All believers experience spiritual frustration. We desire to live lives that are obedient to our Lord and that grow in likeness to His life of humble service (Mark 10:45). But anyone who is a believer for very long discovers that failure is common. Those who take 1 Peter 1:15 seriously (“be holy for I am holy”; see also 2 Cor. 7:1) and who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think (Rom. 12:3), know that they are far from what they ought to be. Transformation into His image (Rom. 8:29, Col. 3:10) never seems to happen quite fast enough.
Sadly, some are so often and so painfully disappointed with themselves and others that they give up on the idea of changing much at all, and many of these take up a theology that supports that response. A recent example appeared in a post by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli.
I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness. I look at churches that are committed to transformation and holiness, and I fail to see that they are much more holy or transformed than other churches…. I look at my own life, and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort.
Galli has written along similar lines previously (“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Stop Trying So Hard”) but is by no means alone in de-emphasizing the role of personal effort and obedience in living the Christian life.
As I’ve read and interacted with several who lean toward Galli’s attitude (and the usually more nuanced views voiced by Tullian Tchividjian), my efforts to understand this perspective have often ended in a fog I can’t seem to penetrate. The case against “outward obedience,” or “trying harder,” or “law,” etc., reaches a point where the chain of reasoning from premises to conclusions becomes untraceable, and even the conclusions grow increasingly vague rather than increasingly clear.
Add to that the fact that writings advocating less focus on personal obedience often speak in reactive terms. Sometimes subtly but often directly, they refer to bad experiences in homes, churches, schools, or other ministries. Allusions to “legalism,” “performance-oriented” and “performance based” views of relationship with God are common, as are references to personal frustration—even despair—during some period of Christian experience under the influence of such views.
These factors have led me to a hypothesis. Much of the current controversy regarding our role vs. God’s in sanctification is not primarily doctrinal. That is, it is primarily experiential and, as a consequence, doctrinal. It is a response to frustration and disappointment, and often—as in Galli’s case, it amounts to basically giving up on continued, real transformation.
My aim here is to consider briefly some reasons we ought not to give up in response to the inevitable frustration and disappointment involved in running the long race (Heb. 12:1) of the Christian life.
Why we should not give up
1. Frustration is normal
Scripture depicts frustration in the faithful life as a normal occurrence. If your interpretation of Romans 7:15-25 doesn’t allow you to see a believer’s frustration there, Paul’s writings elsewhere necessarily imply it. He continued to see himself as “chief of sinners” years after Romans 7 was written (1 Tim. 1:15). The examples of Peter (Matt. 26:75), the Twelve in general (e.g., Matt. 16:8-9), and John Mark (Acts 15:37-18, 2Tim. 4:11) help us see the point as well. And many of the faith-heroes of Hebrews 11 experienced soul vexing failures: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David. Enoch’s experience of walking with God right into glory stands out in the chapter because it is truly exceptional.
Perhaps Jesus Himself offers the weightiest evidence—in Matt. 7:14, for example. If “the way is hard,” we should expect stumbling and frustration to part of the journey.
To be sure, overly rosy depictions of “victorious Christian living” by some groups have added to the confusion. The Bible knows nothing of an all-victory-all-the-time experience for believers. That fact should move us to continue to press on toward the mark, even when real progress feels hopeless.
2. You are probably doing better than you think.
Galli’s post crystallized a growing impression of mine: some believers are discouraged in the struggle, and inclined to give up, because they are overlooking much of the transformation that has truly occurred in their lives. For some, this takes the form of obsessing continually over one area of persistent weakness and failure. As long as victory does not occur consistently (or maybe ever) over this one particular sin, they feel that nothing else matters much. In their minds, they are simply not growing as a Christian should.
But this is foolish. We all know that God does not deal with each believer’s sins at the same rate or in the same sequence. He doesn’t free all believers of sinful anger first, then improper sexual habits second, then lack of generosity third, and so on. So at least one conclusion is unavoidable: the sin we most want to see gone today may well not be the one God is most interested in ridding us of today. Persistent failure in area A is not the same as overall lack of growth. Obsessing over that one problem area may well be a case of not seeing the forest for the manure on the trail.
Galli’s thoughts do not reflect that kind of monomania, but they do reveal a similar mistake:
[T]here is a larger part of me that really is patient and understanding. But the more I get to know myself, the more I see layers and layers of mixed motives. I’m gracious in part because I am filled with grace. And in part because I don’t want to stir up an argument. And in part I need my friend to do me a favor. And in part, I’m fearful that if I don’t act graciously, God will not be pleased. And in part, I want people to think of me as gracious. On it goes, one selfish motive after another, all mixed up together with the righteous motive.
A habit of seeing ordinary self interest as an evil is certainly a recipe for spiritual frustration. The Bible does not depict the desire to avoid quarrels as a faulty motive (Rom. 12:18, 1 Pet. 3:11). Nor does Scripture depict quid pro quo interactions as inherently evil (Prov. 16:11); a bit of extra patience with a companion in exchange for some help from him is not manipulative or “selfish.” It’s simply ordinary. As for the fear that God will not be pleased—this is, in fact, a virtue (1 Pet. 1:17) as is the desire for a good reputation (Prov. 22:1).
Galli makes the same error that many frustrated believers do: that of replacing God’s standards with ideals of our own imagining. The result is that we fail to see how much positive change God has actually produced in us.
3. The fruit of our efforts is not where our responsibility lies.
Most believers I know are able to see that in evangelism, we labor but God produces the fruit (1 Cor. 3:6). So why do so many find it difficult to see a similar dynamic in sanctification? There is no pride or idolatry in embracing our responsibility to work hard at “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1) while recognizing that the results of our labors are entirely in God’s hands.
It’s called the “fruit of the Spirit” for good reason (Gal. 5:22). Though Jesus says we bear “much fruit” (John 15:5), He is quite clear about where it really comes from. (Note, by the way, that though Jesus identifies abiding in Him as our part in bearing fruit, He does not say abiding is our only responsibility.)
What does this tell us about our attitude toward the amount of transformation we see in ourselves and others? Certainly, Galli is right that no matter how much we grow in this life, most of the transformation occurs later. Creation groans for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19-22). But even if we suppose that Galli is right that the prospect of real transformation in this life is unimportant, it doesn’t follow that we should expend little effort pursuing it. Our calling is to join God in the work (Phil. 2:12-13) regardless of whether that seems to be yielding the right outcomes.
4. We are not given permission to give up.
It’s odd that confusion persists on this point when the NT speaks to it so directly. Even in the good ol’ days of the first century church, believers grew weary in doing good (2 Thess. 3:13, Gal. 6:9). They grew tired of “striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4) and of experiencing God’s corrective discipline (Heb. 12:5). The response of the apostles was to assure the saints that they must endure and “abound more and more” (1 Thess. 4:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:58) in obedience. They were to find courage in the fact that He who had begun the good work in them would continue it—not just at but until the day of His return (Phil. 1:6). They were to understand that God has generously and thoroughly equipped them for living the life (2 Cor. 9:8, 2 Pet. 1:3, Eph. 6:13, 1 Cor. 10:13).
The Scriptures leave no room for the attitude that says “Well, I’m about as good as I’m ever going to be in this life, so I think I’ll just relax and rejoice in grace.” Rather, the consistent—and I think clear—message to believers is to faithfully and actively participate in God’s work of transformation.
For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (ESV, 2 Pet. 1:8-11)
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.