Learning the Difference Between God’s Simultaneous Virtue and Our Sequential Virtue
Sanctification is the process of fine-tuning the manifestation of the gift of righteousness imputed to us at salvation through the work of the Holy Spirit. We are all a work in progress, but it’s easy to get confused about what constitutes true, spiritual progress. As a result, many stall, or fall under condemnation, or strive to achieve convincing, but misguided goals and outcomes. In the context of relationships, our many-to-many parallel sanctification tracks can cause us to compare our journey to others. In the context of conflict, we weigh another’s guilt, or another’s response, against our own, typically with the idea that their response should be our own; but this ignores the unique track they are on.
While my anchor text is Scripture and my guiding ethic is Kingdom, many equally sincere believers could say the same things. And as we know all too well, major differences can still exist between two people presumably committed to the same God and the same Kingdom. Two people read the same passage and approach the application of that passage with equally passionate yet divergent convictions based on their experience, personality, upbringing, training, etc.
Regardless of such legitimate and important differences, commonalities abound. I believe every disciple should aspire to a similar brand of courageous truth-telling and bold, fearless love. We should go low, and inward, before going loud and outward. We should esteem others as greater than ourselves, and seek things above — the “high” way, not the low way. That includes tones of mockery that can make it harder for a sincere seeker to receive truth, no matter how objectively true the truth might be. In the poetry of the Psalms, we should tenderly seek those sublime intersections where “Mercy (graciousness/loving devotion) and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed” (Psa. 85:10).
Easier said than done, right? Scripture itself considers some things outrageous enough to be taunt-worthy. Bluntly, even sarcastically challenged. Go read Elijah’s comments to the prophets of Baal. Go read the castigations of the prophets against the corrupt power structures who permitted systemic injustice. Go read the red letters in Matt. 23:25-33. Tone can hinder truth, but it can also help to convey and reinforce it.
The Problem of Infinite Virtue
In daily life, perhaps even more in a painful or exaggerated circumstance, the practical challenge lies in the difference between the infinite nature of God and the finite nature of humanity. Here’s what I mean. Every virtue in the eternal perfections of the Godhead are possessed by God in full, simultaneously and constantly. In other words, God is, has been, and always shall be, eternally, without loss, diminishment or fatigue, one hundred percent Love, Mercy, Patience, Truth, Justice, Righteousness, Kindness, on and on. He is omnipotent in His capacity to hold and express every divine virtue to the fullest in every moment. While He may manifest a particular virtue in a particular circumstance that appears to concentrate or reveal that virtue in extra measure, He has not, even for a moment, traded any other virtue to achieve that outcome.
This is simply not possible for humans. By definition, our finite capacity means we are always mixing those virtues according to the demands of any given moment. God can be 100% Love and 100% Truth and 100% Just simultaneously. In fact, He is! Whereas we, in that same moment, achieve balance only through mixture and ratios. Some moments require more justice than mercy, and other require more patience than wisdom, and others require more kindness that truth. Even as we aim to walk in the spirit, our flesh operates in sequential virtue, not simultaneous virtue. So here, with equal conviction to the same Bible, two people with similar commitment to Christ, Scripture and Kingdom, but divergent in their convictions, based on their experience, personality, upbringing, and training, end up expressing divine qualities as percentages: one at 30% Love, 50% Truth, and 20% Justice, another at a different distribution, and another different still, totaling 100% — because our frame is finite. In the end, none of us have the capacity for more than 100%, which means we have to ration our response based on the priorities we feel the situation merits. God’s justice never compromises His mercy, nor His mercy His truth, nor His truth His love, nor His love His justice. Yet we make those tradeoffs every day. Our spirit can touch that divine totality, but our soul still works in doses. Every one ofus would be intolerable to ourselves and others if it were not so.
Justice is Black & White
A few weeks ago, my wife had an epic dream. In the dream she saw that the only people that could recognize the truth in a particular crisis were all dressed in black and white. In time, more and more people came to see the same truth, but they, too, all wore black pants and white top. In other words, the dress code of justice mattered. A certain moral clarity was needed to cut through the clutter. This is an important insight, especially when the air is cloudy and gray with so much noise, misdirection, narrative massaging and factual nuance. We have seen things stated that were technically true, but entirely misleading. This is not helpful, but if you live in a gray zone, you won’t see it. Those dressed in black and white were able to see it.
As a matter of relational righteousness, the problem comes in how we begin to demonize and treat one another as the fallout of our disagreement. A black and white mindset might want to push the nuclear launch codes and fix everything in one big triumphant burst of justice. Yet when we go nuclear, everyone gets radiation sickness, including us. Digging for dirt and then harboring slander in our soul are, to quote Yoda, the path to the dark side. Moral clarity can easily become not righteous indignation, but self-righteous condescension and personal loathing of another human’s very soul. Scripture does not grant permission to believers to treat other humans, much less fellow believers, with fundamental and caustic disdain.
Uncomfortable Gray Zones
What makes it worse is that narrative and moral tension are difficult to sustain for an ongoing period. Psychologically, spiritually and emotionally, people need to “land” somewhere — the sooner the better. Cognitive dissonance tends to drive people to resolve their discomfort by accepting an extreme, all-or-nothing position. In other words, discomfort doesn’t resolve to the middle, but to the extremes. In the case of betrayal of trust, especially extreme betrayal (which only occurs where there was extreme trust), there will usually be an added element of feeling like you were taken advantage of, or played. Made a fool. You should have known better! This extra ingredient — shame — drives people even further into the safety of their emotional absolutes. It was “never real” or “always a lie” or so-and-so is 100% being framed and are “perfectly innocent.”
For us to see clearly, when lies abound, the truth is black and white. But truth is contained in vessels of emotion, in a precarious dance of relationships one to another. Emotions have color, lots of it, splattered messily across a wild spectrum. Melody and harmony have many notes, minor chord and major. Tone and softness matter as safeguards against cynicism and mockery; also unnecessary divisiveness. We would all do well to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
I am very much at peace with not attempting to be everything to everyone. Precisely because of the dynamics described above, I cannot express perfect balance in every moment. Nor can you! Yet some labor under the guilt of what they cannot do because they not only believe they should, but could. This is an example of a sincerely held conviction with a false aim. For my part, I will neither place nor accept such an expectation upon myself. This, I believe, is part of why Paul said in 1 Cor. 4:3-4 “I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”
And so, day by day, we are not exempt from refinement, we are compelled by it. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. My aim with this blog is to help us see how His divinity and our humanity interact, and to live with grace toward ourselves and one another along the way. I’m deeply grateful for the small tweaks the Lord brings (as much as the big ones), so perhaps this stroll through my inner world will be helpful to others who are also inwardly tweaking. Privately, I am asking God for the wisdom to serve justice, seek truth, follow love and make peace in a world surrounded by bad faith actors, commingled with my own weaknesses and limitations. I have not received any answers. I simply know we must all go low, but not silent; we must keep short ledgers, and practice forgiveness at every twist and turn. We must seek the face of Jesus.
Isaiah 55:6-11 urges us to seek the Lord and turn from darkness, after which He promises to release the full resources of Heaven, the full cyclical power of the Word in seedtime and harvest, to aid us in the sanctification process.