Sanctification and the Problem of My Inner Jerk

I could be wrong, (and if I am, then clearly I lack sufficient self-awareness) but I think I appear to most people as a nice guy.

But appearances can be deceiving. Or at least only part of the story.

So here’s at least one grand revelation: I’m not always patient. And, more specifically, recently I have often felt impatient. I have felt irritable. Felt frustrated. Annoyed. Our last month of COVID lockdown has not done wonders for my character.

Thankfully, these feelings don’t always spill out through my words and actions. But sometimes they do. Usually in the direction of those closest to me. Often with my kids. I end up raising my voice or growling under it, not because they’ve done something wrong (though that does happen) but because I am simply that much more on edge. It says more about me than it says about them.

Or in other words, I’m not always a nice guy. At least in my thoughts and attitudes, there are definitely moments when I am a jerk. Or as I occasionally joke with my wife, “I’m an insensitive schmuck.”

Thankfully, Christianity is not about niceness. It’s not about being someone who is never again self-absorbed, unkind, or grumpy. Each of us will always struggle with personal shortcomings and character defects. Our personal sinfulness will never be in short supply.

Being a Christian, however, does involve what theologians call sanctification. If we are followers of Jesus indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then we ought to be on the path to, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:13, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. That is, we ought to be growing in the fruit of the Spirit, and our lives ought to demonstrate an increasing degree of Christlikeness.

Or as John, Jesus’ cousin, says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

I think part of the process of becoming more spiritually mature, more like Jesus, is becoming more self-aware. In other words, being aware that the way I just spoke or acted is not in sync with the character of Christ. There are believers who seem to lack this. But growing in our knowledge of God includes growing in the knowledge of ourselves. In what ways do I need to grow to be more like Jesus?

And it also means wanting my inner jerk to decrease and the character of Christ to increase in me. A Christian can never use the excuse, “Well, that’s just way I’ve always been.” Sorry. Jesus isn’t content to leave you the same as you were before coming to faith in him. But not only does he seek to transform our behaviour, but our desires, motivations, and character. And there is no end to this process in this lifetime. God continues wanting to knock the sin out of us.

It’s also about fessing up to our inner jerk when necessary. When we do this while praying, Christians call this confession. We need to do this often. And if our inner jerk finds its way into how we treat others, then we need to say sorry and ask for forgiveness. And family life gives us, thankfully, plenty of opportunities for this!

This is why prayers like the one below from The Book of Common Prayer are a good antidote for the inner jerk we all have inside of us:

Almighty God and Father, we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, raise us up to serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Now, I know there are evangelical Christians out there–good, lifelong Baptist folks–who would never use The Book of Common Prayer. Too formalized. Too stodgy. Yet I appreciate prayers like the one above if for no other reason it reminds me–because I am prone to forget and wander in more ways than one–that I am a sinner, that I do need God’s grace and forgiveness, and that he seeks to transform me into the image of his Son by the power of the Spirit. This is not incidental but primary. This is the Christian life.

Or to put it another way: God wants to rid me of my inner jerk, no matter how long it takes.

Do You Have a Eunice or Lois?

I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and now, I am convinced, is in you also . . . But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 

2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14–15

The righteous thrive like a palm tree
and grow like a cedar tree in Lebanon.
Planted in the house of the Lord,
they thrive in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
healthy and green,
to declare, “The Lord is just;
he is my rock,
and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

Psalm 92:12–15

One of the privileges of being a pastor is being able to visit people in their homes to get to know them. This past week I was able to spend some time with an older lady in our church. It was an especially lovely visit because there was not a pressing or immediate pastoral need. No one was ill. There was no distress. Only tea and conversation. I just wanted to take some time and chat with her. After all, she’s a longstanding member of our church. In fact, when I asked her how long she had been going to our church, she told me, “70 years.” Most Sundays, she attends church with her sister as well as one of her sons and one of her daughters.

