I’ve recently been feeling defeated by recurring tendencies of mine—patterns of thought and anxieties that seem like they’ll never go away; aspects of my character that I don’t like; things that I really hoped would no longer be a part of me by this time of life. It seems like every day I’ve been having to relearn and retell myself things that I should have learned and moved on from yesterday.
A couple days ago I was doing yoga in my room, and the mantra was, “I surrender.” Usually I don’t pay much attention to the yoga mantra, but this one stuck in my head. It was while I was face down on the mat in child’s pose that a thought suddenly occurred to me: some of these tendencies are never going to go away—not until I am glorified. Some of the anxieties or sins I find myself frustrated by every single day are going to be a constant for the rest of my life. They simply will not disappear.
I realize how self-defeating that might sound to some, but as soon as it came into my head, I felt a calming freedom wash over me. And as soon as the yoga video was done, I went to Romans 8 to confirm. The 7th and 8th chapters of the book of Romans are a wealth of hope and honesty, and as I re-read the words, I found my conviction strengthening. In Paul’s words there is no outline of a step by step program that produces results. There is only the honesty of the helplessness of our souls, and the promise of a God who understands.
It’s hard for me to explain the combination of grief and hope this revelation has given me. I can see, now, how I have so often approached these sins in my heart as something that I can overcome with enough prayer and attention, expecting myself to be free of them in a month, or a year, or a few years. But Paul writes with utter sincerity when he cries out in Romans 7:24-25: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
The heresy inherent in my thoughts is complex. It is wrong not to believe that as I walk with the Lord, he will sanctify me and I will grow more like him. Promises of this are littered throughout the Bible. But as Paul goes on in Romans 8 to preach the deepest hope of the gospel, saying in verse 2 of that chapter, “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death,” he keeps a distinctly Christ-centered focus. Nowhere does he encourage us that, apart from glorification, we get to move on entirely from the sins that have a grip on our hearts. Yet he does urge us to remember that “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We are promised life, but we are promised a life of waiting for redemption as well.
The poignancy of that grief is very real for me right now. I feel that I am in a season of groaning, chafing against the confines of my un-glorified state. I hate being patient. I hate knowing intellectually what it might look like to be a person who loves, and who waits, and who is fulfilled by nothing but the truth and the Spirit, and yet I cannot force myself to become that person. With Paul, “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:23).
Yet there is a counterintuitive hope in this realization that these sins will be with me for the rest of my life. It is not a disbelief that God is at work in me, or a denial that they could indeed by lifted completely from my heart. But it is an acceptance that I have no checklist to tick off, no date by which I must be free of these burdens. It is an invitation into the nebulousness of God’s timeline, and a call, as Jerry Bridges (and probably a lot of other people) said, to preach the gospel to myself every day. To come down from the mountain of ego that makes me believe someday I won’t need these groans. Short of glorification, these groans are here to stay, and though I see the same sins rearing their heads time after time, their presence does not mean God is not at work.
And the very good news (which, let’s be honest, I will need to tell myself again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next) is that I do not groan alone. Paul goes on to write, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). I want to submerge myself in this truth and stay underwater for as long as I can. I don’t even know what to pray, half the time, and the longer I am a believer, the more this becomes apparent. Sometimes I feel that I know less about God now than I did as a young believer, because the longer I am in him the larger he becomes. Like Aslan, growing bigger in size as Lucy grows older, I find that the more mature my faith is, the less I feel I know about the God I serve.
And yet, paradoxically, the more I feel I am known. Perhaps that is a truer way to approach the grief of sin—by ceasing to measure my progress, and simply letting myself groan, knowing that the Spirit groans with me. What a very good hope that provides.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele