The road to heaven is flanked with dangers — and not always the dangers we expect.
Many of us set out on this journey expecting threats to come from the world: its comforts and pleasures, its false stories and faux moralities. Many of us also anticipate danger to come from suffering: sudden losses, broken dreams, persecution in its various forms. But perhaps fewer of us are aware of another threat, less familiar but just as dangerous: the slowness of our sanctification.
John Piper once said in an interview,
I have dealt with more people — I’m not sure if this is true, but it is close — who are ready to give up their Christian faith precisely because of the slowness of their sanctification, rather than because of physical harm that’s been brought to them or hurt that’s come into their life. They’re just tired.
Some of us consider leaving the road to heaven not mainly because we are tempted by the world, nor because we are tried by suffering, but because we are just plain tired. Tired of daily self-denial. Tired of taking two steps forward and one step back. Tired of walking on a road that feels endless, toward a city we cannot see.
Disillusioned and exhausted, many sit down on the path, not sure if they will get back up again.
Ten Million Steps
Why does the slowness of our sanctification come as a surprise to so many of us (myself included)? Where did we get the idea that holiness would come swiftly?
From any number of places. Perhaps our high-speed culture has shaped our expectations more than we realize. Perhaps our own pride has caused us to misjudge our powers of endurance, much like Peter’s did long ago: “All these may grow tired, Lord, but not I!” (see Matthew 26:33). Or perhaps we have heard a few too many Christians talk about “the secret” or “the key” to overcoming some sin — suggestions that, nine times out of ten, oversimplify our complex struggles.
Wherever we got the idea that the path of discipleship would be faster, we did not get it from the Bible. In Scripture, we see that mature Christlikeness does not happen in a month, a year, or a decade, but over a whole lifetime. Holiness has no ten-step plan — only a plan with ten million steps, a plan that ends only when we die.
Take the Long View
The pictures of growth that God gives us in his word bid us to take the long view of sanctification. They shift our expectations from the fast to the slow, from the immediate to the gradual.
We are farmers planting crops (Galatians 6:7). Grace grows in our souls much like God’s kingdom grows in the world: the seed slowly sprouts to the sky, the crops slowly fill the field (Mark 4:28). We plow and sow, water and watch, and bear fruit only “with patience” (Luke 8:15).
We are children growing up (Ephesians 4:14–15). Like all children, our bones grow slowly. We move from milk to solid food on our way to looking like our elder brother (1 Peter 2:2; Romans 8:29). One day we will be like him, but only “when he appears . . . because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
We are runners in a race (1 Corinthians 9:24). The race is not a sprint, nor even a marathon, but a lifelong jog. Only when we reach the end of our lives can we say, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). Until then, we “run with endurance” (Hebrews 12:1), not wasting our legs in the first one hundred meters, but pacing ourselves to the end.
We are travelers beneath the rising sun (2 Peter 1:19). Light is scattering our darkness, but only a shade at a time; our path is “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18). Christ’s glory rises over us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We are farmers, children, runners, travelers. Each of these images reminds us that deep, pervasive holiness happens over a lifetime: God’s word slowly reframes our perspective on ourselves and the world. Jesus gradually extends his lordship over even the most ordinary of tasks. The Spirit steadily makes obedience in certain areas habitual. God renews us not at once, but “day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Two clarifications are needed at this point.
First, not all progress in righteousness happens slowly; many of us can testify to overnight deliverances from particular sins, even ones that once enslaved us. When we take the long view of sanctification, then, we should not cease praying for God to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
Second, woe to us if we use the long view of sanctification to justify spiritual negligence. “Slow and steady now” has been the watchword for many a nominal Christian. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” they tell themselves. But tomorrow always looks much like today, as they go on comforting themselves with God’s promises while refusing to hear his warnings. Like the sluggard, who “does not plow in the autumn” and “will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4), those who settle in with sin now will have no refuge on judgment day.
Scripture gives us the long view of sanctification not so we would stop praying big prayers, nor so we would grow spiritually complacent, but rather so we would possess spiritual realism. Spiritual realists believe, on the one hand, that God has “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), and so they strive. But spiritual realists also feel, down deep, that they will never pass through a single day without requiring the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood.
As long as we are on the road to Mount Zion, repentance will be our daily habit. As long as we have indwelling sin, “forgive us our debts” will be a fitting prayer (Matthew 6:12). As long as we are in this body, we will have cause to say (to paraphrase John Newton), “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (Newton on the Christian Life, 268).
The long view of sanctification, received rightly, refashions our perspective on today. On the one hand, we will adopt humble expectations of today’s progress. The farmer plowing his fields does not expect to harvest a crop by evening; nor does the cross-country traveler expect to reach his home. The rhythms of the seasons and the breadth of the country have chastened their expectations.
The Christian seeking God should likewise not grow unduly discouraged when today’s efforts fail to yield immediate fruit. Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and fellowship are less like the crank of a lever and more like the sowing of a seed. We plant, we water, and then we keep our eyes on the harvest.
On the other hand, however, the long view reminds us that today’s small acts of obedience are of the utmost importance. The steps we take today may not take us all the way to glory — true. But we will never reach glory unless we keep stepping.
We need to give ourselves to what Horatius Bonar calls “daily littles.” He writes, “The Christian life is a great thing, one of the greatest things on earth. Made up of daily littles, it is yet in itself not a little thing, but in so far as it is truly lived . . . is noble throughout” (God’s Way of Holiness, 127). If we want to persevere to the end, we need to maintain this dual perspective: (1) the Christian life is “a great thing,” and (2) the Christian life is made up of “daily littles.” Holiness happens one step at a time.
The acts of obedience in front of you today may not be grand. But if you do them in faith, relying on the grace of Jesus and the power of his Spirit, they will not be in vain. Today’s Scripture reading and praying, today’s confessing and repenting, today’s serving and evangelizing will all drop into the soil of your soul. You will sow the seeds of your future self.