Finding Hope in Slow Sanctification

Have you ever felt like sanctification is too slow? I have. This is a common (and healthy) tension. For on the one hand, yes, God hates sin and we are called to live holy lives. On the other hand, no Christians on earth are completely free from the old self.

But there are some pitfalls here—some unhealthy places this tension can take us. Despair, frustration, and giving up are temptations we all feel from time to time. How can we avoid these traps? The best way is to focus on God’s role in sanctification.

The Temptation to Despair

God is not trying to lead us to despair. Sanctification is often a painfully slow process. I have grown impatient as I appear to be “left in my sin” with little to no evidence of growing holiness in my life. “I thought God hated sin,” I might say, “so why doesn’t he get rid of it?” I am aware of my blindness, but I don’t see any evidence of spiritual growth. But I’m superimposing my plan over and against God’s plan, as if to say “it would obviously be better if…” and failing to take the time to be still and know that he is God (Psalm 46:10). 

This despair can undermine our assurance of salvation. “Am I truly saved at all?” My only recourse is to trust, despite not seeing, that Christ is at work (Philippians 1:6) and, for some reason, taking his own sweet time. We were never saved because we were good. Remember, sanctification is founded in Christ and his obedience, not us and our weakness.

The Temptation to Frustration

God’s slowness can also become frustration, which is a pride issue. Often this is less about how slowly God works in us and more about how slowly God seemingly works in others. “Our country is going down the tubes. If only Christians in this country would…[fill in the blank]” or “my church would give more money if they actually believed what they say they believe.” Do other Christians need to work out their salvation? Yes (Philippians 2:12). But we can take it too far and become critical of the work of God himself. Again, this is an overemphasis on humanity’s role in sanctification and implies that people are hindering God. Nope, sorry. Doesn’t work like that. 

We are assured that Christ will bring his work to completion (Philippians 1:6) in his time. Becoming frustrated or angry puts my plans ahead of God’s and is unloving to the church. Everything is on track, and we are to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15), realizing that he is still building his kingdom (Matthew 16:18)!

The Temptation to Indulgence

Unfortunately, God’s patience can also manifest in ungodly indulgence. This is a particularly dangerous pitfall which twists the patience of our Lord into permission to sin. “Oops, I guess that was just a bit of the old self” or “no one is perfect.” This is obviously wrong when I say it, for it presumes upon the sacrificial work of Christ (Romans 2:4). Nevertheless, it can creep into my life in more subtle ways, such as with a particular sin or for a particular season of life. And it creeps in so easily because it has a grain of truth to it. Yes, we will always struggle with sin on this side of eternity, and yes, in his divine purpose God has allowed sin to persist in believers. 

But, a believing heart will never be comfortable with sin again (Ephesians 4:22–24). The struggle must continue. This is key; a believer may struggle with recurring sin for the rest of their life, and the sin itself may look identical to that of an unbeliever, but the Spirit of God will never abandon the believer to feel at home in sin (John 16:7–11). A believer with a new heart takes after the character of God, and God hates sin (Romans 6:11).

What is Truly Valuable

So when our sanctification seems slow, it may be because we still have a lot to learn about what is valuable to Christ. We can become obsessed with a particular sin while Christ has bigger fish to fry. He may be working in us on a more fundamental level.

And the kingdom of heaven is not about you. It includes you, but it’s not all about you. So cultivate a heart of gratitude that you are included, and the fruit will be selfless love and service to others, without regard to their degree of sanctification.

Finally, know that there is a fire in you. The Spirit is alive and active in tectonic (powerful but often invisible) ways. Consider that the Scriptures make sense to you, you’re convicted of your sin, you are interceded for, works are prepared for you (and you for them), prayer to the Father is open to you in Christ, and a peace which passes understanding is yours.

When we seek to understand what is valuable to the kingdom of heaven, we start to see more and more of the beautiful work of Christ all around us and in us. Soon there is no room for despair because we see the fingerprints of God in our lives. A growing love for God’s people prevents our self-righteous frustration as we celebrate the small victories and realize they’re not that small after all. And we find that the new self takes on new life, caught up and pulled along by the hope and excitement of the gospel, leaving behind the old self where sulking in sin simply makes no sense anymore.

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Truth and the Silver Screen

“The book was better.”

I loathe this saying. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I think I have some good reasons. Book lovers are already squirming in their seats and readying their arguments. But hear me out. We can still be friends.

These are totally different forms of storytelling. Apples and oranges. Film combines too many mediums of communication to be compared to books. Pretty much all forms of art are encompassed in film, from photography and theater to music and dance. A good film will feed your eyes and ears information in ways and at speeds that a book never could. 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a 90-minute film at 25 frames per second is 135,000,000 words, or reading the Bible (757,439 words) 178 times! Or reading the entire Bible once every 2 minutes! 

