It’s the long slog through the desert that is the most depressing and debilitating for many believers – that interminable “race” (in Paul’s words) that seems to be much more like a crawl through parched sand traps, spiritually speaking. It is when there appears to be no advancement in sanctification that one is most defeated – or at least that is when I’m most tempted to see no hope in the Christian life of (apparently) overblown promises.
If day after day I can detect not the slightest improvement in my general demeanor, in my flammable instincts and instantaneous reactions, then I am going to be seduced into thinking that such improvement is a mirage. Even after an adult lifetime of praying for “the mind of Christ”, and to be “clothed with Christ”, and for God to create in me a “clean heart and mind” – even after all that, all too often I am aware of nothing but the same old disappointing me. I am just as likely as ever to explode in childish rage, just as likely to respond to the most minute of provocations with bitterness and profanity.
Or so it seems. The truth is that I am the worst judge and observer in the world when it comes to weighing the actions of – myself. Who am I to evaluate me? No one is more partial and biased; no one else is blinder to both my virtues and my defects; the last thing in the world I can do is weigh objectively my own progress (if any) along the road of sanctification. Yes, I have immediate and intimate access to all my worst thoughts and imaginings and fantasies. Without question, I know my own inner impulses (even when they are successfully squelched), and can feel their depravity when others see only my outer calm. In many respects, of course, I know me better than anyone else does. But all I ever see of myself is a funhouse-mirror reflection.
But how can I measure with any kind of spiritual veracity the state of my soul, or locate with metaphysical precision my place in Pilgrim’s Progress? These things are hidden from me, and hidden for a purpose. A divine purpose, no doubt. It is probably part of God’s wisdom to blindfold me to where I stand on the Via Dolorosa that leads from birth through Second Birth through the “long and level plains” to the First and Only Death. If I became too aware of my improvements, I might feel the stirrings of incipient pride. If I saw my advancement and my very real successes in sanctification, I could very well grow complacent. Knowing me to the extent that I do, I would never trust myself with a truthful report card – that is, with a report card that accurately spelled out all my victories and mighty invisible accomplishments. It would all go to my head, and make it swell prodigiously. I would lose at once all the moral ground I had unwittingly gained; it is without question better that I continue to crawl through the sand traps if I cannot run Paul’s marathon. I’m a better follower of Christ if I am dissatisfied with my progress. I may be lacking in joy, but that’s better than lacking in modesty. And I should remember that in the same psalm that begs God to “create in me a clean heart”, David goes on to plead: “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation”. Amen, and amen.