“Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” – Hebrews 12:10-11
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.’” –Jeremiah 29:11
Lately, as God has been growing me in some new ways, I’ve been developing more of a vision for who I can become and how God might use me and my little family. It’s exciting. God says he has great plans for me. But one day I began to wonder, does that necessarily mean they will be fulfilled? For the first time, I considered that the answer to that question might actually be no. I had always assumed that God’s assertion that he has great plans for us meant that the fulfillment of those plans was promised, although if I was honest I would admit that I often didn’t really believe anything extraordinary would come about in my life because it feels so ordinary, like most people’s lives probably do. And it is an unfortunate fact that the majority of people I see, including many Christians, are living unfulfilling lives that are clearly short on joy and for some reason not living up to their potential. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that great accomplishments have to be things that are flashy or even very noticeable. A garbage collector or a waitress can be accomplishing great things, while a celebrity or even a Nobel Prize winner’s life can be trivial, depending on the manner in which they live, namely how they treat God and the people around them. I can see that God’s good plans for people don’t always pan out, and when I think about myself, I know that I could be further along toward accomplishing some of those things by now than I am.
So, why aren’t we living up to our potential? What determines whether or not God’s plans will be fulfilled in someone’s life, in my life? The dictionary defines the word “plan” as a detailed program of action or a method for achieving an end. A plan does not actually refer so much to an end in itself but to the steps needed to get there. Interesting. So, maybe God isn’t saying “I know the outcomes I have for you.” Maybe he is saying “I know the methods I have for you, the steps you need to follow in order to arrive at a prosperous future.” How very obvious, but so easy to overlook! In order to arrive at the fullness of who I am meant to be, I need to follow God’s steps, obey his instructions. If God created me, my purpose and my significance can only be found in living out his design, by his methods.
Thus began in me a longing for holiness. I don’t know why, but that was the word that kept coming to my mind—holiness— and I started asking God to make me holy (I think this is what they call a dangerous prayer!). Honestly, holiness is not something I ever really thought I’d have a strong desire for, even though I had sung songs in church about wanting it (another lesson to be learned there, too, I think). I wasn’t opposed to holiness, I just didn’t imagine ever having a passionate desire for it since it sounded kind of boring and unachievable. In fact, I used to be pretty upset by the command to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), because from my understanding of our sinful nature, perfection is an impossible standard, and the call to perfection left me feeling essentially set up for failure. But recently I gained a new insight into this call to perfection as I was talking with my dad about parenthood. My son was entering toddlerhood and a new stage of independence, and I was entering the new role of disciplinarian, sorting through all the decisions that come along with that. My dad reminded me of his belief that children tend to rise to your expectations of them, whether positive (telling them they are smart, generous, etc. and expecting them to behave accordingly) or negative (telling them they are bad or stupid, or contrarily that they are the center of the world). Children tend to believe that they are who their parents think they are, who their parents think they can be, and they often become that person. And suddenly it struck me. God was not setting me up for failure by expecting holiness from me. He was setting me up for success.
And, as it turns out, I didn’t even know what holiness meant. I figured it meant being good, being perfectly good even, with some kind of spirituality mixed in. I thought the opposite of holiness was sin. In actuality, the opposite of holiness is commonness. To be holy means to be set apart for God’s purposes, to be separate, to be different from what is ordinary. I didn’t really realize this until quite a while after I began asking God to make me holy. I thought I was asking him to make me good, to help me to be obedient to his instructions and his ways. And he is helping me do that, too, little by little. Because what is common is to ignore his instructions and his ways, to ignore him. What is popular is to live our own way, to concentrate on satiating our own desires, to decide for ourselves what counts as good, tally up our “good” deeds, and make excuses for our sin because we don’t want to face the truth about ourselves or because we simply don’t want to give up our favorite sins. What is typical is to avoid thinking about God and being in genuine relationship with him because we know deep down that his standards are different from ours, and we know we don’t measure up. And that’s another reason God calls us to be holy— to make us aware that we fall short, so that we realize our need for him, so that we will come to him. Because he loves us, he longs for us to be close to him, and he made a way for us to be credited as measuring up to his standards even though we don’t measure up on our own: by believing and accepting Jesus’s payment for our sins and then showing that we mean it by seeking to follow his ways. Unfortunately, what is common is to reject his payment because we don’t want to admit we need it, or to ignore his ways because we like ours better. I don’t want to be that kind of ordinary.
As I prayed repeatedly for holiness, a prayer that somehow felt propelled by God more than by me (because really, what sane person prays for that?), God responded in a way I didn’t expect. Instead of making me holy, he opened my eyes to sin. Suddenly, I began to see it everywhere around me, magnified (in comparison to what I had seen before, which still must be nothing compared to how offensive it is to God, who by his very nature is utterly separate from sin). We all know that there are horrific sins that are committed around the world and throughout history. Terrible atrocities are daily flashing across our screens, unsettling our souls even if we are fortunately distant from having to experience them ourselves. And that’s what we tend to think of when we think of sin. But what God began to open my eyes to was the ordinary sin all around me, in ordinary people, and in myself. I could not help but notice the ugliness of the gossip and the rudeness to waitresses and the materialistic discussions happening at the tables around me in restaurants. I couldn’t help being upset by acquaintances who claim to follow Jesus but take pride in drunkenness and foul language. I couldn’t keep myself from being a little shocked by the condescending and disrespectful way a friend spoke to her husband. And soon enough I found myself just as shocked and disgusted by the way I talked to my own husband, by the materialism I began to notice in myself, by other sin I didn’t even know was lurking in my life. The ugliness was everywhere. It was in me. It was ordinary.
I want to be set apart from sin more than ever. I want to be holy. And even though I am making some progress, I am finding that at times it is harder than ever to overcome my sin. I can’t do it on my own. But I can become holy, different from the ordinary, by God’s power at work in me through the Holy Spirit, who is the deposit he has given me to guarantee the full restoration that is to come. And I can become holy by submitting to his discipline. We are not a generation that likes discipline. We are not a species that likes discipline. I, in particular, am a person who has fled from discipline, preferring to do what is easy, to do what I feel like doing. But ultimately, what my heart longs for more than ease is the success and peace of mind that result when I submit myself to the Lord’s discipline. Not to mention that he deserves my obedience because he created me and died to save me. I want to please him. And I want to fulfill his great vision for my life by following his plan.
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” 2 Timothy 2:20-21