The Offensively Ordinary Steps to Godliness

If you are in Christ, God has placed in your heart a hunger for holiness. Holiness is no longer the cramped closet you thought it was, but rather a garden of pleasures, an echo from heaven, the beauty of Eden rediscovered. You are not content merely to be counted righteous in Christ (glorious as that is); you yearn also to become righteous like Christ. You want to be holy as he is holy.

But how does holiness happen? How do stumbling, distracted pray-ers begin to pray without ceasing? How do worriers learn to roll even their biggest cares onto God? How does pride turn to poverty of spirit, apathy to zeal for righteousness, stinginess to an open hand, restlessness to relentless calm? How do we come not only to say, but to feel deep down, that Jesus Christ is the sum of all that’s good in life — that to know him is to live, and to die our greatest gain?

God teaches us how holiness happens all over his word, and yet we often overlook one prevalent lesson: very often, holiness hides in small things.

Offensively Ordinary

Consider, for example, how the apostle Paul talks about the pursuit of holiness in Ephesians. Throughout the first three chapters, Paul stretches before us the panorama of God’s redeeming love. In Christ, God has chosen us, forgiven us, and sealed us for eternity (Ephesians 1:3–14). He has resurrected us from spiritual death and seated us with Christ in the heavens (Ephesians 2:1–10). He has loved us with an everlasting love (Ephesians 3:14–19).

“If you are in Christ, God has placed in your heart a hunger for holiness.”

We might think the immediate response to such love would be just as panoramic. But in the next three chapters, Paul applies this gospel to the ordinary, the everyday, the small. For example: Speak the truth to each other (Ephesians 4:15). Reconcile quickly (Ephesians 4:26). Labor honestly at your job (Ephesians 4:28). Give thought to your words (Ephesians 4:29). Cultivate kindness and a tender heart (Ephesians 4:32). Honor Christ as a wife, husband, child, father, servant, master (Ephesians 5:22–6:9).

Though radical in their own way, these steps of obedience rarely attract the notice of a crowd. Many of them happen in forgettable moments and tucked-away places. Well might we say with Gustaf Wingren, “Sanctification is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks” (Luther on Vocation, 73). So ordinary, in fact, that we might just miss them if we’re not paying attention.

Eyes on the Ends of the Earth

In the pursuit of holiness, many of us fall into the fool’s error: “The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth” (Proverbs 17:24). The fool can peer into the distance with marvelous perception — and trip over a rock at his feet. We too can become so interested in the grand steps of obedience we hope to take in the future that we miss the “offensively ordinary” steps right in front of us.

A single man may dream of sacrificing himself for a wife and children one day, and yet fail to do his chores in the meantime. An aspiring missionary may pray to one day plant a church among the unreached, and yet neglect her present small group. A postgrad may aspire to one day start a nonprofit, and yet cut corners in his job as a cashier. A young Christian may long to remain steadfast under future trials, and yet grumble at her roommate’s dirty dishes.

In each case, tomorrow’s obedience has become the enemy of today’s. The alternative, Solomon tells us, is to become like the discerning, who “sets his face toward wisdom” (Proverbs 17:24). And setting our faces toward wisdom will mean, in the first place, setting our faces toward today: today’s responsibilities, today’s burdens, today’s conversations, today’s means of grace — trifling though they may seem.

The wise know that a Christian becomes holy much like a cathedral becomes tall: one stone at a time. And stones are offensively ordinary things.

Whatever You Do

The pursuit of holiness, then, is both easier and harder than many of us imagine: Easier because our growth in grace often happens gradually, one small step at a time. Harder because sanctification has now invaded all of life. Holiness is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks, and those tasks are all around us.

“For now, do not despise the day of small obedience.”

Paul tells the Colossians, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Our spiritual maturity rests in those words whatever and everything: obey God not only in the seen, but in the unseen; not only in the exceptional, but in the mundane; not only in the crisis moments of life, but in the seemingly casual moments strewn throughout our days.

The question we must ask, dozens of times every day, is not what God might have us do ten years from now, but rather “Will I obey God now, in this moment?” Will I stop the fantasy right as it starts? Will I pray instead of checking my phone (again)? Will I refuse my eyes a second glance? Will I speak the loving, uncomfortable word?

If that thought intimidates us, it should also cheer us. True, the Lord Jesus holds us accountable every moment; there is no such thing as “me time.” But he also stands ready at every moment to notice our faltering attempts at obedience and, wonder of wonders, to be pleased. Jesus will not miss the smallest deed done in his name, not even a cup of cold water given (Matthew 10:42), but will make note of it and prepare a fitting reward. For “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:8). And for whatever defects remain in our obedience (and defects there will always be), he has grace enough to cover them.

Begin Where You Are

Where, then, does this pursuit of holiness begin? It begins right where we are. In his Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis offers “begin where you are” as a dictum for prayer. Instead of feeling pressure to open every prayer “by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and ‘all the blessings of this life’” (88), consider beginning smaller, even right where you are: thank him for the tree outside your window, the breakfast you just enjoyed, the child in the next room. For, as Lewis writes, we “shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest” (91).

“Very often, holiness hides in small things.”

A similar principle applies to our obedience. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10), Jesus tells us. Indeed, apart from a few exceptions, only those who have first learned to be faithful in little are able to be faithful in much. Little is the best training ground for much.

Trusting God with an afternoon’s ruined plans trains us to trust him with our children’s salvation. Giving sacrificially with a tight income readies us to do so with a comfortable one. Unashamedly speaking of Jesus before a neighbor prepares us, should the day ever come, to speak his name before persecutors. For now, do not despise the day of small obedience.

Today may not hold grand opportunities for obedience, cumulative moments where our character, formed over years, is put to the test. Those days will come if we live long enough. But today, our tasks are probably smaller: Ask for forgiveness. Renounce the shameful thought. Give the kids your full attention. Speak a surprising word of encouragement. Store God’s word in your heart. Begin where you are.