How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
As a Millennial, I get accused of being undisciplined all the time. Maybe not directly to my face, but articles are out there — labels thrown about social media. Lazy, entitled, privileged: these are the markers of a white, middle class Millennial, Christian or otherwise. The Millennials’ world is full of safe spaces, trigger warnings, picture-filled tutorials, and angry Baby Boomers who can’t understand why we don’t want to eat at Applebee’s. If video killed the radio star, Millennials are killing the cheap chain restaurant, and our sights are set next on the big box warehouse stores.
That’s right, Costco — we’re coming for you.
How well I will live like Christ in the future — how well I progress toward teleios — will depend on the spiritual disciplines and exercises I employ moving forward, which will help me to grow deeper in wisdom and understanding and favor with God and man.But this drive to label the now-aging Millennials, and before us, the Gen Xers, as undisciplined really goes back to the fact that these two generations were the first to grow up with electronic devices that can do things for us and distract us — in ways going beyond radio and TV. My parents had pretty strict guidelines about personal device usage, but I still spent a good amount of my youth glued to our Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and once I was older and the Internet came along, AOL Instant Messenger; the rabbit hole just got deeper as the years progressed.
But the very technology that became so reviled by the older generations as encouraging sloth (as no doubt it did in some people, as any good thing used to excess can), in other ways produced discipline, and continues to do so, even if only in the memory of how we used to be or in recalling it as a metaphor for how discipline works in our lives.
This is what recently happened to me. I received a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) Classic Edition for Christmas, and — like many in my generation — playing it has been like plugging my brain into the Matrix. Containing games like Super Mario World, Mario Kart, and Donkey Kong Country, it’s struck me right at the nostalgia center of my ‘90’s-kid beating heart — the part of me that, as a Christian Millennial — beats the loudest for anything that recalls those grunge-filled years when CCM blared from my cassette tape, when Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins played in secret on my radio, and going to youth group fulfilled my weekly sense of belonging.
Everything about the SNES Classic Edition is meant to evoke memory and nostalgia — from the cheap plastic of the controllers, to the pixelation of the games, to the ‘90’s style trailer developed by Nintendo to hype the product. On Nintendo’s website, the Classic Edition playing experience is described as “a nostalgic celebration and exploration of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in all its 16-bit glory.”
A nostalgic celebration, indeed! I practically crowed like Peter Pan when I opened that gift, and everything, from the feel of the controller to the sound of the repetitive music, whisked me back to the last time I played a Super Nintendo system — probably seventeen years ago. I counted on remembering the look of the games. I figured I would recall a few secrets here and there. What I didn’t anticipate was the sheer muscle memory and rhythm my body would fall into the moment I hit “Start” on Super Mario.
The discipline of hours spent in front of my Super Nintendo System back in the ‘90s came rushing back at me like a flood. Seventeen years had passed, but somehow my hands still know what to do. My brain locked into this regurgitation of information from my childhood and teen years — actions and memories I hadn’t utilized or practiced in all that time, but that suddenly came bubbling to the surface like mere weeks, rather than years, had passed since I’d last played Nintendo. My husband, watching me play, was impressed: “I can’t believe how good you are at this.”
I imagine many other older Millennials and younger Gen Xers have had the same experience with the SNES Classic Edition, finding themselves still scary-good at it after years away. Mere nostalgia doesn’t produce this effect because nostalgia is just a feeling, having no impact on muscle memory. But discipline and practice — the active engagement in mastering the games — are another thing entirely.
So I found myself playing Nintendo and thinking about spiritual discipline. Discipline and memory go hand-in-hand, and they are often also tied to repetition. We discipline ourselves to go through the motions of stuff all the time — over and over again — so that someday when we are faced with scenarios requiring those motions, we will be able to act without thinking. I am still good at Super Mario today because years ago I had the desire and drive and discipline to go through the motions of learning the game. I don’t even have to think about how to navigate that world now — it’s automatic. Spiritual discipline and spiritual exercises are like this, helping us to learn how to navigate life, grow deeper in wisdom and understanding, and most importantly, become more like Christ.
But the thing about practicing any discipline is, it doesn’t always make sense in the moment. When I think about how spiritual discipline and training work in the Christian life, I’m reminded of those training scenes in the movie The Karate Kid. The young protagonist shows up at the venerable Mr. Miyagi’s house, expecting to learn karate, but instead, what does Mr. Miyagi have him do? Chores. Most memorably, wash and wax his car. Over and over again. “Wax on, wax off.” Mr. Miyagi repeats this to “Daniel-san” so often in the film that it has become synonymous with the ‘80s classic. “Wax on, wax off.” Do it, and do it again. Practice until the motion becomes automatic.
In The Karate Kid, Daniel chafes under what seem to him to be nonsense instruction and pointless tasks. What he doesn’t understand is that the motions of “wax on, wax off” are the very same ones he needs to learn the basics of karate movement. Mr. Miyagi has been training his muscle memory all along so that when Daniel moves into more traditional karate instruction, he — and his muscles — will be strong and trained, and will react automatically to the fight scenarios in which he later finds himself.
