A Long Obedience in the Same Direction


I actually had my testimony heckled at an Assemblies of God church.

At issue was the fact that my testimony goes something like this:

I was a good kid who did everything his parents asked of him, and a straight-A student who was reading Irving Wallace by the time I was in fourth grade. Cub Scouts, Webelos, Boy Scouts. Never smoked, cussed, drank, did drugs, or anything classified by most people as “wrong.” I was in church every Sunday and Sunday school before the service.

Then, at age 14, I put my faith in Christ.

Some lady thought that wasn’t dramatic enough and let me know it.

Plenty of Christians out there believe there’s a scale for measuring human depravity, with -10 being the nadir of human existence and +10 being eligible for your own Elijah-inspired, one-way ride in a fiery chariot straight into the arms of God—no lines, no waiting. I think my heckler believes I started at +8 and had nowhere to go. Shame on me; I never made it to my heroin-addled, white-slave-ring-leading, patricidal, hell-raiser stage like I was supposed to.

Thank you, Jesus; thank you that I was spared a dissolute life.

You talk to any solid Evangelical about justification and you’ll usually get a decent answer that would satisfy most people asking about it. Sanctification is another issue.

The Bible says this:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV

Sanctification is a process; we “are being transformed,” not we “are transformed immediately.” The light of the Holy Spirit flicks on in that place of our formerly dead spirit and we are justified, but that soul of ours is still in need of a heap o’ work. Years of it, in fact.

I swore I wasn’t going to talk anymore about what I’m reading on the Christian blogosphere, but this topic is too important to pass up: It is a grave error and a massive conceit to attempt to usurp the role of God in another person’s sanctification process, telling God, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re not working fast enough.”

But what are we to expect when someone starts at -9? Is +7 a week after meeting Jesus possible? A month? A year? A decade? If we can’t distinguish the difference in the sun’s arc across the sky from one minute to the next, how confident are we that we see with the eyes of God that one minute difference in the arc of a person’s sanctification process? To go back to the 2 Corinthians 3 passage and its note on “degrees of glory,” there are 180 degrees in a U-turn. A long obedience in the same directionThat’s a lot of tiny steps to take. Being made to look like Jesus is not a blink-of-an-eye affair, but one of a lifetime of minute, resolute steps. As Eugene Peterson’s classic book on discipleship is titled, it’s “a long obedience in the same direction.”

There’s not a person reading this now who doesn’t know at least one Christian out there who’s taking a long time to break out of the negative numbers on the depravity scale and into those higher, positive sanctification digits. Yet what does it say about us when we screw up our faces and rail that the ex-biker who spent ten years smoking crack isn’t where he should be after meeting Jesus two years ago because he smokes cigarettes now instead of crack? Sure, he’s down to just a pack a day from five a year ago, but still. And just why is it that he takes so long locating the Book of Habakkuk?

I’m listening to the first CD I’ve purchased in two years, Derek Webb’s She Must and Shall Go Free, and the tune playing right now has these lyrics:

My life looks good I do confess
You can ask anyone
Just don’t ask my real good friends
‘Cause they will lie to you
Or worse they’ll tell you the truth
‘Cause there are things you would not believe
That travel into my mind
I swear I try and capture them
But always set ’em free
Seems bad things comfort me

Good Lord I am crooked deep down
Everyone is crooked deep down
Good Lord I am crooked deep down
Everyone is crooked deep down
Everyone is crooked deep down
—”Crooked Deep Down”

Good Lord, we are so crooked deep down. How long it takes to make the crooked as straight as the Lord Jesus! No matter how smart or holy we looked before we were saved, we were all miserable sinners. God doesn’t believe in scales of depravity. If He did, we’d all be coming from a place close to negative infinity. That’s a big hole to work out of for anyone. Much grace is needed—more than we can imagine this side of eternity.

Look, if we’re not happy with how fast someone is moving along that narrow road, then maybe that’s God telling us in our own sanctification process to draw alongside that slow person and give them the benefit of what we’ve come to learn from our own place farther on down the way. Otherwise, perhaps it’s better that we let God do on His own what needs to be done in the life of another—without our smug color commentary.

