We mistakenly think that growth is primarily about mastery over sin. We try harder, develop spiritual discipline and habits, and we apply every effort to uproot sin as the gardener pulls out weeds.
However, if we look at mastery over sin in these terms, we will fall into discouragement and despair. Rod Rosenbladt, a Lutheran theologian admits:
- "I fear that things have gotten worse in me rather than better. I have horribly abused all of God's good gifts to me. I was so optimistic in the beginning... That the Holy Spirit now dwelling within me would aid me in following Christ... I have re-dedicated myself to Christ more times than I can count. But it seems to stay the same, or even get worse, no matter what I do. Whatever the outer limits of Christ's are, I have certainly crossed them. I have utterly, continuously, and with planning aforethought blown it all. I guess I was never a Christian in the first place, because if I had been, I would have made some progress."
Perhaps Rosenbladt and most of us had been looking for fruit in the wrong place. Perhaps the way up to Christian maturity is the way down. Perhaps our broken limbs must first be re-broken and reset before they can heal properly. In this respect, McDavid, Richardson, and Zahl write:
- "The first fruit of grace is humility: not a lessening of sin so much as a deeper awareness of sin's continuing presence... Sins like lust and greed and stinginess are not fixed by habit-forming and effort... The Law must continue to convict us of our utter unrighteousness, and the Gospel must continue to save us." (Law & Gospel, 69)
Trying to obey the law humbles us, as it should. It shows us that we aren't as spiritual and deserving as we'd like to think (Romans 3:19-20). However, as we learn that we cannot adore ourselves, we learn to adore our Savior, who loves us despite our sins.
This was the lesson of a deeply sinful woman who boldly entered a home, where she didn't belong, to adoringly wash Jesus' feet. About her sacrificial behavior, Jesus explained:
- “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
We too need to learn about our unworthiness and the depths to which we have been forgiven so we can adore our Savior as we ought.
When I was first saved, I believed that God saved me because I was worthy of His mercy, certainly more worthy than others. Consequently, I was not as grateful as I should have been and, therefore, didn't enjoy His mercy as I now do. He therefore broke me so that He could heal me.
This lesson requires time and our many moral failures, which our attempts to follow the law make painfully obvious.
The Apostle Paul also had to learn this lesson, the painful way. Pride is the greatest enemy of humility and of receiving anything good from God. While pride is full of self and not receptive to the things of God, humility is empty and cries out to be filled.
Had not God chastened Paul with a satanic affliction to keep him from spiritual pride - perhaps the worst kind - Paul would have become puffed-up because of his knowledge and understanding. Through his failures and afflictions, he learned essential lessons:
- “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:22-24)
Only an understanding of his wretchedness and inability (2 Cor. 3:5) would prepare him to experience the glory of God:
- “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)
Paul had to learn that it is all about God and not about his strengths and spiritual successes. And we too need to learn to delight in our weaknesses.
God's grace comes in unsuspected packages. It is disguised in failures and even in self- despair. If we look for evidence of His grace in the wrong places, we will not see it and become discouraged.
Elijah had been discouraged. Following "his" great triumph over the prophets of Baal, he ran away panicked at the threats of a woman. He must have regarded himself as the greatest spiritual flop.
He needed a lift and probably expected to find it in an awesome display of his God's power, but God manifested Himself to Elijah in an unexpected and probably unwanted way:
- The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Perhaps we too are looking for God in all the wrong places. Instead, growth must begin in brokenness and not in strength and conquest.