Sanctification* nearly pushed me out of the church.
Being the child of the church, I had from an early age experienced the beauty of the community of believers. I had witnessed God’s provision, witnessed miracles and the power of a Spirit-drenched corporate worship. Church, and the church life came easy to me. Sanctification, however, did not.
Sanctification was this little voice inside my head reminding me of all the ways I fall short. I was supposed to be “perfect,” but my lack of success at being sanctified proved something much different; it was the tangible proof of my inadequacy.
Hearing story after story, I began to believe others had it all together, and as a result, were happy. I, however, didn’t have my “it” together and as a result, had a growing dissatisfaction with my own spiritual life.
About Marriage and a Lamb
Through the Gospels, Jesus often refers to a coming wedding. A unification of heaven and Earth. A reestablishing of shalom and a final, complete reparation of the deep wounds that afflict our world.
Having been married for 5 years, I am relatively new to marriage life, and as a result am daily realizing more and more what it means to committed myself fully to someone.
This awareness began on a (seemingly) unremarkable Spring afternoon, in the lobby of the Smith Building at MidAmerica Nazarene University, when I crossed paths with an impossibly bright and beautiful fellow religion major. I didn’t know much about her, but what I did know was that she was beautiful, talented, and universally loved by everyone who knew her.
Our relationship began with dinner and grew. It grew over the course of the following weeks and months as we shared hopes, dreams, fears, preferences and often hidden personality quirks. Hundreds of conversations paved the pathway over which we slowly walked towards our becoming one.
As great as conversations were, there was a day I realized that, without hesitation, I could be offered anyone of my choosing and the only person I would choose was Elizabeth. It was in this moment I realized the depth to which I had trusted her with my heart, and so I knew the only logical next step was for me to invite her to join me in a life-long journey together.
Brimming with hope, I invited, and she said yes!
Over the next six months, we called churches, and we made reservations. Dresses were chosen and flowers were selected. The cake was designed and invitations made, folded and stuffed into envelopes.
I blinked and we had arrived hand in hand, six months later, at a church in St. Louis, Missouri. It was at the front of this church, and in front of a number of our closest family and friends, I found myself standing hand in hand with a stunning woman in a white dress. Catching myself in wonder at the magnitude and depth of the situation, I was brought back to reality by a simple question; a question that would forever alter the lives of myself and this beautiful woman whose hands I held.
The question? “Do you take this woman, to be your wife…till death do you part?”
Of course, I said “I do.”
On Clipboards and Check-lists
Early in my spiritual journey, I saw my relationship and sanctification as God holding a clipboard with a piece of paper clipped to it, and on this paper was written a list. This list included all of the possible sins, and each sin had a box on the left side of it. This box would be checked every time I failed. God was keeping score, and the story my score was telling closely resembled a Greek tragedy.
With the weight of my inadequacies hanging around my neck, and spiritual night surrounded me, my world became darker and darker. Hope nearly abandoned, it was in this darkness that God began to tear down many of the “realities” which had become millstones around my neck.
If I really search back to the beginning, as far back as I can remember, God had been part of my thoughts. I always wanted to learn about who Jesus was and what he meant for me. There was a point, though, when I realized other people’s conversations about God no longer were enough. Another person’s story and experience can only be enough for so long before one must live their own story.
God wooed, I responded, and a relationship was formed.
Somewhere along the way I realized doing the acts of following God- devotions, church..etc- weren’t enough. I realized the love and affection I felt for God ran deep, and I knew these were feelings no human could fulfill. It was in this moment, a moment that happens at one point or another in every relationship, in which an unavoidable decision had been thrust upon me; Either I had to go all in, or I had to fold and walk away.
There was no third option.
God would either have all of me, or none of me. Was this a marriage or a fling? Was I willing to give up all of my power and leverage to follow the one to whom I had trusted my heart?In this moment I chose to go all in, and I was now no longer the master of my own domain.
At the altar
All who have said “I do,” know the story doesn’t end with those two words. With our vows spoken, the cake consumed, and hugs of family exchanged, we drove into the night and towards a new reality. This was a new reality where “wise words” came up short and pre-marital counseling was inadequate in preparing me for what was ahead. A new world in which I am no longer my own.
I wish I could say it came together easily for me, however, in those early marital moments I quickly learned the depth of my selfishness and incompetence as a husband. Sure, I occasionally did a few things right, but more times than I want to admit, I did things completely wrong.
This marriage could have ended in disaster, and had this been a casual relationship, Elizabeth and I almost certainly would have parted ways. What made this different was the deep understanding and agreement that our mutual commitment trumped all. It was commitment that drove me to own my failures and pressed me to strive to become more than I once was. When I messed up, I fought to do things better the next time. I still failed, often miserably, however I had a deep desire to do it right the next time…or the time after.
For me, the old cliché rang true: I was a work in progress.
Our desire for restoration proves our loyalty.
In our marriage, Elizabeth and I both fall short, however it is in our failures where we learn to offer and receive forgiveness. Nothing drives us towards forgiveness like our own overwhelming need for forgiveness.
To be married means to be known, and it’s this being completely and wholly known which accomplishes something guilt and manipulation can never dream of accomplishing: a deepening trust and the desire to give even more of ones self no matter the cost.
Love propels us to become more and it encourages us towards becoming what we are not in this moment. In a healthy marriage, there exists no list of past faults and failures. Being known would never stand for such a list. When a person is known and accepted, there is no mask to hide behind, and it is in having our masks stripped away, that we no longer feel the right or desire to keep a list against another. To be known is to be humbled.
A Slow Transformation
Early on in my spiritual journey, my relationship with God was defined by a broken system of sin lists and petty nitpicking, however through a dark and painful time of spiritual reflection, I was forced to acknowledge my actions as nothing more than man-made attempts at holiness.
Admitting the problem was, to borrow the language of addicts, truly the first step towards recovery, and it was the admission of guilt that began a new journey; a journey towards wholeness. This journey will wind its way through amazing victories, and crushing defeats. I will have to re-surrender myself to God thousands of times. However, over the course of this journey I will continue to learning that my strength comes, not from my own ability to stay the course with God, but from God’s commitment to stay the course with me.
Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and philosopher wrote one of my favorite poems in which he implores us to, “above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
In it’s purest form, sanctification is, like marriage, about hope. Hope that God is not done with us, and hope that He will finish what he started. And we can trust that this hope in God is hope well placed. Each step we take is propelled by hope, and as the poem so beautifully says, we “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that His hand is leading [us].” We are on a journey that will take a lifetime, but we have started that journey with the love of our lives.
In my story, it was sanctification that nearly pushed me out of the church, and ironically, it was sanctification that kept me here.
( This essay appeared in Renovating Holiness, a book containing over 100 essay written by Millennial and Xer leaders in the Church of the Nazarene representing 30+ countries in the world. You can purchase a copy of the book here, and join in the conversation happening on Facebook here.)
*The doctrine of Christian perfection.