For honest Christians (Can there be any other kind?), becoming like Jesus Christ—or what Scripture calls sanctification—often feels like an 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 (Ha).
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 had 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, thirty-something 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 irritated with people who eat a little bit 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.
It is not uncommon for me to enjoy hearing the sound of my own name more than I do hearing the sound of Jesus’ name.
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.
Sometimes I cuss.
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 on this one. I am “dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” Thirty-plus years a Christian and the words of Brennan Manning in The Ragamuffin Gospel ring true as much now than 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.”
Can you relate to this?
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.
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 ultimate and everlasting perfection in Christ?
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.
Scott Sauls is a senior pastor, author and blogger in Nashville, TN.