We all love it when life leaps into forward gear and we make all kinds of progress. Problems just seem to fall away. Perhaps in your life you’ve had a season like that, a season when your life seemed to shine and flourish. Maybe it was when you first became a believer or during some period when you were very well nurtured by good community and wise input.
Then there are those seasons where things go very slowly. You wonder, “Is this all there is? Why do I keep struggling with the same old things? I keep losing my temper, or feeling anxious, or being clumsy in relationships . . . ” What vision does God give us for what our lives are supposed to look like, especially when we’re dealing with the long, hard struggle part of being a Christian? Let me say two things.
First, often when we hear the words sanctification, growth, and transformation, we have an idealized image of what that might look like. Though each of us may picture slightly different things, I doubt for most of us that the image includes three quarters of the book of Psalms which portray life where faith and hope happen in the midst of honest struggles—hard struggle, a sense that “I need God to hear me.” Psalm 28, for example, says, “If you don’t hear me, God, I will die!” It is not unusual for life to be difficult. We bump up against things in the world around us that are intimidating or overwhelming or discouraging. We see things within ourselves that we wish would change, but we keep failing in some way. The Psalms are about that. They’re about struggle with hard things in our world and in ourselves. And the Psalms are a window into the heart of Jesus Christ himself. If sanctification means becoming like Christ, then the way we struggle is as much a part of our sanctification as some idealized image of what we hope that we would become. Struggling honestly, actually needing help, is what the Psalms are about.
The Lord is enough. You can go through hard things and not lose your faith.
Second, there are particular kinds of growth and strength that may be happening in our lives that we don’t even see. Jesus’s first four Beatitudes are about needing help: feeling your need, grieving the wrong in the world, submitting to God’s will, hungering for all wrongs to be made right. Living such weakness doesn’t necessarily feel like growth. And the second half of the Beatitudes can also happen in ways that you’re not always aware. The fifth Beatitude says that the merciful are blessed because they’ll receive mercy. In your life—in part because you struggle, in part because you know God’s mercies to you—your heart may be becoming more generous to other people. You have less of a sense of me, me, me, of my rights and prerogatives, what I want to accomplish, that I need to own this piece of turf, need to get credit. You have a growing sense that other people really matter. You can be gracious to them in their shortcomings and their heartaches. Are you gradually decentering off yourself?
And think about the sixth Beatitude, about the pure heart. That means that you go into conversations as less conniving, less fearful, less manipulative, less comparative, less performance oriented. You’re able to simply be truer to what it actually means to care for others. You look out for their interests as well as your own.
Or think about being a peacemaker, the seventh Beatitude. You are less prone to leap into conflict, less prone to be defensively self-righteous when someone criticizes you. You may be changing into a more gracious person, and others see it in you more than you see it in yourself.
And, finally, consider the final Beatitude, about persevering and having courage in the face of suffering and difficulty. You’re able—in a deep-down way—to say “It’s okay that life is a long, hard road.” You don’t have to always get your way. Not everybody has to agree with you. You aren’t living for your dreams and your bucket list. The Lord is enough. You can go through hard things and not lose your faith.
Now none of those things—becoming a more generous-hearted person, having more simplicity in the way you approach people, being the one seeking to solve conflict instead of instigate it, and having courage and perseverance—are splashy transformations. They’re just good, quiet, strong, steady fruits of the Lord working in our lives.
I do think that if you add these two things together—realism about the ongoing struggle that makes you actually need the Lord and then contentment with these quiet, unspectacular graces that are about living a human life that’s worth living—then sanctification can, in fact, go forward even when you’re going through a hard patch in life.
David Powlison (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a teacher, a counselor, and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He is also the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and the author of Seeing with New Eyes, Good and Angry, and Speaking Truth in Love.