The world teems with signs of resurrection. The daily renewal of the sun after the night. The annual renewal of spring warmth after the winter. The green shoots pushing up through the ashes of a forest fire. The infant at the funeral, the laughter after the argument. Renewal seems so obvious. And yet.
Contrary to my every instinct, how you act isn’t always the most reliable measure of who you are.
And yet, when we turn our gaze inward to where, so I’m told, what once was dead is being made alive again, suddenly the renewal thing seems … doubtful. Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t new life look, well, new?
I try to behave. Keep my word. Be a decent husband and father. Drive responsibly and not speed (too much). But there are times when I wonder if I am at all different from a moral secular person. I imagine we appear pretty similar, me and this person. We both show up to work as on time as we can. We both try to do a good job and then go home to families and live out the joys and tantrums of dinner, bath, and bedtime. It’s hard to see what makes us different. When it comes to faith, this is very often the root of my doubt: Is anything actually happening?
My trouble starts because, contrary to my every instinct, how you act isn’t always the most reliable measure of who you are. We are measured not by our outward behavior but by faith in Jesus. We are changed not by self-will but by reliance on the resurrecting work of the Spirit. To give us hope, the Scriptures promise that the work of the Spirit will bear fruit. This is helpful, but a doubt still lingers. If the signs of fruit are external, then to discern whether the fruit is genuine, you’d have to trace it down to its root and see whether that root is in Jesus or in self-righteous performance.
This, then, is where my doubt really lives. If the work of the Spirit takes place in the spirit, then—real as it is—it’s invisible work. This idea alone would be difficult, but there’s more. The work is also really slow, at least for a majority of the time. So God moves, but in ways thoroughly mysterious to us.
We don’t get the concept of mysterious work. We are cause-and-effect people. You swing the hammer, you sink the nail. That’s how things get done. We expect the Spirit to transform us the way a construction crew transforms a job site. We want to know the plan and see measurable, steady progress. Bad, improving, better, done. What happens when we fight off one sin, but life and stress and struggle reveal in us another sin even more deeply rooted than the last? We freak out.
This is where reading the Bible can actually raise our hopes in the wrong direction. We read a story like Joseph’s, and we see him suffer for years. But then he winds up second-in-command and saves many people. We see God’s work come to fruition over a few minutes of reading, but from Joseph’s vantage point, it took decades. God took His time. But, eventually, Joseph was able to tell his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). I would imagine that Joseph had dark nights along the way, where he lay awake and wondered what in the world God could be doing.
Not many of us have endured years of slavery, false accusationand imprisonment as Joseph did. Whatever our struggles, though, we want to jump to the part where we see God’s plan fully unveiled. But to get there, we would have to already know God’s plans. Which is impossible. By wanting to see the difference between me and a moral secular person, I am trying to skip to the end and presume to know what kind of man God intends for me to be. Of course I can’t see that man clearly. That man does not exist yet, and he may turn out to be surprising, even to me.
We see God’s work come to fruition over a few minutes of reading, but from Joseph’s vantage point, it took decades.
The truth is, while our life of faith is promised to have meaning and purpose when we look back on it (Rom. 8:28), we—like Joseph—won’t have that vantage point immediately. We can’t rush the Spirit. Sometimes faith will be so tangible that it feels as if we could at any moment turn and see that God is standing right over our shoulder. But sometimes it’ll be so wispy that we won’t feel any sense of presence or purpose. Either way, we are just as much God’s children. And that’s a hard mystery to sit with.
I want my life to follow a particular story. One in which God is at work and the fruit of that work isn’t something I can predict, much less achieve on my own. So, how am I different than a moral secular person? I have to say we might not look different at all. But perhaps there’s one small sign etched in our respective desires. Here’s where the story gets peculiar: A secular person may want to be good, but, do they want to die?
When I think of God’s work coming to fruition, it makes me want to die. I mean, not literally. Still, there is something of the macabre that accompanies the idea of resurrection: It can happen only to the dead. To desire life with Christ is to desire a certain kind of death. There are parts of me that resist the work of the Spirit. These parts are standing between my being just a good person and being reunited to Goodness Himself. I need to be out of the way while the Spirit does His work, all slow and invisible. Perhaps desiring a life with Christ is all I need for my assurance that God is working, however the work turns out.