Find Freedom in “Imperfect Progress”

The Life-long Process of Sanctification Frees us from Spiritual Checklists 

What is the Christian life supposed to look like?  Once we’re saved (justification), then we spend the rest of our lives on Earth being changed, living out our salvation in our everyday lives (sanctification).  The Holy Spirit comes to live in us, and He convicts us, encourages us, teaches us, comforts us, and slowly changes us into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).  But it’s easy for us task-oriented believers to get bogged down in checking off the lists in our Christian lives.   

For example, I have actually had this conversation with the Lord before (I won’t tell you how long ago) 😊: 

Okay, I’ve finally conquered my fear.  Check.  Now I can move on to my anger issues. 

A few months later: Why haven’t I conquered my anger yet?  What is wrong about my method?  I’ll change it to this method and work harder. 

A few months later: Lord, why am I still blowing up at my kids?!  Why haven’t you conquered my anger yet?  Am I hindering Your work in some way?  I’m not seeing any results! 

What are the problems with this approach? 

  1. First, notice the “I” statements in the first two situations.  It’s so easy to take on the Holy Spirit’s work as my own.  But I don’t want to imply that we don’t need to do anything.  All the imperatives in the Bible are commands that require us to take responsibility, take action, and do something.  The action needs to be in line with the Holy Spirit, though. 

  2. Second, notice that I would talk to myself first, and only after I failed did I then bring it to the Lord.  I’m beginning to learn to take everything to the Lord first (I haven’t arrived yet, I’m still working on it).   

Before I get desperate, I need to be deliberate.

I need to: 

  • talk to the Lord about it (through prayer),  

  • find out what His general will is (through Bible study), and  

  • align my attitude (through humility) to listen for the Holy Spirit’s still, small voice in my specific situation (1 Kings 19:12). 

A teachable spirit is absolutely essential to sanctification. 

When I deliberately align my attitude with listening, I humble myself.  

If I want to work with the Holy Spirit and not against Him, then I must surrender my will and my agenda and my methodology to His.  I can’t be stubborn.  I can’t know it all.  Because my way obviously doesn’t work. 

Can you relate?  What if we’ve been struggling with one sin (or more) for a really long time?  Are there some character flaws and strongholds of sin that we just won’t conquer in this lifetime?  Is this one of them?  Should we just give up on working on those areas?  Is there anything that can keep us from getting discouraged?   

not weary in well doing gal 6-9.jpg

One game-changing concept has revolutionized my life and kept encouraging me not to give up but to persevere.  It’s two words from Lysa TerKeurst’s book Unglued: “imperfect progress.”  She explained that processes not only require time, but they will require ups and downs.  We will sometimes feel accomplishment; but we will also sometimes feel failure .   

Think of it like a stock market chart.  On any given day, you can see the graph of how the stock price is moving hour by hour.  There will be ups and downs; it won’t be a straight line, because it’s constantly moving.  If you zoom out and look at the graph over a longer period, say, a week, then the smaller part of the line for that one day seems straight.  You’re seeing the bigger trend.  The movement for one hour may have been up 6 points, down 3 points, up 1 point, down 2 points, and then up 4 points to where it began.  But when seen in the larger trend for the week, you realize that was one static point in a larger up trend. 

stock market graph.jpg

Our spiritual lives are like that.  We’re never truly static.  We’re either growing or declining.  But we’re always changing.  The changes may seem so small that we don’t even notice them.   And we're never going to be perfect.  But if we pay attention to the bigger picture, we can look back and see that the bigger trend has been growth.  We will all have bad days where we take three steps backward.  But in the last year, the amount of bad days may have slowly decreased, and hopefully, the better days of obeying the Spirit are increasing.   

So, what are three things we can do today to free ourselves from the bondage of spiritual checklists and grow in spiritual maturity? 