Because, in the end, He makes all things beautiful in His time, not ours.

23 thoughts on “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

  1. ManNMotion

    Good points all, and great suggestion of walking by that Christian in support. I’ve often heard the term “good Christian” applied to people and I think it’s another form of the same thing you are discussing. I think when someone calls someone a “good Christian” what they often mean is that the individual is moving in a path they agree with…but not seeing the struggle. And to take it further, I think it is because of these approaches that too many Christians struggle alone rather than reaching for support. Like I said, great post.

  2. Gaddabout

    I know what total depravity is, and while I was never as preserved as you, I never stooped so low as to challenge where the bottom breaks. My testimony probably wouldn’t impress that lady, either. What I know about total depravity is that I’m fully capable of it, even now, even if my rotten, betraying heart never puts my hands to action. That’s all I need to know to understand I need a savior.

  3. Rob Trotter

    @ Gaddabout – It’s almost seen as a little disapointing isn’t it? That before knowing Christ you weren’t some horrible sinner by the worlds standards (even though you were by Gods).

    @ Dan
    Something I’ve also seen is that sometimes the things that irritate or annoy us the most in others, is what God is telling us to change in our own life. Missing the log for the spec so to speak.

    It perhaps could be said that if we are at a point where we are judging and criticising others for where they are in their walk (and their lack of progress), then perhaps the progress in our own lives isn’t a strong as it once was either.

    (This isn’t always the case though…)

  4. Barbara

    I think you had a great testimony! Not many people can testify to not having done bad things in their lives before coming to Christ. I, too, would have a testimony that wouldn’t be good, according to that lady. I never did any of those things you talked about either, never got into trouble, and lived with my parents until I married at 21. But, hearing the testimonies of some who have been in the depths of the sea of sin, I thank God every day that he delivered me from such before it ever happened! We were just as capable of being a hardened sinner, as we were just a poor lost soul.

  5. Dan, thanks for the constistently thoughtful posting. A couple responses to this one.

    1 – I share a similar testimony. I was a rather obedient kid who grew up going to church and doing well in school. I have been asked several times to write out my testimony in the form: Pre-Christ depravity, Moment of Decision, With Christ blessedness. Though I believe in my own depravity, it’s easier for me to illustrate it using examples from my current state. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to fit the system.

    2 – Your story parallels well with Pyromaniac’s recent post on Charles Spurgeon. As Phil says of young Spurgeon:

    “he grew up in a godly family, in a pastor’s home; he had never committed any sort of scandalous sin (probably the most serious sin he had ever fallen into was a lie); and yet the burden of his sin weighed so heavily on him that he was brought to the brink of utter despair by it.”

    This example alone might teach us our own depravity, if our hearts weren’t such stalwart witnesses.

    3 – What an encouragement to be reminded that sanctification takes time. Recently I’ve been worried less about the progress of others and more about my own – but not in the healthy, faithful, hopeful sort of way. Thank you for the reminder that God will do His work in His time.

  6. Pilgrim

    Good Stuff. CS Lewis described human nature as “bent”. I think it a good way to make the idea of sin meaningful to people not inclined to religious imagery. It reminds me of what flowers look like after a dry spell – wilted. If you look at them it is usually obvious that they are flowers but you know intuitively that something is wrong. A few hours after the rain falls the change is remarkable.


  7. So I have one of those -8 to positive numbers in a week testimonies. Halleuijah!
    Even this many years later I relive those -8 days in my mind time and again. I was thinking about this very subject last night while in the Word.

    I have heard testimonies similar to yours and they were told as if overcoming was no big deal when in fact they were able to keep themselves because the faithfulness and the prayers of their parents. We are supposed to testify of His goodness, not ours.

    I really do want my children to have a testimony like yours, which incidentally, is the testimony of the church of Philadelphia,
    “…you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” But I want them to realize that they are able to have that testimony because of Jesus. Otherwise they could be like every other wretch they see.

    The greatest testimonies to me are the ones that show me that my kids do not have to go through what I went through.

    I say,
    “Give Him glory! Preach on!”

