Jess was in church on Sunday. He was singing praises to God, earnestly seeking to apply God’s word to his life, and friendly with people after the service. Then later that day he was driving with some friends to a restaurant and he got frustrated when a driver cut him off and drove slow. Jess crowded the guy’s bumper and muttered complaints about how rude this driver was and made sarcastic comments about his being a jerk.
Tammy was in her midweek women’s Bible study one morning before work. They were talking about being loving wives for their husbands and being good listeners when they’re under stress. She prayed with the other women about being more compassionate for her husband. Then at dinner that night with her husband he was preoccupied about some problems he was having at work and he didn’t notice her new haircut, he wasn’t very talkative, nor did he thank her for the dinner she prepared. She reacted by calling him selfish and gave him the silent treatment the rest of the night.
Why Don’t we Live Up to Our Beliefs?
What’s going on? Why wasn’t Jess praising God as he was driving like he did in church? Why didn’t he bless the one who had cursed him? Why didn’t Tammy forgive her husband and show him compassion for the hard day he’d had like she had prayed to do? They both were frustrated to say, “I do what I don’t want to do!” (Romans 7:19)
Jess and Tammy had not learned to be fully satisfied in Jesus as their “all in all.” They were not being gratefully sustained by God’s grace when their trial came upon them. Instead of relying on God’s compassion for the hurt or stress they experienced they reacted to it out of their own insecurities, anger, and limited resources. Their doctrinal beliefs in the sufficiency of Christ were not operating in their hearts — their stubborn will was in control.
Jess and Tammy had a split called a “sanctification gap” — the faith in Christ they professed was being contradicted by patterns of sin in their lives. They had repeated guilty struggles and had to admit, I do what I don’t want to do!
When Pastors have a Sanctification Gap
Even pastors and Christian leaders struggle with a sanctification gap — they especially do. The more of the Bible you know and the more active you are in Christian ministry the more vulnerable you are to developing a wide sanctification gap. “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my friends, because you know that we who teach will judged more strictly” James warns us. It’s easy to sound good on stage, but not be able to control our tongue in daily life. Out of the same mouth we praise God and curse other people. (See James 3:1-12).
Bruce is an example. Everybody says that he is such a gifted Bible teacher. He makes the Scripture come alive in ways that greatly encourage people. They find him witty and warm and they admire him as man who is devoted to Christ and the gospel. Through his pulpit ministry he’s led many people to put their faith in Christ or to become fully devoted disciples.
But the people closest to Bruce see something different. His wife feels distant from him and she has resigned herself to a marriage without real intimacy. His kids are afraid for him to know about their problems. Those who work with him day in and day out at the church office experience Bruce as impatient and harsh. He becomes frustrated when they don’t meet his standards and he can be critical. They’ve all learned not be emotionally vulnerable with him—it’s not safe.
I’m sad to report that many pastors have even worse contradictions then Bruce’s and this hurts the people under their care, often damaging even their trust in Christ because a wound from one of Christ’s ambassadors comes in the name of the Lord. You’ve seen this is the cases with the pastors you have known or heard about who have fallen into sexual sin or financial indiscretion. Pastors who burn out and walk away from the ministry were probably suffering with the widening sanctification gap that occurs when overworking in ministry crowds out intimacy with Jesus.
Don’t be Too Hard on your Pastor!
But we need to be careful not to be too hard on pastors! All the expectations that their congregation has for them are a big part of their stress. We think pastors should always be “on,” ready to bless and encourage others. We think they should always have the compassion of God for us. We think they should be spiritual experts and not have any big struggles, especially in their relationship with God.
All of us need to take responsibility for our own life with Christ and not expect our pastor to inspire us, make it easy for us to apply God’s Word in our lives, or be the perfect leader for our church. We need to have compassion for our pastors and pray for them. We should be able to empathize with the extreme stress they’re under and how difficult it is for them not to make the mistake of developing a widening sanctification gap.
Certainly, anyone who is active in Christian service knows how doing God’s work and helping people is so important and so meaningful that you’re prone to let it siphon off time and energy from your own relationship with Christ. If you’re not careful you end up ministering in your own strength, meeting obligations, and accommodating whatever people want from you. For awhile you can do that and feel okay by living off of the gratification of being used by God to bless others.
But neglecting your own abiding in Christ — not bringing your needs and struggles to the Lord, not confessing your sins, not adoring him from your heart, not taking the time to listen to him — always catches up with you. Jesus said that remaining in his love (as he remains in the Father’s love) and drawing nourishment from his words is our source of joy. If we’re not abiding then we’re starving our soul. The branch that is cut off from the vine loses the flow of sap. It shrivels up and dies. Obviously, a lone brach can’t bear fruit—can’t effectively love others—no matter how hard it tries (John 15:1-17).
I Do What I Don’t Want to Do!
In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul described this problem of acting in ways that contradict what we say we believe to be best. “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (verse 19). In short, Paul was saying, I do what I don’t want to do!
