The Spirit makes us alive in Christ, and then he begins the gradual, though inexorable, work of sanctification in our lives. That is clear. But it can get complicated.
A broken brain is one possible complication. What if someone has a psychiatric diagnosis or peculiar brain pathology? That will add a wrinkle to the process of sanctification. Or what if someone’s past is marked by the sins of parents? What if the word father has been corrupted by the acts of a father? It is hard to grow in grace when you wince every time you hear that God is your Father. And if life in Christ is characterized by faith and trust, how do you trust when you believe that God allowed horrible things to happen to you? Indeed, sanctification can be complicated by a broken mind or a broken past. Consider for a moment how Scripture approaches someone with a broken past.
The Lord says, “I will be with you.”
“I will never leave you or forsake you.” This is the premiere promise for those who are suffering, though it might not be comforting to such a person.
“If God didn’t leave me, why didn’t he do anything?” This is usually a rhetorical question. The person is saying, “I felt completely alone.” Misery, coupled with isolation, plumbs the depths of human despair.
So if you are going to lead with this promise, be careful. It might be confusing, at least initially.
The Lord says, “I am the compassionate and gracious God.”
The Lord is compassionate and gracious. This too can be confusing for those who have been violently wronged by others. The apparent chasm between violence and mercy is just too vast to bridge. Many saints, indeed, have been comforted by these words. But if we offer them and they do not quickly become cherished, then it is best to move on to other words.
The Lord hears. Therefore we say, “Out of the depths I cry to you.”
Psalm 130 might be a useful guide. After calling out to the Lord, the psalm reflects on forgiveness of sins. This does not mean that the suffering is a result of personal sin. Rather, it means that the only thing that can separate us from the Lord is our sins. Since we have found forgiveness in Christ, we can be assured that the promises of God are true for us.
The psalm then moves to endurance, then to hope, and finally to public praise. It is a map that shows you where to start and where, perhaps over a long journey, you will go.
That starting point is critical: you speak to the Lord. This seems so simple, but it is a spiritual response that can only happen through the work of the Spirit. Those going through hardship do not naturally speak to the Lord from their hearts. Rather, they speak as if there were no God. In other words, when someone is willing to start here, you are watching sanctification at its most powerful.
But there is more. Every psalm has at least three layers.
It gives us words for today’s experiences.
It expresses God’s people’s words for a particular historical occasion.
It reveals the very words of the Messiah.
This psalm is about Jesus and by Jesus, and that radically changes the vantage point. No longer is the psalm a plaintive cry of an isolated saint. Instead, Jesus himself is the singer who invites us to understand the occasion for his song. Then he beseeches us to join the growing chorus in which we share the psalm with many others. And he still hears our individual voice, even as we sing with the choir.
Sanctification and Past Misery
We do not need a new version of sanctification for those affected by past victimization. Instead, we simply walk more carefully with them. They might struggle with passages we find comforting, which is an opportunity to consider, together with the victim, other words that are more apt.
The words we are looking for are all personal. They are the words of the Triune God, and they ask for a response. Back and forth, listening to the Lord and speaking to him. Though we only made a small step with Psalm 130, we have begun that essential process of sanctification because all sanctification goes through the person of Christ. We are also answering the victim’s concerns about our heavenly Father. He is the one who knows the extremes of human suffering because of his own experience, he gives us words when we can find no words, and he places us in a larger community of like-minded sufferers.