I recently asked myself the question: what word would I use to describe my own (slowly) progressing sanctification process? The first word that came to mind was “ugly.” The second was “hard.”
When God first took out my heart of stone and gave a heart of flesh, life was good. Life was in fact the best it had ever been. Salvation was awesome. The relief from shedding the weight of sin tangible, and I was ecstatic. Jesus was my new best friend and His word was my treasure. God kept me safe, if somewhat secluded, and gave me a peaceful year to sprout.
God knew what He was doing then, and He knew just how I needed to begin my Christian walk. It wasn’t so hard, or so ugly at first- it was mostly awe and reveling.
Life had become profoundly deep and meaningful, but looking back now I can see that my faith was still shallow. A seed in good soil to be certain, but vulnerable, with threadlike roots barely taking hold of ground.
But God is a faithful vine dresser; One wholly determined that His people bear fruit. And the best fruit doesn’t grow from trees planted in shallow soil, so He sets out to dig and to nourish (Luke 13:6-9). He labors to prune and cut every branch in me He sees that could bear more fruit. He wants me to see, and to feel that apart from Him I can do nothing (John 15:5).
He is all love, and faithfulness, and compassion, toward His children in this process of making us more like Jesus Christ. But I am ugly. He starts to dig and cut off, and at times it seems He has set His mind perhaps to cripple or to kill. The layers of my heart are peeled back and I’m brought face to face with a person far uglier than I thought I was; It is a painful process.
It is ugly, painful, and hard. Hard, most of all, because I want to bear my own fruit, and I’d like to flourish under mild skies without tempest or drought. Hard, because in my flesh, I care more about my happiness than my holiness (they are one and the same but we forget that often times). Hard, because the smiling face of God becomes obscured to me when I equate His kindness with my own spiritual ease. Hard, because I try to fall back on my own imaginary strength and goodness. Hard, because the more I search for strength and goodness within, the more I’ll find they simply don’t abide in me.
They abide in Christ. The only good I have abides in Christ. If anything, this sanctification process is one where I transfer my dependence and my allegiance, from myself to my King- to the Spirit which He has supplied and made to dwell in me. The revealing of my ugliness and lack of strength is love and mercy from my Father. He loves me (and His own glory) too much to leave me shallow and withering. The vine dresser will supply everything I need to grow and to produce fruit. When the sun shines mean with scorching heat, He’s there to water. When the winds roar and He finds me leaning over, He’s working to deepen the roots of my relationship with Jesus Christ. Sin will blind me to His love and idolatry will find me casting my heart in the wrong places- but He will certainly shine through for me; He will bring me to the wellspring which never runs dry. He has done it; He will do it again and again.
I look back at my journey in sanctification this far with gratitude that God was willing to expose the ugliness of my sin and the insufficiency of myself, though it has often be a painful experience. Yet, it has been the most necessary part of my journey towards looking more like Jesus Christ. When I scan the beginnings of my faith through to the present, I see a journey that has often been ugly and hard, yet a Savior who has made it beautiful and full of grace. My heart rejoices to have seen the ugly, for it has magnified His faithfulness and beauty. My heart rejoices to have seen my weakness, so that it could be strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13:9). He does not leave His children as orphans (John 14:18) but has “put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee (2Corinthians 1:22). He leads me in paths of righteousness, and He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3). Despite my ugliness and slowness to learn, He’s never left me or forsaken me (Hebrews 13:5), and “all the promises of God find their yes in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20),” including this: “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:20-21).”
Thank God He does not leave us tiny seedlings, happy, but ready to blow away or wither at first sign of a storm. This is what He desires, and what He accomplishes, and will say about us when the work is done: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:3).” But “the wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away (Psalm 1:4).” So trust the vine dresser, abide in the vine, and lean on the Helper. Your roots will go deeper; Your joy will be full and your love will flourish. In this, our sanctification, God sets out to do His most loving and glorious work in His children.