Jess, Tammy, and Bruce can relate. Perhaps you can too? Most of us can. All of us have some degree of a sanctification gap that we struggle with. Only Jesus has lived with no inconsistency or contraction! He believed what was true and he lived up to it perfectly. We have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).
Each of us need to ask ourselves, how does my sanctification gap manifest itself? How am I not living like Jesus would live if he were me? In my daily life am I governed by the Spirit of Jesus or by my own self (e.g., my ambition or desires)?
The larger our sanctification gap the more we miss out on God’s peace, the more we hurt the people around us, and the more our life witness undermines our ministry of the gospel of Christ. If we aren’t able to make progress closing our sanctification gap then we’re prone to become discouraged. We may give up on the possibility that we can live in a way that resembles the wonderful, victorious life that Paul described in Romans 8: “controlled not by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit” (verse 9). Because the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lived in him and Paul relied on his power he was able to put to death the misdeeds of his body and be led by the Spirt as a son of God (verses 12-13).
I hope you know that in Romans 7 when Paul says, I do what I do not want to do he was not describing his current, everyday experience as a disciple of Jesus. Of course, before trusting in Christ he lived in duplicity, controlled by sinful desires, feeling guilty, and trying to restrain himself with the Law. But that is not the redeemed Paul that we see in the pages of the New Testament! We know him as man who grew to trust the grace of Christ more and more, relying on his words and his Spirit in the way that is described in Romans chapter 8.
Of course, sometimes even as an apostle, Paul fell back into sin, so in this sense the Romans 7 struggle still had a degree of truth for him. But clearly his identity was defined not by his sin or feelings of guilt but by the work of God’s grace in him. The source of Paul’s well-being and all that he accomplished was not his natural human abilities but the Holy Spirit working with him (as he says in Romans 7:20). We know that Paul lived in the power of the Holy Spirit (as he described so powerfully in Romans 8 and elsewhere) and this is how God used him to change the world.
Do you believe that your life could look more like the Spirit-empowered life of Romans 8 than the contradictory life of Romans 7? It can! It must!
Life transformation begins with getting a vision of the beauty and goodness of the risen Christ at work in our lives in any and all situations. We need to see that the Kingdom of the Heavens is open to us right now. We can live under God’s power and direction, seeking his will in all things and relying on his grace in all that we do. We can learn to live from the invisible resources of God’s kingdom rather than our visible circumstances.
Once we have this “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) then we need to get a hold of our hearts to live in devotion to the Lord. Jesus, repeated the words of David in the Psalms, urging us, “Take heart!” (John 16:33; Psalm 27:14 and 31:24). Throughout the Bible we’re taught that what we give our heart to is the key to our life. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Above all else. This is why I say we must guard our hearts. We must take charge of our desires and point them to Christ. We can’t let our desires for all sorts of things in this world lead us here and there like a dog off it’s leash chasing squirrels. Instead we need to work to root out our sinful desires and also the desires that although not sinful are still a problem because either they burden us, slowing us down in our pursuit of Christ, or they distract our attention and energy away from Jesus and living as his apprentice in his kingdom. (See Hebrews 12:1-2)
Close your Sanctification Gap
How can you take heart from Jesus? How can you make progress in closing your sanctification gap? Not by trying harder! We all do that and find it doesn’t work. Instead we need to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). In Peter’s words we need to, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:8). James says that in humility we need to apply God’s wisdom to our heart so that it becomes as a fresh water spring and we can be God’s peacemakers (James 3:9-18)
Practicing spiritual disciplines is a primary way of training to grow in God’s grace and peace. There are many tried and true ways of interacting with God’s Word and the Holy Spirit so that we live connected to Jesus and to become more like him. Practicing disciplines like Bible study, worshipping God, solitude with Jesus, fasting, confession of sins and struggles, and serving the poor and needy will help us become more godly if in doing them we open our hearts to God and listen to him. That’s two things we need to help one another to do in order to experience profound transformation: be genuine and honest before God and apply his words of wisdom and grace to our lives.
For instance, when you read through your Bible make sure that you also let your Bible read through you. And when you share you hurts or struggles with someone reach out to Christ through that person for his grace and wisdom. It is through this integration of the text of sacred Scripture and the text of your actual life, shared in the context of community with other Christ followers, that we grow in the love of Christ and are able to overflow with this love to others.
One discipline that is especially helpful in guiding us to be honest with God and apply his words to our life so that we close our sanctification gap is an ancient practice called Lectio Divina (Latin for divine reading.) This is simply a systematic way of slowly praying through a Bible passage to let the Holy Spirit use the Word of God to open your heart to God and speak into how you’re actually living your daily life.
I regularly meditate on Bible passages in this way and keep a journal of my prayers and what I sense God saying to me. Referring back to these journals helps me to stay connected to my life experiences and to remember God’s messages to me. This is so refreshing and confidence building.
Lectio Divina is one of my favorite exercises to do in the small groups and other spiritual formation gatherings I lead. It’s very effective for facilitating group bonding, guiding people to pray honestly about their personal challenges, and encouraging them to listen to God. When group members pray and share as part of Lectio Divina they are drawn closer not just to one another, but to Christ. What a blessing and encouragement this is!