  8. Dan

    Oh, I needed to read this today! I have felt that impatience before with people in my care – it’s hard to realize they will have to go through so much on their road from negative to positive but often times that’s just part of the journey. I want them to just get to 10 now! Which is hypocritical, since I’m not anywhere near 10.

    I was a low “1” or “2” or so, and I hope and pray my kids don’t have to go through things I did. You are blessed to have the testimony you had.

    And thanks so much for writing this. This is part of an answer to my prayers this morning. Seriously.

  9. rev-ed

    Good stuff, Dan. You know what’s really strange though? It’s that we think we have the perspective to judge a person’s (even our own) depravity or our own sanctification process. We certainly don’t have the knowledge that God has, yet we try to pretend that we do. All part of that “judge not” stuff that we sweep under the rug, I suppose.

    My testimony isn’t flashy either. But even the “good things” I did as a teenager were not good because they were done for the wrong reasons. I was good to impress others or not to get in trouble, not because I was maturing spiritually. Again, part of the perspective that we don’t have.

  10. jimmmaaa

    Dan, Good post, and “Long Obedience…” is a great book. It is my favorite book actually. I think I was a -4 before coming to Christ and even dropped down to about a -7 afterwards. Was caught up in lustful struggles for a long time…occasionally struggle today….it is easy to rank how people are but the fact is that all of us are completely lost without Jesus. Jesus said he did not come for the healthy, but the sick, not for the righteous, but the sinners. I find it very interesting that Jesus railed so much against the Pharisees (The righteous and healthy). Discipleship is a long road that has many faltering steps but is the best way. I think rampant individualism contributes to people wanting to hide behind their Sunday smiles and act like everything is great, even if there are dying inside and struggling greatly with sin. I don’t know where I mean to go with this, but the whole post touched something in me. I guess I sometimes see the hypocrisy, including in me, of those attending my church. I get tired of the glad-handing on Sunday but community evaporates on Monday….we need each other and the individualistic nature of our culture can cause us to withdraw and look out for number one, forgetting the community at large…all along the nature of the that post by Jollyblooger on a personal relationship with Jesus ( http://jollyblogger.typepad.com/jollyblogger/2005/08/a_personal_rela.html) I think this ideal of individualism really affects us more than we think….by no means am advocating socialism or communism but this ideal I think is taken to extreme….Thank you for your great words.

  11. lindaruth

    Thanks for another good post Dan. My testimony wouldn’t wow that old lady either. Though I remember sitting around campfire and hearing those dramatic, saved from the depths testimonies that some gave and thinking I didn’t really have a testimony at all. Now I’m so thankful that I grew up in a Christian home and learned to follow the Lord while I was young.

    But I’ve also learned that just because I didn’t smoke or drink or do a lot of other “bad” things, I was still a sinner in need of salvation. It’s way too easy to think that I’m “good” on my own. But living in Christ is a journey for all of us and it’s important to remember that. Thanks for good thoughts.

  12. jimmmaaa,

    I would have to add that not enough people dispense grace on sinners along with their detest for sin. There should always be more of the former for the repentant than the latter. Because people anticipate being condemned, they would rather say nothing than open their mouths and speak with their lips the confessions of the heart.

  13. rustoleum

    Thank you for your post, Dan. I count myself among those whose sanctification process is moving very slowly in some areas. In fact, I’ve been far worse post-salvation in some aspects of my life than I was pre-salvation.

    One area where I have seen some improvement is in the area of unrighteously judging others. While I’m still far from perfect, my struggles with my own sin have helped me to look more compassionately on the struggles of others.

  14. Anonymous

    Yeah, I’d have to say I was in negative numbers. I think I might be in positive numbers now… I hope & pray I am, anyway. Though sometimes I wonder.

    But I WAS in negative numbers. I was into the occult, practicing qabala (sorcery). I had turned there after being pushed out of a cult-church, and I had believed that every church in the world was against me. While I can’t really say I hated God, I didn’t care much for Christians. Bunch of hypocritical lying SOBs, I thought. Can’t trust ’em. If they’ve got a fish on their car, get around ’em as fast as possible; they’ll probably turn right into you without looking. Saw enough of that happen to believe I was right. The hatred spewing out of some of their mouths further convinced me I was right.