1. Slow Down

Charles Stanley put it like this: 

“Many modern-day inventions are designed to help us accomplish tasks more quickly.  The microwave, for example, shortens cooking time drastically, while washing machines and computers speed up other chores.  New technology has the added effect of increasing life’s already fast pace as well as our desire for instant solutions. 
“Not every process, however, lends itself to acceleration.  Consider our growth in Christ, which is known as sanctification.  Being a Christian is neither an event nor a quick fix.  Rather, it is a journey.  There are things for us to learn along the way, and while we may unwisely choose a longer path than necessary, there really are no shortcuts. 
“Sadly, some people grow little after salvation.  They are not encouraged in their faith or discipled well.  Others fail to pursue maturity through prayer, meditation on Scripture, and fellowship.  God is not please when His children opt for complacency.  That’s why His Word tells us to 'grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ' (2 Pet. 3:18)." 
 – From “The Process of Sanctification” by Charles Stanley  (In Touch devotional, May 28, 2017, p.33)

2. Inventory Your Spiritual Growth

Take just a few minutes to evaluate where you have been and where are you are right now.  Charles Stanley gave three “indicators that reveal the quality of our Christian journey.” 

  • “A deepening hunger for Christ.”  Do you want more and more of Him?  Are you looking for more Bible studies, more devotionals, more worship music, more sermons, more Christian fellowship, more of anything that will help you draw closer to Him? 

  • A sharpening “discernment of sin.”  You are not only more aware of when other people say something that’s not right, but you’re also more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s nudging when He points out a thought or a motive that you hadn’t noticed before as being wrong. 

  • A “continuously expand[ing]…sphere of love,” in which we “care for people who previously were either unnoticed or difficult to accept.”  My understanding of this point is that you start caring about other people besides your peeps.  Your world becomes more than just your family and close friends.  You start actually caring about acquaintances from church or co-workers or cliques you’re not a part of.  Then you start caring enough about strangers to do something, join a mission group, volunteer, or some other ministry work that you didn’t care enough to do something about before.  Apathy dissolves into compassion. 

(Quotes from Charles Stanley’s In Touch devotional, August 28, 2017, p. 33.

3. Remember the Why

Our reason for living holy lives with self-control (sober-mindedness) is because we look to the future, when our salvation will be complete (glorification). 

1 Peter 1:13: "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (ESV). 

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth illustrates this beautifully: 

"Think of it this way.  In a moment of weakness, you might be tempted to pull off the next exit and into the drive-through of a fast food joint to buy a burger that looked irresistibly big and juicy on the billboard you just passed.  But then you remember you have reservations that night at ... [a] Steak House.  You think of that luscious steak you're going to sink your teeth into shortly.  And all of a sudden, that fast-food burger seems cheap, mass-produced, and tasteless. 
"You can wait.  You can say no to the drive-through because you're going to get to say yes to an amazing feast just ahead" (Adorned, p. 174-5). 

 2 Corinthians 7:1: "Since we have these promises, beloved [of grace, heaven, and communion with God], let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God" (ESV). 

 When we get rid of everything that contaminates body and spirit and replace them with God-approved tasks in reverence ("fear of God"), then we are "perfecting holiness," (NIV) becoming more mature in our faith and more like Christ. 

In Adorned again, Nancy lists everyday situations as sacred worship: 

  • "If you're a wife, serving your husband is a sacred duty to be carried out with devotion and intentionality, out of reverence to God." 

  • "If you're a mom, tending to your children's needs is a sacred duty, a daily offering to the Lord in whose presence you serve." 

  • "If you work outside your home, the performance of your responsibilities, however insignificant they may seem in the big picture, is a sacred duty, carried out in plain view of the Lord as an act of worship." 

  • "If you're a student, applying yourself to your coursework is a sacred duty, as is your participation in class, your commitment to integrity, and the sacrifices necessary to make the most of your training." 

  • "If you're retired or unemployed, single or widowed or childless, your daily tasks and relationships are your sacred duty, to be carried out as a woman who lives and breathes and walks in God's presence." (from Adorned, p. 95-6.) 

We must not forget that every moment is an opportunity to invite Christ into our lives and worship the God of the universe in our mundane tasks.  We can do this, because His Holy Spirit always dwells in us, and we serve a holy God.  Reverence for God is the motivation for reverent and pure lives (Titus 2:3).   

Now that we know why we should work with the Holy Spirit to purify our daily lives and grow more and more like Christ, we need to remind ourselves of these three actions every day until they become habits. 

  • Slow Down

  • Inventory Your Spiritual Growth

  • Remember the Why

Join the conversation: Which of these resonated with you most?  Do you need to slow down more?  Do you need to encourage yourself with the trend of your spiritual growth?  Do you need to remember God's holiness and reverence Him more? Please comment below or in our private Facebook Group, Practical Living for Christian Women.  See you there!