Different Paths to Sanctification

There, then, is the message of this book–that through marriage, “the mystery of the gospel is unveiled.” Marriage is a major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of your heart from the inside out and your life from the ground up.”[1]

I was in my mid-twenties and in my final year of Social Work when I first read these words from Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage. I didn’t want to be single. Rather, I envisaged myself using my future marriage to minister to the most vulnerable children in our society.

Married people get sex and sanctification; who wouldn’t want that?!

But these words in The Meaning of Marriage opened my mind to possibilities that I had never before considered: married people get sex and sanctification; who wouldn’t want that?! As a follower of Jesus, of course I wanted to grow in holiness, to have “the mystery of the gospel… unveiled” to me. And so, with this message ringing in my head, I looked forward with even greater anticipation to the day that I would be married. This, I thought, would be when God would truly begin the hard work of transforming me more into the likeness of his Son so that I could fully grasp the mystery of the gospel …

Anticipation to Anxiety

As the years went by, my continuing singleness turned anticipation into anxiety. I couldn’t help but wonder why God was withholding this “major vehicle for the gospel’s remaking of [my] heart” from me. When I met Dave* recently, I was hopeful that God had finally chosen to begin in me the real work of sanctification-via-marriage. Dave was the first man I’d met whom I thought I was really compatible with. We had similar skills and training which I imagined we could use in doing future ministry together. We also had different ways of seeing and approaching the world—which I imagined would help us learn, listen and disagree well in an increasingly polarized world. Even some of his closest friends thought we were well suited for each other. And yet, when I worked up the courage to tell him I was interested in him, he told me he didn’t feel the same way. I had thought Dave was going to be my fellow passenger in the sanctifying vehicle of marriage, my traveling companion on the highway to holiness; but it turned out that he wasn’t keen to come along for the ride with me.

What if God’s plan for my sanctification wasn’t through marriage, but through rejection?

Dave’s knock-back left me more confused than ever. All I could do was ask God, “Why?” I couldn’t understand why he had brought a man I felt so compatible with into my life only to have my hopes dashed. I reached the point where I wished that I had never met Dave; losing the hope I had of growing in Christ-likeness together with him was painful. But as soon as that thought had entered my head, God started to do something in my heart. I thought that God had brought Dave into my life for a reason, but what if his plan for my sanctification wasn’t through marriage to Dave, but through rejection by Dave? What if God was calling me to trust him, no matter how hard that is? What if God was reminding me that the certainty of being his child is far greater than the possibility of being Dave’s wife? What if God was using Dave to let me know that he doesn’t need me to be married in order to “remake [my] heart from the inside out and [my] life from the ground up”?

Pushing the Boulder

In his book ‘You Can Change’, Tim Chester describes God’s sanctifying work in our lives as a boulder rolling down a hill.[2] That we will become more like Christ isn’t up for debate, it is inevitable for Christians, the natural outcome of the Spirit’s work in us. The problem, according to Chester, is that we often try to push that boulder back up the hill; we get in the way of God changing us from the inside-out and from the ground-up because we’re not ready to give up on the sin in our lives.

I realised that this is what I had been doing. I had been trying to push that boulder back up the hill; not because I wasn’t ready for God to change me, but because I only wanted that change to happen together with a husband. I didn’t want to do it alone. I was afraid to do it alone and (even though I was reluctant to admit it) I was angry at God for making me do it alone.

I wanted God to follow my plan, to work on my terms, and I resented that he hadn’t given me what I wanted.

This was the crux of my sin; I wanted God to follow my plan, to work on my terms, and I resented that he hadn’t given me what I wanted. I had to accept that it wasn’t my unmarried state that hindering the transformative work of God in me, rather, it was my sinful heart.

This was quite a painful realisation for me. I didn’t want to be angry with God; I wanted to love him with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. But I needed to see my sin in order that I might put it to death.

One Goal, Different Circumstances

While God promises that he will sanctify us by His word and His Spirit, he does not promise us that it will happen in any particular set of circumstances. And this is good news for all of us whether married or single. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul reveals how our eyes are unveiled to the reality of God’s glory and how we are being changed by him. And it’s not through marriage, it’s through faith in Christ:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16­–18).

I recognise that, in his kindness, God does use marriage to sanctify people, but I fear that when marriage is identified as “major”, it implicitly suggests that singleness is minor—a less effective means of growing in holiness. I readily bought into this way of viewing sanctification because it aligned with my deepest desires, not because it aligned with God’s word (and I’m sure it wasn’t what Tim and Kathy Keller were trying to say either).

I still hope to get married one day. I still hope to become a foster carer. But now, if I ever do get married, I hope that I will be relying on the work of the Spirit through faith in Christ, and not on a husband to bring about transformation in my life. Yet, if that day never comes, I know that God will still be at work in me—using other things in my life to make me more like Christ.

[1] Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) p. 48

[2] Tim Chester, You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for our Sinful Behaviour and Negative Emotions, (Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), p. 62

* Not his real name.