I have five small scars on my stomach. They might not hurt, but my heart does each time I catch a glance.
A doctor’s cuts can offer us the end of pain, healing from disease, even the hope of a new child. Yet some cuts don’t cash in on what was promised. Some—like those that made my five scars—are just another step in an unending search for a cure. They lead to more tests, more questions, and the nagging feeling that nothing will work.
You may never be wheeled into a cold operating room, but as followers of Christ we are never free from the surgeon’s cut. When the Holy Spirit descended into our hearts, he came with a scalpel. As saints justified by Christ’s blood, we are constantly being sanctified while we await the presence of Christ and the glorification of our souls.
This sanctification in the middle is not always easy, and certain periods of our lives often feel too burdensome. Does God know what he’s doing? Why is my growth so slow? Is this pain doing something? In these times, we find hope in understanding the work of the Spirit and his purpose in our lives.
THE WORK OF THE SPIRIT
The root of the word “to sanctify” is “to cut.” In his commentary on the work of the Spirit, Michael Horton explains that part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to divide and unite. He cuts us from our sinful nature in order to divide us from the sins of Adam and to unite us to Christ. Over time, he breaks us from our own purposes, our own goals, and our sin to unite us to someone better—our Savior. This is why sanctification often feels so painful.
We see this repeatedly throughout the scriptures. It’s the Spirit that blew over the flood, abating the waters (Gen. 8:1), eventually bringing the news of dry land (Gen. 8:8). We see the Spirit leading the Israelites from Egypt and dividing the waters of the Red Sea so God’s people could pass safely into his promises (Ex. 13-15). Cutting and uniting come together when Jeremiah tells the Israelites that God plans to strip away her branches, “for they were not the Lord’s” (Jer. 5:10). And we see Jesus juxtaposing the two himself when he describes us as the branches cut and grafted into the life-giving vine (John 15:5).
The Holy Spirit has been dividing and uniting for all of time before us, and he does it in our lives today. At times the process may be easy, yet at others it feels like the pain of our circumstances far outweighs the growth for which God redeems them.
We might feel as if we will never break free of the curse of our father, Adam. Each day can feel like a reminder of how far we have to go in our battles with legalism, anxiety, or our own pride—and each relationship feels the effects of the surgeon intent on healing. Yet when we remember the work of the Holy Spirit is to not only divide but to unite, we can hold onto hope that this is exactly what he is still doing, even when it’s painful.
NOT ALWAYS OUR TIMING
Our world is full of instantaneous results, and we often expect the Spirit to work the same way. We get discouraged when we don’t feel like God came through quick enough. We wonder why God did not help faster or why he has not made our struggle easier. In the hardest times, we doubt if his promises are even true. But just as we cannot presume to understand the King of Kings, neither can we presume to understand the timing and unseen work of the Spirit in our lives.
The broken and exiled Israelites were challenged with the question: “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?” (Is. 40:13). We can’t know the mind of the Lord. We don’t always know how he is working, but we can be confident that he is working in his time. Moreover, we find hope knowing he is our tender shepherd in the process (Is. 40:11). Our sanctification does not come at the hand of an angry God, but it comes by the gentle care of the shepherd who loves his sheep, and is directing them closer to himself.
Slowly, degree by degree, our great God is transforming us into the image of his son (2 Cor. 3:18). The progress might go unseen, but we can rest in the God who never sleeps, grows weary, or gets distracted (Ps. 121:4). The Holy Spirit is cutting and dividing with purpose and care. When it feels long and painful, we have hope that he will carry his good and kind work in us into completion (Phil. 1:6).
SHIFTING OUR FOCUS
In trying periods of sanctification, it’s not only easy to forget the Spirit’s work, but it’s so easy to take our eyes off of the Spirit’s purpose. Michael Horton sums it up nicely: “the Spirit is the guide and the Son is the destination.”
So often we mix up the purpose of our sanctification. Instead of seeing union with Christ as the goal, we focus on temporal circumstances around us. We want our relationships to be easier. We want the struggle to be over. We long for a quick fix and take sanctification into our own hands. We sink all our hope in books, disciplined regimens, ourselves, or even other people.
But the Holy Spirit’s purpose is not to make our lives go smoother. His goal is to unite us to our Savior. He is always the goal, as well as the means to get there. This nearness to Christ is God’s greatest kindness to us, despite the cuts it takes to get us there. As much as we want life to be easier, God wants something better for us. He wants to give us our fullest joy. And that joy is only made complete in closer fellowship with Christ (John 15:11; 1 John 1:4).
In the midst of our sanctification, the Spirit reminds us of our need for the cross, and the beauty of our God who triumphed there. We are forced to understand that it isn’t our good works, great attitudes, or unselfish actions that save us, but the salvation and righteousness of the Lord. It reorients our hearts in the midst of our waiting when we lift our eyes continually to him. This way, when our circumstances don’t immediately get better or when we struggle and fail again, we can proclaim with David: “you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long” (Ps. 25:5).
THE SURGEON WHO KNOWS US
My five scars might have been the best guess of a fallible doctor, but the cuts in our sanctification are never a mistake. Our doctor knows us. He knows every move we make, every word before it hits our tongue, every thought, even our unique tendencies (Ps. 139). And like a gentle shepherd, his Spirit is dividing and uniting with purpose that we can trust.
We might wish the path was painless, but these cuts are leading us to Christ. Only there will we find true joy.
Maybe you’ve felt the cuts of sanctification lately and wondered if they really will bear fruit in your life. Let’s trudge together with our knees at the foot of the cross, lifting our eyes to our destination—our Savior. One day we will be with him. In the meantime, let’s hold fast to the Spirit who is taking us ever nearer.
On that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace[i]
[i] Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Brianna Lambert is a wife and mom to three, making their home in the cornfields of Indiana. She loves using writing to work out the truths God is teaching her each day. She is a staff writer with GCD and has contributed to various online publications, such as Morning by Morning and Fathom magazine. You can find more of her writing paired with her husband’s photography at lookingtotheharvest.com.