Whether we are young or old, we don’t always see or understand the benefit of going through certain motions, but learning and practicing basic motions until they are so ingrained that they are automatic prepares us for life in ways we can’t possibly understand until certain scenarios are upon us. How can we, for example, learn to discern the truth, if we have not hidden away God’s truth in our hearts? How do we hide away God’s truth in our hearts? We must memorize scripture. How do we memorize scripture? Through repetition. Wax on, wax off. Over and over again.
We are told by Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, that can kind of come across as a bum deal because perfection is a rather high bar to attain. So we might conclude that in the end, it doesn’t even matter what we do, because we aren’t God and we can’t achieve perfection. But the word used for “perfect” in this passage is the Greek teleios, which signifies something having reached completion or fulfillment. There is a process of sanctification that must be taken into account, and for our souls to go through this transformation toward teleios, we should engage in spiritual disciplines and exercises.
I do make a distinction between disciplines and exercises here, because one is Catholic in origin and the other Protestant, but they share commonalities. By spiritual exercises, I refer to the work of 16th-century soldier-turned monk Ignatius Loyola. Loyola borrowed from his training as a soldier to come up with the exercises as rules for his Order — the Jesuits, which still exists today. “Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality for everyday life. It insists that God is present in our world and active in our lives. It is a pathway to deeper prayer, good decisions guided by keen discernment, and an active life of service to others.” Note that this is an everyday spirituality — not a “when you feel like it” one. Ignatius intended his exercises to be practiced regularly with the understanding that God is active and present in our lives.
Spiritual disciplines are a more Protestant — and modern — response to Loyola’s spiritual exercises, but they are no less grounded in scripture. Codified by Don Whitney of the Southern Baptist Seminary in his 1991 book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, in Whitney’s own words, “The spiritual disciplines are those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that have been practiced by God’s people since biblical times.”
Loyola, as a former soldier, would have understood the value of going through forms. Forms, like Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” are certain motions soldiers are trained to do over and over until they can do the actions in their sleep. The basic idea is that when the soldier finds himself in battle, sheer habit and muscle memory will take over the impulse to panic when adrenaline kicks in, and the soldier will perform as he is conditioned to. Loyola instilled this virtue of rote repetition and training into his spiritual exercises. Daily prayer, daily service, daily scripture reading, daily communion with God. . . over and over, rinse and repeat. These are active and echoed in the spiritual disciplines, and when we go through the motions — even when we don’t feel like it, and even when we don’t understand it — we grow deeper and wider in our relationship with God, and more discerning of the world around us.
Whether Catholic or Protestant, both spiritual disciplines and spiritual exercises are meant to be things you do every day to form habits that make you more like Christ. They are active and engaging — they are not attitudes. They are means, not ends. If the end result I’m discovering now, seventeen years later, is that I’m still a whiz at Super Mario World, what that points to is years of discipline spent in my youth training myself up to master the game. If the end result I want in my spiritual life is to be more like Christ, then I must practice spiritual disciplines or exercises daily to achieve that end. Be perfect, Christ said. Achieve teleios.
We don’t go through the motions of a discipline just to stay stuck in those motions our entire lives. Mr. Miyagi never intended for Daniel to be an expert car waxer, and I didn’t play certain levels in Super Mario World over and over again just for the sheer enjoyment of it. Good habits promote growth. Good habits also promote depth of understanding.
Receiving an SNES Classic Edition has been a good reminder for me of the power of the discipline of my youth. God created us with amazing faculties of memory, understanding, and the ability to grow. And when he said to be perfect as he is perfect, he intended for us to take that as a call to live a life of active transformation, which includes adherence to spiritual disciplines. How well I live like Christ now depends on the discipline of my life as an early Christian. How well I will live like Christ in the future — how well I progress toward teleios — will depend on the spiritual disciplines and exercises I employ moving forward, which will help me to grow deeper in wisdom and understanding and favor with God and man. I might not understand the use of everything I practice now, as I didn’t when I was younger, and some of it might feel at times like “wax on, wax off,” but maybe someday, maybe seventeen years from now, I will find that a truth I have hidden away in my heart will rise to the surface unexpectedly in time of need.
The real crux of this process is desire. How much do I desire to be like Christ? I’m good at Super Mario because I wanted to be. Desire drives our disciplines, and becoming disciplined at something takes time. I don’t believe Millennials or Gen Xers are lazy and undisciplined; I just believe we have a different set of priorities than the generations before us. Ordering our priorities can sometimes feel like a game of Twister, but rightly ordering them is one of the most important things we will ever do. Recalling to mind the discipline of my youth in the muscle memory of my Nintendo playing is, in this regard, a merciful reminder that repetition builds habits, and habits shape us for years, and years, and years to come.
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