Are you actively praying against your sanctification?
First off, "sanctification", what is it? That’s one of those big $10 theological words that really just means to make more holy. What the Holy Spirit is doing in the life of the Christian is progressively sanctifying them, making them more holy, making them more set apart for the things and purposes of God. That’s one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs and that’s one of his roles in the Trinity and in the working out of our salvation. The Holy Spirit makes us more holy over time.
Now there are certainly means that God uses to do this. Those could be our conscience, those could be our circumstances, that could be the written word of God, that could be preaching, community - a lot of different things.
Here’s my question, do we pray against some of the most powerful things that God actually is using to sanctify us? That might sound counterintuitive. "Certainly I am not praying against something God is trying to do for my good."
Herein lies one of the overlooked problems of our evangelical culture today: what is prayer request time generally compromised of? Now maybe your church is different, maybe your friends and family are different. In my experience over my entire life the majority of prayer requests center around issues like: there’s this thing in my life that’s not as I want it to be and I want it to be better.
Now that might be I need a car, so I can get to work. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. That’s a very good thing, wanting to get to work and support your family.
It might be that your aunt is sick, she’s got cancer and it’s not looking good. We want her to get healed and that’s certainly a good thing, wouldn’t we say? We want people to be healthy and the list goes on. For instance, I need this job, so I can make more money and on its own that’s not necessarily bad either.
What ends up happening is: we end up praying against and asking God to change every negative thing in our life. It’s interesting, when I read scripture I see no promise that God is going to do this. In fact, I don’t see us being told to pray that way. Of course, this is a much bigger conversation and study. We’re talking about what does the whole Bible teach on this topic. We can’t really cover that in 10 or 15 minutes on this podcast.
I just want to give you a thought. I want to put forth that true holiness before God, true sanctification as a Christian does not look like the absence of problems in your life. In fact, I would almost say it’s probably the opposite. Not as a rule, not as in "it has to be this way," but in a general sense, I would say that some of the most holy people I know have some of the most difficult lives.
There’s a movement today called the prosperity Gospel or maybe the pseudo-prosperity Gospel that basically says if you’re doing what God wants you to do, if you’re being holy enough, if you’re being righteous enough, if you have enough faith then your life’s going to go well. Now some people will say that this means you’ll be actually physically wealthy, some people will just say it means that things will start going your way, that pieces start falling into place.
What I want us to consider is what James says in James 1, when he says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Allow perseverance to finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Why should we look at trials and difficulties in our life not as something that need to go away, but something that we need to come through? Because there one of the main ways God uses to sanctify us, to make us more holy, to make us more like Jesus.
When I look at my life and I overlay that on my best picture of what Jesus looks like in his attributes, in his characteristics you end up with two things that seem more like a square peg in a round hole than a round peg in a round hole. What my point is, is that I don’t fit very well in the mold of who Jesus is.
One of the purposes of the Holy Spirit in my life is to conform me to the image of Christ, to make me fit into the mold of what Jesus is. This is certainly a process. It will take my whole life and then even then I won’t be like Jesus is. My goal should be to become more and more like Christ, to be more and more mature.
Now how does God do that? How did God do that in Paul’s life? Through trial. If the mark of holiness is that you have a really good life and you’re not sick and people don’t hate you and you have a good job and you have good health then that’s not even big enough for Paul. He was shipwrecked multiple times, he was beat with rods, he was lashed with 39 lashes multiple times, he was chased out of town, he had poor health, he had … We don’t exactly know what it was, but a thorn in his flesh that was one of God’s ways of keeping him humble he says. In the life of Paul he was sanctified by the trials in his life.
That’s my main point here: that the trials in life are the things often times that make us more like Jesus than anything else. Nothing really drives change like a trial. It’s like a test at school. The reason we have tests in our educational system (even if that’s changing where you can just retake it until you get a better grade which isn’t very realistic, but that’s another topic for another day) is because it forces the student to prepare. "There is going to be some type of adversity and I’m going to be better off for having risen to meet this challenge and then actually having come through the test."
It’s the same way in our Christian life. When things go wrong in life, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray about them, but I think the difference is what we’re praying. Are we praying that God would remove this thing that is bothering us, or are we praying that he will help us get through it and use it to accomplish his holy purpose in our life? Now I’m not saying we should be sadists and go looking for pain and trouble. What I am saying is pain and trouble are going to come. The question is do we see them as enemies, or do we see them as things that are going to happen in life that God is using and can actively use for making us more like Christ. This does have direct application for how we pray.
Think of it this way. If you were to sit in a hermetically sealed little ball with Netflix and someone to bring you food all day would you get more in shape? Would you expand your horizon? Would you learn how to adapt to different social settings? No. Would you be more prone to get sick if you ever did actually go outside? Yes, you would. You would not be as prepared for the world as someone who walked to work each day and had to work hard. But we try to create that hermetically sealed ball, that safe environment in our Christian lives.
We pray against every negative thing that happens in our lives. We try to make it as safe and comfortable. Like God’s main goal in Jesus going to the cross was to make us comfortable, but it wasn’t. The reason Jesus went to the cross in addition to the primary reason of glorifying himself in the saving of his people was to provide atonement, so that we could become more like Christ. That’s what Romans 8 says that everything is working to good for Christians, for people who love God, to conform us to Christ.
That good, when it says everything works together for good, doesn’t mean something that necessarily feels good or that the world would label as good. What it does look like if we read a verse or two into the future is it looks like our conformity to Christ.
My simple encouragement to you and something I have to retrain myself on also is let’s not pray against the trials in our life. Let’s pray that God will give us strength to get through them. That he will give us perseverance, so that we can finish through the trial and become more mature in Christ. Having seen that God is trustworthy to his Word, that God is good, that he is faithful and that the adversity in our life is one of the main tools often times that God uses to make us more like him, so let’s not pray against it.
Now this obviously leaves many unanswered questions like should I pray for an aunt that’s sick, should I pray that I could get a better job? I don’t think on their own those things are bad, certainly not, but what is the pattern and arc of our prayer life? Is it all about creating a safe, more comfortable environment? Or is it about using whatever means I have and whatever circumstance I have with whatever people God has placed in my life to make the most of the Gospel, to make the most of my sanctification through my circumstances. There’s definitely a large intent component here.
Let’s say for the person who doesn’t have a job. Yeah, I think certainly praying that you can find a job is important. You have a biblical responsibility to provide for your family. If you don’t work you don’t eat, so that’s not bad. The question becomes is how you look at your circumstances. Are they this evil thing that needs to go away or can I look for a job, can I pray that God would provide in that way and trust him that the way I get through this could ultimately also be for my good. I think therein lies the crux of the matter. That the goal in the Christian life isn’t just the end, it’s the pathway that we get to the end that often times is where God is forming us and transforming us into the image of Christ.
Now you might be thinking this doesn’t seem like a very apologetic topic. We’re not talking about manuscripts or the problem of evil or philosophy. Here’s why I think it’s important apologetically just briefly: because the people in our lives notice often times what we pray for. Younger Christians may notice what we pray for. Our coworkers at work may notice what we pray for. The way we approach our prayers, the way we think about the trials in our life does communicate something that can show what our hope is in.
Is our hope in Jesus to make our lives better in terms of physical surroundings, in terms of safety and comfort, or is our hope in Jesus to transform us into the likeness of himself? That’s the question and that’s why this actually is apologetic in addition to so many other types of significance. It has apologetic significance because of how this communicates how we view our salvation, how we view Jesus, and what our hope is ultimately in. I hope this has been helpful and I look forward to talking with you next week on Unapologetic.