Is Stress Making Me More Holy or More Sinful?
Are the pressures in my life making me more holy or more unholy? And how would I know? This is such a great question. A lot of our emails come from Christians who are feeling extra pressure in life. That is true today in an email from a young mom named Victoria, who is facing the challenges of raising little ones. “Hello, Pastor John,” she writes. “Since becoming a mom, I have found myself battling sin like never before. New sins that I never recall struggling with are popping up, seemingly out of nowhere, especially in this season with a 2-year-old and a newborn. My desire is to be a wife and mother to the glory of God, but I feel I have never been further away from this goal. Are these new pressures of motherhood sanctifying me or making me more unholy? And how can I tell the difference? Because I often feel as though I am becoming more unholy by them.”
This is a tremendously important question because it gets at a reality of sanctification that is often overlooked — namely, that pride and various forms of that sin can lie latent, unseen in the forgiven, Spirit-indwelt Christian, often giving the impression to the Christian himself and to others that we are more holy than we are.
I picture Christians in this condition like a glass of water. While the glass of water is very still, sitting on the counter, the sediment of pride and other sins can lie unnoticed at the bottom of the glass. So the water is clear and seems cleaner than it really is. But if you bump the glass — and that bumping corresponds to the pressures of motherhood, for example — then the sediment of pride and sin is stirred up and shows itself in attitudes and words and actions that show that the glass of water isn’t as clean as we thought it was. It’s more sinful than we thought.
“God exposes the remnants of pride and sin in our lives so that we see ourselves more clearly and repent more deeply.”
Now, that is a very important reality to come to terms with as a Christian. And this question forces us to come to terms with it — all of us, not just moms. So, I’m very glad for the question, even though it’s painful for us to talk about this, because, at least for me, I don’t like it when circumstances bump my glass and bring out the worst in me.
Let me just state briefly seven biblical observations that give the foundation for this understanding of sanctification and how we should respond to it.
1. God purifies his people through trials.
First, God teaches us in his word that the pressures of motherhood — or pastoring, or any other kind of trouble or pressure, small or great — are designed by God for the purifying of his people.
For a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
The pressures of motherhood are like a fire designed not to consume but to refine the gold of the mother’s faith.
[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
That’s the goal of all painful or pressured circumstances in the Christian life: the peaceful fruit of righteousness, the gold of godliness refined.
2. Trials cause some to fall away.
Tribulations and pressures drive some Christians away from the faith forever. Jesus said in the parable of the soils,
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word [the glass is bumped], immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20–21)
3. God keeps every Christian.
God will not let his children, his elect, fall away. He will not let us be tested beyond the grace he gives us to stand (1 Corinthians 10:13). Or as it says in 1 Corinthians 1:8–9, he “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son.”
Or Romans 8:30: “Those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he glorified.” If he called you, he will keep you.
4. We may not be as godly as we think.
The story of Job shows that some of the most godly people have latent pride in their heart that certain pressures and troubles will reveal. The book of Job starts like this: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1).
So, Job really was a good, godly, faithful man. He did not live in a way that brought down any blame on his actions. But then came the trials. At first, Job’s response was as good as it gets. In submission, in humility, in trust, he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But later it was more than he could bear, and he got angry at God. He said things like, “Why do you . . . count me as your enemy?” (Job 13:24). God wasn’t Job’s enemy. He wasn’t. This beautiful glass of water had now become cloudy. Job was not perfect.
And the result of Job’s glass of water becoming cloudy with pride and anger at God was this: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). This is repentance when the glass is bumped and the sediment is stirred up that nobody knew was there.
5. God exposes pride to lead us to repentance.
This leads to the fifth observation: God exposes the remnants of pride and sin in our lives so that we will do what Job did — see ourselves more clearly and repent more deeply.
6. Our sanctification can feel sluggish.
This means that in the process of sanctification, it often feels like we are going backward. This is what she asks about. Job began so well in chapters 1–2, and later, it wasn’t going so well. He did go backward, at least temporarily. It looked like Job was getting more unholy. So what is the answer to Victoria’s question? She says that the pressures of motherhood are drawing more sin out of her, as far as she can see.
“In the process of sanctification, it often feels like we are going backward.”
So is she becoming more holy by these pressures — or more unholy? And what we’ve seen is that she is standing at a fork in the road. Will the pressures and troubles turn her into a third soil that falls away from Christ and proves she was never a Christian in the first place? Or will she be like Job in the end, which leads to repentance?
7. Fight like a forgiven child of God.
And so my final point, my seventh observation, is an exhortation: Let your pressures and troubles and the apparent increase of sin, which really was there all along, let it all make God’s grace sweeter, and let it make your heart humbler, and let it make your repentance deeper and your warfare against sin more earnest as you fight like a forgiven child of God.