Sanctification is not always an earth-shattering affair.
More often, I think, sanctification and spiritual growth come through the (perhaps seemingly menial) tasks, actions, decisions, thoughts, and words that populate our daily lives.
We recently bought a basil plant and placed it on our balcony. After a few days, I harvested the leaves to use while cooking dinner, leaving the plant nothing more than a bare, green stalk with one or two small leaves near the top. Days passed by, and for a while it seemed like the leaves weren’t going to grow back. From day to day, I couldn’t see a noticeable difference in the plant. After a couple of weeks, however, it was clear that the remaining leaves had grown larger, and new ones were beginning to sprout. I couldn’t see a difference on any given day, but the growth was happening nonetheless, and over time it became clear.
Most change and growth in life seems to occur this way: it almost sneaks up on us, and we don’t realize we’ve changed until after it’s already happened. But most good and beneficial change won’t happen at all unless we work towards it, consistently, every day. I believe the work of sanctification is, at least in part, found in our small, daily toils and responsibilities, and it’s the smaller tasks that can be the most difficult because they are easier to dismiss as unimportant.
I came across a quotation that paraphrases something C.S. Lewis says about love in Mere Christianity, and it reveals the combination of forces necessary to sustain any virtuous or holy thing:
“Love is not merely a feeling: it is a deep unity maintained by will, deliberately strengthened by habit, and reinforced by grace.”
We are responsible for the first two things—will and habit—and the grace comes from God. As an illustration, this notion is easily applicable to marriage. The reality is that the state of my marriage twenty-five or fifty years from now depends upon my husband’s and my daily actions and behaviors in the present. It probably won’t be one big, monumentous thing that alters or defines the course of our relationship. More likely, it will be the culmination of all the little things we do (or don’t do) along the way, combined with the grace of God.
While marriage is an apt example, I believe the quotation above applies not just to love (marital or otherwise) but also to every aspect of our daily lives. To find grace and virtue and sanctification in the everyday, we must have the will to continue in our work, maintain the habitual actions necessary to strengthen ourselves and our relationships, and trust in God’s grace to sustain us. When you think about it this way, repetitive, everyday tasks start to seem kind of miraculous.
In turn, this thinking speaks to the importance of maintaining a daily prayer and Scripture study habit: the five or ten minutes I spend each day seeking communion with God may not seem like much in the moment, but it’s a habit that will strengthen my spirit and my relationship with the Lord over time.
Much of my thinking here is inspired by a blog post by Janelle Aijian titled “On the Road with the Noonday Demon” that a couple of my Facebook friends shared recently. It’s short and worth a read, so I won’t rehash every detail here, but the overall message of the piece is that Christians may be easily distracted from everyday tasks, dismissing them as less important than more exciting, “meaningful” activities (evangelizing, community service, etc.). However, the difficult work of committing consistently to our everyday tasks is in fact the root of growth and sanctification. As Aijian notes, early Christian monastics referred to this struggle as the “noonday demon,” that is, the “tedium or perturbation of heart” regarding their everyday work that came upon them around midday.
The author references Pascal to explain the heart of this difficulty: it is the struggle between our inherently sinful nature and “our restlessness for God and for holiness.” She continues:
“We were created to be perfectly holy and perfectly happy, in communion with God and each other, but at present we are full of error and sin and trying not to think about it. It’s Pascal’s contention that most of what we spend our lives doing is intended to distract us from this fundamental wrongness in our spirit, this knowledge that we are capable of being completely happy, but because of the sin rooted deep within us we are always subverting ourselves, preventing ourselves from experiencing the unencumbered joy we were made for.”
Striving to live virtuously in the everyday forces us to face up to our weaknesses, fears, biases, inadequacies, and bad habits. Our everyday roles and responsibilities as friends, spouses, parents, students, teachers, employees, or leaders can be both frightening and boring (doing the laundry can be as much a part of being a supportive spouse as being emotionally and physically available). Sometimes we feel like we’re doing a terrible job, and a lot of the time we’re just faking it. Often it would be far easier to abandon these tasks than to commit to return to them, day after day, and try to do better. Settling into our daily work can be quite challenging because we must constantly fight against our corrupted nature in order to endeavor any sort of virtue. Aijian explains:
“When we settle down to work it’s easy to be unsettled. Consistent work is not distracting. Consistent work, our own work, is quiet, and it requires a quietness of spirit to accomplish. The desert fathers moved into the wilderness and lived simplified lives not in order to remove themselves from temptation, but to confront the twists and turns in their spirits that only became apparent when they refused to be distracted.”
It’s difficult, and not fun, to sit down and own up to your shortcomings and sins. We begin any virtuous work (including the work of everyday living) having already fallen short, so it’s easy to get discouraged and opt to think about something else instead. When we distract ourselves by checking email, running errands, working overtime, going out with friends, or doing any other activity, it’s easy to believe that we’re actually just fine and that we don’t really need God’s grace or forgiveness right now. None of those activities are inherently bad, but they become harmful when used as distractions from our spiritual state of being and the everyday work that has been allotted to us. To quote Aijian again, “The noonday demon is perfectly happy to get you doing something, so long as it isn’t the thing that is yours to do right now.”
If we continually distract ourselves and ignore our faults and sins, then we are unable to address them, ask God to forgive them, and work to eradicate them. When we remove ourselves from distractions, we can come before God more honestly, more humbly, and in a better state to receive God’s grace and let our hearts be changed and worked upon by Him. And that miraculous, divine work of forgiveness, sanctification, and growth starts today, in, as Aijian says so well at the end of her piece, “the simple, monotonous, often unobserved, difficult, profoundly good work of living.”