    And then the consequences came, and I ran for Jesus, because He really was the only way out of a deep dark hole. And now I understand. Christians are still sinners. They’re still struggling. God didn’t call the best of the world, he called the worst. And that’s me.

    But how many Christians try to put up the facade of being perfect when they’re not? How many of us are afraid to say that we still commit sins? How many of us think we’re awesome because God called us? How many of us think we can ignore every person on the street because “we’re Christian and they’re not!”?

    I still sin. Not as regularly, perhaps, as I used to, and not the same sins. But I still sin.

  15. burttd

    This post and your prior one are both very powerful, and even more so in tandem together.

    Your story of the prayer book in the side chapel reminds me of a similar book I saw at a Christian retreat center in PA. The things inside that book were much the same, and I too was deeply moved by what I read.

    I would not only back up jimmmaaa’s comments on individualism, but also say that we evangelicals do not really wrestle with what sin really is, and it’s implications. God has granted that I struggle with several deeply set sinful desires, and it is *tough* talking about them with others. Very few people want to go past the Sunday morning masks and admit how broken we all are (in our own different ways). Either they must be like me (and are afraid of what may happen if we *were* honest), or they really don’t see how “bent” we truly are?

    I once thought becoming an expert in theology would help – it didn’t. It just made my situation worse by knowing how much I didn’t live up to all that I knew (or thought I knew). The only real solution (as I see it) is to preach the Gospel – the radical grace of God in giving His Son on the Cross – and to *live* it – to actually listen to others, hear their confessions (and confess ourselves) and display God’s forgiveness to them as we help each other towards greater faithfulness – on God’s timetable, not ours.

  16. Because people anticipate being condemned, they would rather say nothing than open their mouths and speak with their lips the confessions of the heart.

    Which is why I haven’t blogged my “testimony”. My life story is not for Christian entertainment. I know how it goes – Give us an interesting story and then later… we’re bored with our trophies of grace snatched from the fires of depravity.
    Where did this idea come from that testimonies are for church? Actually, I’ve never got up and related a “testimony” – not according to the church entertainment formula. I’ve shared parts of my life. If I do blog it, it will be because I know that not just Christians read my blog. But I doubt I’ll call it a “testimony”. I can’t change the facts of my life but God might like me to talk about my expereinces and observations.
    Relating how one has encountered Jesus and talking about one’s life is not a competition.

  17. Colleen

    It was the sixties. Jeans, long hair, flannel shirts; I couldn’t find my own son in a group of these 20-something people if his back was turned. They all looked alike. But they weren’t alike at all. The leader of the church-in-the-park told my son he couldn’t give a testimony. Forbade him. He had lived in a missionary family all his life. He hadn’t taken drugs, never had a drink, even wine, and had never harmed anybody. But he loved God. My son was crushed. He went out and made himself a testimony. He drank, smoked pot, read the IChing, (chinese occult stuff), studied Buddhism, meditated while on drugs, drove under the influence. But by then he didn’t want to testify because he had told God to get lost. God was ruining his life. He held a series of excellent jobs because of his advanced degrees, married, had two little boys. At age 48, he came back to faith in God. Then, he had a “testimony.” Eight months later, he died of cancer at age 49. The last song he wrote contained these words, “My soul longs for You…”

  18. When Jesus met a rich young man who wanted to follow him, the young man was able to say he had followed since he was a boy all the commandments Jesus mentioned. But when Jesus told him he lacked one thing and that was to give up his riches, the man went away sad. Indeed, “testimonies” aren’t always a matter of “keeping commandments.” For better or worse, God looks into our hearts where people don’t see. He sees where our treasure lies.

    Dan, just before I came over here, I said to myself, “I’ll go over to CS and see what Dan has up. I haven’t been over in a few days.” Then I was going to log off and write my post for tomorrow. You are so close to what I wanted to write. Thanks for sharing this. God bless.

  19. If you have not been into any Christian retreats yet, this would be a very exciting activity for you to look after. This activity brings people closer to God. Not only does this activity serve that purpose but it also contributes to the spiritual growth of a person. This is also essential for growing kids for they play a significant part by making a foundation they need to strengthen their faith as well as their relationship with other people.

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