Incremental Holiness

Last year was the year of house projects for my husband, me, and, according to the endless lines at The Home Depot, most of our community. I’ve always enjoyed furniture renovation and the idea of giving a neglected piece new life with a little TLC, but 2020 was ripe for challenge. So, I decided to tackle a different angle on this hobby which required learning new skills — sanding and staining.

I did some preliminary research, purchased tools, and got to work. But at a late stage of the process, I realized tiny marks were being left behind as I sanded the wood. Puzzled, I conducted more research and realized I had been sanding the piece incorrectly.

When I learned all the new steps I would have to take, and the fact that I would have to basically start over, I felt like a failure. I had made two critical mistakes. First, I had rushed the process. I didn’t understand how important slow progression was toward getting a polished final product. Second, I had overlooked minor mistakes thinking they would come out alright in the end, underestimating the need to address the problems in real time.

Isn’t that a great picture of the maturation of a Christian?

For the entirety of my life as a Christ-follower, I have felt the constant one-step-forward-two-steps-back frustration of my spiritual growth. Scripture calls this process sanctification, and it’s not exactly a fun process. It’s necessary and good, but it’s difficult, tiresome, and sometimes painful work.

I tend toward perfectionism, so it has never set well with me to struggle with the same problems over and over again. Yet, one struggle in particular that had consistently reared its ugly head for two decades had just made a re-emergence. The long-strained relationship with my dad was on the rocks again, and I felt myself closing off and stewing over past hurts.

When would it ever just be over?

Why was I not done with this yet? Why had I not thrown off this weight that had so consistently dragged me down over the years? I was tired of revisiting, refining, and scuffing out the old marks. I wanted to put my check mark in the box and move on.

But we who are in Christ — we who have been saved into a relationship with Jesus Christ — have to remember that through the Holy Spirit, Christ is constantly working to conform us into his image. He doesn’t leave us to our own instincts, nor does he have us blow through the hard parts to give us all gold stars. When we are faced again with a familiar sin or struggle, he means us to learn something new and deeper.

The Apostle Paul tells his readers in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that those with an “unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” He did not write that we were transformed in an instant into the image of Christ. Rather, we undergo transformation gradually as we become more and more like him.

There is a refining that takes place in our inner beings when we submit that one nagging struggle (or struggles) to Christ over and over again.

Just as a woodworker goes back to a piece of furniture, gradually moving up in degrees of sanding and taking care to polish out scuffs, the Holy Spirit continually brings me back to the same struggle to refine my thinking, my attitude, my heart, and my personal holiness. I could groan over the struggle and agonize over my wretched state (which I did), but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was not back at square one because God had been working on me the whole time.

The process of sanctification is working. While I haven’t gotten to the place of wholeness I so desire, I’ve undergone some major heart transformation and growth. I’m not starting over anymore. I’m returning to the problem with new skills and tools acquired over years, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The dresser now stands in my room as an unexpected reminder of two things.

The beauty of the dark, stained wood reminds me of the work that the Spirit has already done in my heart to transform me. And those blemishes that I couldn’t quite erase will always tell the story of the here-but-not-yet reality that I, too, am imperfect and will not be whole until I meet Christ face-to-face.

In the meantime, the Holy Spirit has more transforming work to complete in me, and I can joyfully join him in the process.


Christy Williams
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