For a long time now I’ve believed that my life will have a beautiful trajectory. Not necessarily in the things I accomplish and certainly not in material possessions that I own. Rather I’ve always assumed that as the years progress and I grow older my spirit will age with grace, and as I continue to be sanctified (the process through which the Holy Spirit makes believers more and more like God) I will live with ever more wisdom and stop doing the things I loath.
I know plenty of beautiful, seasoned believers who certainly live in wisdom and grace. However, my surety of this peaceful future self has been challenged recently by two things: first, by the stories I’ve been studying in the Old Testament, and second, by the reality of how sanctification actually feels.
In general, studying the Old Testament more closely has challenged the way I (and many other Sunday school taught children) understand the Biblical characters. Whereas people like David, Abraham, and Esther are often taught as examples of faith we should aspire to be like, I’ve been hit strongly by the fact that the Bible itself does not treat them this way. While there are certainly a variety of lessons to take from their stories, the most important lesson is always that they failed, and that God was faithful. The famous “Hebrews Hall of Faith” is not, as I and so many others assumed, primarily pointing out great examples of the faith we should aspire to be like. It is pointing to one example who was faithful to all of the people listed--God himself--and showing how he used them in his story.
More than this, I’ve been struck by how poorly so many of these lives ended, and it’s this that has challenged my subconscious self-trajectory. The list is endless...Jacob, who ended his life dividing his sons with favoritism, Hezekiah who let pride and avarice color his final years, Solomon who gave into his lust and let it drag him away from worshipping God alone, Rebecca who turned to trickery and deceit. After spending time in 1 and 2 Samuel I’ve been particularly struggling with the story of David.
Of all the Biblical characters, David is probably the one people know best and understand least. We are taught about his defeat of Goliath, the way he danced in worship, the fact that he is called a “man after God’s own heart.” We are taught about how he exploited Bathsheba and how he repented. But we are seldom taught of his latter years, when his family fell apart because of his impotence as he stood by and watched his own son rape his own daughter.
I struggle hard with this. The way David takes no action on the behalf of his daughter but rather grieves for the death of the son who raped her, the way he ceases to be an effective ruler until his army captain Joab has to chastise him--these things don’t work with the idea that he is supposed to be a shining example to us of a faithful follower of God. My hope that I will progressively stop sinning and enter into a life of peaceful fellowship as I near my death is blown to bits by the story of David and his grievous final years. If this “man after God’s own heart” could end his life like this, what can I hope mine to look like?
Compounding this realization is the second thing I mentioned--the fact that sanctification feels different than I expected it to. I assumed that since coming to know God better is the best possible thing I can imagine, it would result in the best possible feelings I can imagine. Wrong. To come to know God better in this place of in-between, when I am not yet fully sanctified, means that I grow progressively more grieved with my sin, as God himself is grieved. In a previous post I shared the verse Galatians 2:20, which says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The tension of the spirit of God dwelling within my still sinful self results in a daily grief that grows more intense as time goes on and as I understand just how deep and foul my sin is--as I see it with the eyes of Christ.
The answer to all this is a reshaping of my understanding of both sanctification and the stories we are given in the Bible, because the honest truth is that my hope for a progressively more holy self is nothing more than a desire for an easier life, and a prideful search for self-promotion. Most of the time I don’t care about truly knowing or becoming more like God--I just want to be seen as a mature and wise Christian, and I want to stop having to battle with myself because it’s hard. It’s tiring to constantly see my sin; it’s difficult to be grieved.
The stories in the Old Testament give us something better than human examples to look to and aspire to be like. These stories give us the one thing we can truly cling to: that our union with Christ is not dependent on our own trajectory or our own Christian life. I pray that God would draw near to me, that I will have a repentant heart and that at the end of my life I will be living so that all can see I am truly no longer alive and that Christ lives in me. But I know that even if I fail as spectacularly as David did, it cannot shake my union with Christ. If I’m 70 years old and still struggling to control my tongue or secretly planning my own self-promotion, I can look to scripture and rejoice that as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” wrote: “Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
The weight of sanctification is heavy, and the grief grows ever greater--but so does the joy. For all that I had hoped sanctification would feel like entering into a blessed numbness, I would not for the world now trade the sharp, sweet relief of my thankfulness. Perhaps when we are finally glorified and fully sanctified we will retain a memory of our former state, because without a true understanding of my sin, I could not experience the ocean of mercy God has lavished on me. Like David I marvel: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever,” and pray: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138)
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard