Pragmatism runs rampant in American Christianity. If faith does not "work," it lacks value. We expect prompt and measurable results from knowing Christ. Concrete, visible changes in our lives show that the gospel is relevant and its transforming power is for real: bad habits broken, strained relationships restored, church attendance figures on the rise, giving that's ahead of last year's. If you can't graph positive results, what is the point?

Following Christ makes a difference, and we take special pleasure in the dramatic before and after of practical spiritual progress.

In recent decades, pragmatism has been recycled in the form of self-esteem doctrines, the therapeutic gospel, and the health-and-wealth message proclaimed by prosperity teachers. More recently we have seen outcome-based education and the endless stream of mission statements we must fashion to spell out in advance just how God may transform our lives. Thoughtful challenges to these teachings have been made, but we keep leaning in the pragmatic direction.

In The Pressure's Off, Larry Crabb gives a sobering rebuke to American evangelicals.

"I have no strategies in mind to give you a better marriage, better kids, a more complete recovery from sexual abuse, or quicker healing after your divorce. Nor, I believe, does God." He adds, "We can't get life to work; it never will until heaven." Instead of a better life, we're offered a better hope of intimacy with God—a relationship that carries us through and not around pain and loss. Crabb may paint too bleak a picture at times, but can-do American believers caught up in the cultural trappings of visible success need to grapple with his sobering words.

The Great Gulf

In "Baptism + Fire", Mark Galli writes, "God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life." God the Father announces that he is well pleased with his beloved Son (Mark 1:11), then the Spirit promptly drives him into the wilderness to face severe temptation. Solzhenitsyn endured long years of forced labor and imprisonment, yet he found that trials brought him into a renewed relationship with God. Misery is preparation for ministry.

All of this implies that God intentionally leads his people through hardship and loss for their good and for the advance of his kingdom (see Gen. 50:20; 2 Cor. 1:4, 9). The dark night of the soul is a means of weaning believers from their destructive dependence on anything but the Lord himself. Contrary to superficial American expectations, God does some of his best work when we can't make life "work," when all the outward measures spell chaos or disaster.

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We can take this a step further by adding sin to the equation. The Master turns the tables on corruption from within as well as hardships from without. God's sovereign orchestration of messy lives includes redirecting the momentum from our sinful thoughts and actions toward our ultimate good. When we disobey the Lord and head down a collision course with holiness, eventually there is wreckage: devastated marriages, runaway debt, pretense and deception that hollow out the conscience. By letting us stumble in sin and shatter our brash confidence, by undercutting our self-righteousness and brazen pride, the Lord forces us to accept the soul salve of humility. God positions us to hope in his grace and anticipate heaven's bliss, rather than fall for some slick scheme of glitter and blessings today.

Imagine the novice mountain climber setting out to scale the grand peak called Holiness. Although the summit isn't visible from base camp, the eager mountaineer imagines that it can't be "that far" away. It's only after ascending well beyond the foothills that the majestic summit finally comes into view, and it leaves the climber's jaw hanging. A true sense of the scale of the venture begins to register.

Many Christians have seen that the further they ascend in holiness, the more they realize how far they have to go. Nineteenth-century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle contends, "The more light we have, the more we shall see our own imperfection." Theologian F. B. Meyer asserts, "The nearer we live to God, the more sensitive we become to the presence of sin." C. S. Lewis argues that the holier a man is, the more he is aware of his sinfulness.

In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges puts it this way: We may advance in the practice of holiness, but our knowledge of the perfect holiness to which we are called (1 Pet. 1:15-16) increases at a faster rate, so that there is an ever-widening gap between the two.

American Christians often have a hard time coming to terms with this gulf, this ever-increasing loss of control; there must be a way to relieve the tension. Yet spiritual maturation is the humbling and Christ-exalting process of realizing that the Cross fills this expanding gap—that the Cross is ever so much bigger than you first imagined!

In the evangelical tradition, we've sometimes thought of sin as a problem for the lost. Unbelievers need to come to Christ for forgiveness of sins. But the troubling truth is that sin is our problem, too. The Scriptures clearly show that Christians commit sin. That's why we need a pattern of daily confession (Matt. 6:9-13); that's why John taught that to say we do not sin is simply lying (1 John 1:8); that's why James urged believers to confess their sins to one another (James 5:16). What's more, the most prominent saints in the Bible—Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Peter, et al.—stumbled in sin again and again.

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This, of course, is not to encourage sin but to help us face the facts: Authentic followers of Christ are sinners until the day they die, and the more authentic Christians further up the slope are the ones who are beginning to realize the distance between their holiness and the perfection of Christ.

The way forward for Western and other imperfect Christians is the path of humility and brokenness. Of course, humility and brokenness don't sell very well from the pulpit, not to mention in our society. But that's irrelevant. What matters is that the Lord, in his sovereign ingenuity, wills to teach us trust and humble dependence by bringing us through hardship; trials represent the roundabout, yet only true way toward spiritual maturation. And the Lord includes among these hardships the spiritual turmoil suffered by forgiven sinners who become painfully aware they are far from the peak of holiness.

Church of Sin and Brokenness

Are humility and honest confession characteristic of our churches? Not much of the time. Increasingly common is the self-assured, goal-oriented, achievement-driven, human-centered outlook. What would the evangelistic impact be if the popular profile of today's Christian emphasized sin and brokenness, if we just went public and admitted it: "This is who we are, prone to wander, slow to learn, still in process, far from having 'arrived,' grateful for mercy … so don't expect anything else."

Such honesty could go a long way in reforming the "holier than thou" image Christians have in the minds of many. Those who stay away from the church because they think the saints are so saintly might see the truth and feel more welcome to come into the hospital with the other invalids and seek the Great Physician's care. The hypocrisy factor that repels many could be reversed, and a countercultural Christian honesty would send a shocking message to our highly politicized, cynical society, in which almost no one can be trusted and image is everything.

Ironically, yet thankfully, all of this could shift the focus of attention off of sloppy saints—like me, like you—and onto a God whose patience and love are utterly beyond comprehension, a God of grace and glory worthy of our deepest gratitude and most intense admiration.

Peter K. Nelson is visiting professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, Illinois.

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