Stop the Pendulum Swinging!

Does it ever seem to you that we Christians have a tendency to regularly flip-flop from one extreme to the other?  I notice in my internal thought world, often after preaching a sermon. Five minutes after stepping out of the pulpit, I’m telling myself my sermon was the worst exposition of Scripture ever inflicted upon God’s people and possibly the origin of several new heresies previously unknown in church history. Then one dear, encouraging saint thanks me and I’m patting myself on the back and acting like I’m a George Whitfield Remix. (I exaggerate…slightly.)

But this pendulum tendency is not only an internal struggle. It takes place externally in the things Christians teach, believe, and tell each other. Let me give you a specific example: sanctification. One the one hand, some say that our problem is that we don’t believe the gospel and are trying too hard to be sanctified. At its extreme, this becomes a “let-God-and-let-God” road to holiness. Stop striving. Stop sweating. Relax. Surrender to God, and let him sanctify you. There’s certainly something appealing to this view, and there’s a truth there – but only in part.

Then there’s the other side of the pendulum. This is the “Christianity-as-moral-self-help” version, a sort of spiritual boot camp in which the real Christians prove their commitment to God by the strength of their resolve. Be strong! Be courageous! The world needs men and women like us! Dare to be a Daniel (Esther, Abraham, David, etc.).

So which is it: let go and let God, or huff and puff your way to holiness?

Actually, neither.

In all fairness, I’m caricaturing both extremes. Most of us are a bit more nuanced in how we think about sanctification. But we all have a tendency to distort the truth by emphasizing only one side of it at the expense of the counterpoint truth. (Do you see what I mean by the flip-flop, pendulum tendency?)  When it comes to growth in Christ, the truth is two-sided: God calls us to work at our sanctification, and he also calls us to totally depend on him. The times when we feel like we’re floating high – you had great devotions, you were patient with your spouse, you had the right word to share with your friend, you witnessed to your neighbor across the fence – were not generated by our own efforts. They are only possible by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit works as we work, so that every thought or impulse towards godliness is the result of his work in our hearts. Even – perhaps especially – when we are least aware of it. Listen to these wise words from 18th century pastor John Newton:

“Perhaps we take it too much for granted that communications from [God] must bear some kind of sensible impression that they are his, and therefore are ready to give our own industry or ingenuity credit for those performances in which we can perceive no such impression: yet it is very possible that we may be under his influence when we are least aware.” (Letters of Newton, p. 103)

Here is an antidote to resist the swing of the pendulum. You and I can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5). But every time we act in obedience to him – whether we are conscious of his enabling power or whether we feel weak and helpless – we can be certain that God is prompting and empowering us. So we act. We step out in godliness. And we believe that as we do so, God is at work.

Philippians 2:12-13: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Photo by Karen Roe

  • Larry

    Thanks for the post. Somehow I think this is a human tendency. I have observed it in many aspects of life. Unfortunately, this pattern can have a very detrimental effect on those younger or more immature in the faith if we take them along in the swings from side to side. It makes Paul's imperative "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" all the more important. God forgive me for those I taken on this ride.

  • Alex

    Newton's third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
    The church's third law of motion seems to be that for every action there is an unequal overreaction.
    Maybe someday we'll figure out how to stop the pendulum in the middle…