“I liked the book better.”

Or “The book was a better book than the movie was a movie.”

Either of these are fine. You’re allowed to like books more than movies. And there are a lot of bad movies out there. Both books and movies are trying to tell a story, and both can succeed or fail. And maybe that’s all people mean when they say the book was better. So I might be splitting hairs. Either way, I hope we can agree that films are different from books and therefore deserve their own conversation.

“Christian film” and Innocence

I’ve seen two main schools of thought when people try to define the category of “Christian film.” The first is whether it’s explicitly Christian, often determined by the explicit gospel doctrine in the film. For instance, some would say it’s not a “Christian film” unless the gospel is proclaimed. Christians debate this. I can go either way with the definition.

The second characteristic is how “clean” the film is. This is often the bigger conversation when selecting a film, and with good reason. Should Christians watch movies with sex scenes? Or swearing? What about drug use? Or violence? Or tragic themes? Or (fill in the blank)?

If you only watch “Christian” films then these questions are easier to answer. But the vast majority of films out there present more of a challenge. Most are a mixture of good and questionable content. How much questionable content can a film contain before it is “bad?” Conversely, does a simple lack of questionable content automatically make a film “good?”

I’m not going to answer these questions for you. Rather, I want to back up a bit and consider the more fundamental concept of innocence.

I’ve never done drugs. I am naïve to that experience. And while films are powerful, I’m not going to get a high from watching the wrong movie. But there are legitimate ways in which we as Christians may have our innocence threatened by a movie. Their power may be limited but they are powerful nonetheless. We must therefore be careful when selecting the culture we consume because innocence is quickly lost and often lost for good.

This is a familiar struggle for parents. Right now my kids are young and largely oblivious to foul language. That is going to change as they grow older, but I don’t want it to come before they are equipped to handle it, nor do I want it to come because of my negligence.

This is important because there are many well-made films out there that contain content with the potential to change our levels of innocence. We must be discerning in how we select films for ourselves and our families. It’s okay to not watch a film.

How should we watch?

But maybe you like watching films. Let’s assume we aren’t watching anything inappropriate. Now, how should Christians watch movies? 

Every film asks the viewer to suspend their disbelief in some way. The creators want us to set aside our skepticism and enter into the story. They tell us how their world works and we need to believe it if we want to enter in. It can be something easy, like forgetting that these are actors; or something hard, like acknowledging superpowers. The key here is that disbelief is suspended, not eliminated, as if you left it at the door or set it on the shelf for a time. We all enter back into our world at the end of the film and reinstate our disbelief.

Sometimes we want to escape our reality, turn off our brains, and get lost in the silver screen. Sometimes we want to feel something more deeply, be it humor, fear, triumph, loss, love, etc. Whatever your mood, I encourage you to start by looking for the value declarations and compare them to the truths of Scripture. Not everyone wants to be so critical of each and every film they watch but consuming films mindlessly is dangerous. Why? Because entering these worlds is always an intimate experience where we intentionally lower our guard.

Value declarations are statements of how the world works or should work. Sometimes they are insightful and profound. Other times they are shallow and misguided. We need to be careful that we don’t casually adopt poor values into our lives simply because we’ve seen them promoted in film. Watching movies with other Christians, or talking about films you’ve both seen, is one way to do this better.

I especially enjoy films that manage to hit on deeper biblical truths, such as the consequences of wrong action, the emptiness of success, or the beauty of sacrifice. Usually this is simply due to an honest portrayal of the human condition and the consequences of actions. Films can immerse us in real human experiences, offering brutally honest critiques. Unfortunately, apart from the gospel, most films fall short when they try to provide good solutions to these critiques. I leave those solutions to the Bible… okay so maybe that book is better.

A Few Recommendations

Here are some movies that have resonated with me over the years. 

1. North to Alaska (1960) – John Wayne, Capucine

A comedy out of time. Let’s talk about toxic masculinity, using privilege to stand up for others, no means no, and how we treat those with immoral reputations. This film contrasts with the “typical” John Wayne film in many ways but I suggest comparing the final chase scene with that of Donovan’s Reef (1963) or McLintock! (1963). 

Parent’s Guide – IMDB

2. The Fall (2006) – Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru

This film is confusing, and therefore many people don’t like it. But at its core it is a heartfelt story of a despairing man and a sweet child. The beautiful cinematography invites you to see the world through the imagination of a little girl while the themes of trust, manipulation, and suicide are tackled above her head. As a dad it made me cry.

