Like a Man: Why Even Try?
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
(Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)
Some will ask, "If salvation is by grace, then why should we try so hard to develop virtue? Isn't that pursuing a righteousness by works?"
My answer is "not necessarily." Certainly many people try to please God by being good. Those efforts actually take them further from grace as they grow in arrogance and self-righteousness. But many more people, all Christians, find that after casting themselves helplessly upon Christ for salvation, they now have a desire to be better. We see our sins and want to be more like Jesus. How do we grow up into his image?
First, remember sanctification is not magic. You do not simply stand idly by and wait for God to do it. Like all ordinary works of grace, God works in and through our desires and actions. God provides food for us through our working for money and going to the grocery store to get it. He keeps us safe through the use of seat-belts and vaccinations. And he makes us Holy through our efforts to develop Christian virtue.
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 2 Peter 1:5-7.
So how where do we start? First we must attack the two ugly twins: pride and sloth.
We must attack our pride before anything else. Our pride whispers in our ears, "we are fine. Sure, we are not perfect, sometimes we lose our temper or struggle with patience and we do need to work on that, but it is not big deal."
Do not be fooled. The small external sins point to something lurking underneath. Why do you need to develop patience? Because you believe you are the king of the universe and you expect to have everything you want when you want it. Impatience is not a little thing that needs working on. It has deep roots that wrap around our self-preoccupation at the core of our being. Your pride would have you think that you just need a little touch up around the edges. In truth, we all need a complete renovation.
Pride does not stand alone. His twin brother sloth stands next to him. They feed each other. Pride says I'm fine, I don't need anything major. Sloth says the minor renovations can wait. Yet we all know that waiting brings destruction. How do you let bugs and weeds destroy a garden? Do nothing. How do you let your home fall into disrepair? Do nothing. How do you ruin a marriage or let children grow up bent toward self-destruction? Do nothing.
Our sin runs deep. Our hearts are deceitfully beyond our imaginations (Jeremiah 17:9). We must be about the work of weeding our our selfishness, or it will ruin us and everything we love.
So how do we go about weeding it? First, pick a quality you want to develop, say kindness. Then begin to earnestly pray that God will change you and make you kind, and begin making concerted efforts at displaying kindness to people you find difficult.
Something will very likely happen. You will find it hard. You may find it impossible. You likely will begin to discover some deep hidden things in your heart that prevent you from being kind. Maybe you are unkind to your sister because you are jealous. Maybe you fear disapproval so you protect yourself in a shell of surliness. You will definitely find a deep addiction to self.
At that point you will begin to really pray, and not just little sweet prayers. You will begin to beg God to save you from a dark heart that loves yourself much more than those around you. You might even be brought to cry out, "Jesus, you did not die for me to leave me this way."
As you continue that struggle, something happens. You change. You won't be the first to notice. You will be to busy trying to love your sister, but she will notice the change. The Holy Spirit will be conforming you into the image of Christ. But this transformation will not make you proud, or judgmental, or self-righteous. You will just be humbly joyful to find that you have been rescued from the lonely, bitter world of self-preoccupation.
I hope this short article does not make the process seem too quick. It is not fast. God works slowly, deeply and beautifully. He does not cut the top off of the weeds so the garden looks nice for a day. He plows deep and pulls up every rood of every weed, so the flowers of grace can grow and bloom for eternity.