I had the privilege of hearing a bunch of middle schoolers share reflections about their time at our local middle school. It was interesting that my perception of middle school was tainting my ability to hear with objectivity. I have furiously attempted to avoid thinking about anything related to my Jr. High School experiences.
There are books written about teenage girls, queen bees, bullying and an assorted other difficulties related to growing up through adolescence, especially during the middle school years. I previously posted about our experiences as parents of teenagers in a blog called Three simple steps to growing up with your teenager.
We are still learning here. I do recommend you read “Like Dew Your Youth” by Eugene Peterson. I have also had a great many talks with our C.O.O. David Parfitt, who has just launched two teenagers into college and beyond. His perspective has certainly been helpful.
As I sat there listening to these really awesome teenagers, some who performed music and others who read 2-3 minute reflections on Middle School, I was struck by the differences in maturity and perspective. It reminded me of two things.
If there is one thing that I have learned it is that none of us have arrived. From the moment you sent the first child off to preschool to the point where you release them into independent living, you remember at each point that none of us have arrived. This living in the now and not yet, the point where you look at your heart or try to understand the heart of a teenager, the place where you are both able to remember that “we’re not there yet” is both scary and humbling and also a place for faith.
More than one teenager communicated that Middle School was a place to learn and grow. They shared the trials that were faced there, the loss of a teacher or parents, the loss of reputation, dealing with their own inner struggles and consequences of poor choices. Some communicated about their dreams and plans, high hopes and confidence in their vision for a future. That’s what those kinds of events are for. But is was good to see that in the midst there were those who realized that “they were not there yet!”
This reminds me of a critical point for those who are helping build disciples and those who are being shaped towards Christlikeness, we are all in process! This process will not be done till we see Christ face to face.
2. The way up is the way down.
The second truth is somewhat surprising and at the same time confusing at first. To grow spiritually, to grow into a person who has the character of Jesus, means that the way up is the way down! What? I thought that maturity means increasing holiness and perfection. I thought that sanctification was getting better!
What was telling in the different teenagers who shared was that each seemed to have a bit of humility, they knew that they were not there yet, but there seemed to be a variety of ways which they would attempt to continue to grow. Certainly there were mentors and teachers along the way that helped these optimistic and sometimes proud teens learn the lesson that they don’t know everything (something of which I still have to remind myself). There were circumstances of loss, pain and grief that brought honesty and self reflection to these teens. But one thing that wasn’t shared across the board was a simple truth that Jesus brings to the table. The way to go up is the way down.
But not all Christians see Sanctification in these terms. What about being “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness”? Doesn’t that mean I’m getting better! Well, yes and no.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
 Ezekiel 36:27. Philippians 2:13. 2 Thessalonians 2:13.
 2 Corinthians 5:17. Ephesians 4:23-24. 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
 Ezekiel 36:25-27. Romans 6:4, 6, 12-14. 2 Corinthians 7:1. 1 Peter 2:24.
Note something in the first phrase that is sometimes missed. Sanctification is the WORK of God’s free grace. To support my first point, we are not there yet. It is the ongoing work of God that helps us grow. We are renewed after the image of God! Certainly more like Jesus than when we begin. The last point is also true, enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.
So on the one hand, Yes, Sanctification is the work of grace where we are enabled more and more. So take heart, we do grow!
What does this look like? Well, maybe we need to consider what this doesn’t look like!
Sanctification is not the work of my flesh, personality, or inner stubbornness to be a good person! We remember it is a work of grace! That means God is more concerned with my spiritual growth than I am! He has promised to complete what He begins!
So it doesn’t look like me picking myself up by my own bootstraps! I don’t grow by my own will! (Getting Better is a hard phrase to explain here, but by my saying, No – I am not getting better – means that “I” am not making myself better.)
To connect this back to my original point, I need to remember that I don’t arrive once I am saved and I still don’t arrive once I have learned how to grow and follow God. The way up is the way down!
Some of this is perspective. I have a brother-in-law who is an awesome mechanic. If I were to go in to his shop while my car was getting a new timing belt, not knowing what it took, I might be surprised at all the things he has to take off my car to get that job done. Simply, if all I have ever done “spiritually” is fill my “heart” up with gas, put in new coolant or give it a wash (metophorically speaking), then I would be shocked at what real “heart work” takes. It is as if we forget that to grow takes both time and a bit of time under the hood.
The very thing that marks Christian maturity is the ability to grow in brokenness. This is not simply admitting that I am a sinner, but the ongoing process of allowing the Holy Spirit to uncover the things in my life that need to be repented of and developing a heart that is willing to “go with the Holy Spirit” down into my heart. I have to allow Jesus to take apart the transmission, do an overhaul on the engine and maybe even do some body work. I’m not going to see anything unless I allow the “great mechanic” under the hood. And honestly, if I understand what the Bible says about my condition apart for Jesus, I need some serious time in the shop!
Self examination with the Word of God, prayer producing God given repentance and Godly sorrow, and a healthy relationship with God means I need to go down! (Psalm 5:17) The more I am aware of my sinfulness before a holy God the more I see my need for Jesus each moment! It is at these very moments that I see the cross of Christ grow bigger and bigger! I realize the depths of my sin, but also begin to scratch the surface of the depths to which Christ’s death paid for my sin. Jack Miller says, “Cheer up” you’re far worse than you think you are! But you are more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared dream!
So I listen to the middle schoolers finish speeches and one thing that I’m reminded of is that some of them have a healthy view of self. They realize that they have a ways to go and are learning. They haven’t lived up to their own or others expectations and will continue to mess up. But as with all of us, they still are in progress. My prayer for them, for myself and for you is that that process of growth toward maturity begins with a humble and broken heart before Jesus that causes you to replace trust in yourself for self-improvement with faith to believe that Jesus is calling you to Repentance and Faith.
Walking with Jesus today means that I learn that I am still growing. I learn that Jesus helps me see my daily sin, my love for self, my trust in this world; in seeing these things…. he calls me to ongoing repentance and ongoing faith.
Here are a few articles that can flesh these thoughts out further.
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