When I read passages from Scripture like the ones from 2 Timothy above, she’s the sort of person that comes to mind. Like others of her generation, she has been and is a Eunice and Lois to upcoming generations within her sphere of influence. How many Timothys are there in the world and in the church because of all the Eunices and Loises?

Looking back, my mother certainly played a key role in my coming to faith. I also think of one of her sisters, my Aunt Evva, who served for decades as a missionary nun. While I didn’t see her often, her quiet example of the love of Jesus in simple but profound ways made a strong impression on me.

I have always found it interesting that it was Timothy’s mother and grandmother who led him to faith and who nurtured his love of the Scriptures. His father is never mentioned. This might not mean anything at all, but as someone who grew up without a father around (and there’s no reason to assume that this was Timothy’s situation) Paul’s words to his protege resonate deeply. Perhaps Timothy’s father was simply not a Christian. Though many studies have shown that young people are more likely to become people of faith if the father is also a Christian, it certainly isn’t the only factor.

Usually you go on a pastoral visit to encourage the person you’re visiting. You’re there for them. Truth is, however, I am often encouraged by visiting the people in my church. Hopefully they enjoy the visit too, but I normally come away with a sense of joy and gratitude. Even though I am not related to anyone in my congregation, I still have many Eunices and Loises (men and women!) in my church who are wiser and humbler than I. They teach me a great deal, as much by their example as by their words.

In a culture that often comes close to idolizing youth and youthfulness, taking time to visit, to speak to, ask questions of, and to listen to those of older generations is essential if we’re going to learn the ways of Jesus, and be trained in spiritual resilience and maturity. Indeed, it is the older saints in our churches who can help prepare us so that one day we can also be a Eunice or Lois to younger believers. That’s a role any follower of Jesus would be privileged to have.

Pastors

There are a lot of other pastors in the area where I live. I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of them. Some of them have become good friends. And let me say this: they are all wonderful, gifted, and passionate about their calling. Though all are pastors of local churches, they are also very different from one another. Sure, there’s always overlap among pastors with respect to gifts and skills; but there’s also a distinct variety of gifts and passions. I had coffee with a pastor yesterday whose gift, I think, is in the area of encouragement and personal evangelism. I know another pastor who’s been serving in our area for more than two decades and is incredibly musical. So while pastors often get painted with a broad brush, they are as different from one another as any of us are from those around us.

So I think this is all wonderful. But it’s also a challenge. Because every individual pastor is serving an individual congregation. We have to be careful not to expect each pastor to have all the skills of the other pastors we know. If you admire another pastor’s evangelistic gifts, you can’t automatically assume your pastor is similarly gifted. Of course, we’re all called–pastors and church members–to do the work of evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5). Yet we all know pastors and other believers who most definitely have the gift to share their faith and compel others to follow Jesus.

But even though not every pastor has the gifts or skills of every other pastor, that’s where the rest of the church comes in. Consider these words:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Hear that? God gave the church pastors and other leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is important. Even if your pastor can (somehow!) do everything well, they shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything (much less everything well). That prevents other believers from exercising their God-given calling. It keeps the church from being the church. Most importantly, it actually prevents individual Christians from growing into maturity.

Our Lord never intended any one pastor to be a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. Unfortunately, some pastors are control freaks. The addage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is their calling card. If they can do it, they think they should. However, pastors ought to be in the business of helping other believers discover and use their God-given talents. What any one pastor can’t do themselves, they look for in other people in their church.

Your pastor can’t do everything. He or she can probably do some things especially well. Other stuff they can learn or figure out how to do. The rest is up to the other members of the Body of Christ. So if you’re ever discouraged that your pastor isn’t very good at administration or seems musically tone deaf or maybe isn’t the best preacher you’ve ever heard, focus on their strengths. Maybe his or her gift is pastoral care or discipleship or counselling. Then consider how others in your church can be equipped, invited, and encouraged to bring their gifts forward to complement those of your pastor. Your pastor will be glad you did.