who are growing in Christ while at the same time still struggling with sin. Our hearts are surrendered to Jesus, but we are still struggling with pride, anger, lust, etc. Jen Wilkin put it well when she said:
“The kind of freedom that we typically hope for is a freedom from sin’s presence, but we don’t get that until later when we go to be with the Lord. Until that time, we’re called to live out all of the active verbs in Scripture—wrestle, struggle, run hard, strive. All of those verbs are telling us that it is hard work, but it’s the best work to live a life that’s spent overcoming sin to please the Lord.”
In this life, we will not be free from the presence of sin, but we can experience ongoing freedom from sin’s power. The evidence of the Spirit at work in our hearts is not the absence of sin, but the presence of determination to hope in Jesus and follow Him. You will never arrive at a place of perfection in this life, but you can experience ongoing progress in your walk with Jesus. It’s about direction, not a destination.
Just Keep Walking
This past Sunday, I shared my own story of Jesus coming after me. It’s been very encouraging to hear the response from many of you. But my hope for our church family is not that we would get high centered on one story of Jesus’ transformation—as great as that is. Rather, my hope is that all of us would experience Jesus transforming us as we give ourselves to following Him—however imperfect or slow that may be.
This is why Spiritual Formation will always be a foundation for us. This will never change. But as I mentioned on Sunday, you can change—you can be different tomorrow, next month, and next year if you will give yourself to an imperfect and slow walk with Jesus. The good news of the gospel is that God does not judge us when we fail, because Jesus was already judged in our place for all our failures (Isaiah 53:5–6).
Instead, our God reaches out His hand and invites us closer. When you fail, when you sin, when you blow it—realize that you have a Father in heaven who sings over you with gladness (Zephaniah 3:17). And know this: growth will happen, the fruit will come, and along the way, you will experience the joy of the Lord in your imperfect and slow walk with Him. But He will never love you any more or any less than He does today. Just keep walking with Him and let His love be the anchor for your soul.
For some helpful and quick reads on this subject, see Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy(Denmark: 10Publishing, 2012) and C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness(Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011).