Parent’s Guide – IMDB

3. The Thin Man (1934) – William Powell, Myrna Loy

This husband and wife duo stand out in this 1930s masterpiece. I’m always struck by how much fun these two have in a time when marriage was usually the butt of the joke. Solving murders, personal vices (alcohol), or former girlfriends—nothing can get between these two. The best part is that they made five sequels!

Parent’s Guide – IMDB

4. Surf’s Up (2007) – Shia LaBeouf, Zooey Deschanel

A kids movie on the heels of big blockbuster Happy Feet (2006). But this ripoff is so much better. Chasing your dreams, meeting your heroes, making friends, seeking fame, and what really matters are all questions this film asks. Stylishly told through a reality TV camera. Also the water is beautiful in that end scene!

Parent’s Guide – IMDB

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The Sad Song of Samson

The first time I heard Mike Posner’s song on the radio I didn’t really listen to the words. It was upbeat and catchy and I found myself bobbing along as I drove to work. The second time I heard it I paid more attention to the words—trying to catch the name of the song or at least enough of the lyrics to find the song again. The third time I heard the song, I cried. As I sat in traffic, somehow my brain connected Mike Posner to Samson—then, all of a sudden, something about Samson clicked.

Samson has always been one of my favorite characters. What boy doesn’t admire the strongest man that ever lived and wish they could flex those same muscles? Maybe this is why Samson is often relegated to the category of “kid’s Bible stories”—a shame, since he is one of the most vivid characters in Scripture. The story isn’t all that long (Judges 13–16), but it is packed with drama and action.

So what about this song got to me? The song itself isn’t substantial—the singer laments that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—but for the first time I thought of Samson as a celebrity. If Samson could sing us a song from that final Philistine stage, would it sound like he took a Pill in Ibiza?

…you don’t wanna be high like me
Never really knowing why like me
You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone
You don’t wanna ride the bus like this
Never knowing who to trust like this
You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing
All I know are sad songs, sad songs

I Took a Pill in Ibiza, by Mike Posner

As Samson stood on the Philistine stage (Judges 16:25), did he recount the events of his life that led him to that bound and blind place? He may have remembered the pride of his youth when he thought he could play fast and loose with God’s gifts. He may have regretted how carelessly he had treated God’s commands. No doubt his expectations for his life never included this place. Surely, here at the end, all Samson knew were sad songs. This is not the way we want our heroes to end up. Or is it?

Samson was a messiah that couldn’t save Israel from the real enemy. If Samson with all his might couldn’t save Israel then maybe the Messiah we need isn’t a strong man. Both in foreshadowing and in contrast, the story of Samson paints a vibrant redemptive picture that goes beyond the strong man to the loving God behind him. Right from the start, God is the main character in Samson’s life. Christ himself, preincarnate, announces Samson’s birth—as if to say, “This one. This one is special.” (Judges 13:3–5)

It’s almost as if God wanted to make it crystal clear that we shouldn’t look to physical strength for salvation. Samson had supernatural strength and it wasn’t enough. Through Samson, God may have begun to save Israel (Judges 13:5), but it wasn’t a complete work. God was digging down to the root issue. While God used Samson to deliver his people, Samson wasn’t able to break free from the chains of sin. And he wasn’t able to free anyone else.

As he stood on that stage taking abuse from God’s enemies, no doubt foremost on his mind was that memory of waking to discover that his God had abandoned him. Years of silence had passed. Samson had a lot of time to reflect at the end of his life. A lot of pride and arrogance fell away under the realization that everything had been a gift from God, a gift that Samson had taken for granted. Had he thrown away his only hope of salvation? Had God abandoned him forever?

Fortunately, someone else also experienced God’s back being turned, and Christ’s suffering reached back over the eons to a blind and broken man praying between two pillars. The strongest man in the world was now humbled and focused on the only thing that mattered—a right relationship with his Creator. His strength had been the only indication of God’s presence and he hadn’t felt that presence in a long time.  So he prayed for God’s presence once again and God relented. Samson’s hope was rekindled in those final moments as he was reunited with his God and gave his life in obedience to God’s mission. In so doing many were saved. And that is not the end of Samson.

We have the same hope in us today that Samson had in those final moments. We serve the same God, are saved by the same gospel, and have the same Spirit living inside us. The hope of the gospel is a tangible and real hope. It is a hope of new life and resurrection. Samson could give up his life because he had faith that he would rise again (Hebrews 11:32, 39).

In that way Samson is not like Mike Posner. As I sat in the car, I was gripped by the realization that although Samson’s life may have been sad, at the end, he was granted a stunning grace! He had so much more to say than “it’s lonely at the top.” He had a faithful God who had forgiven him and granted him a future!

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