A few weeks ago I came face to face with a horrific, toddler-made mess that definitely made my list of top five worst messes I’ve had to clean up in my years as a mother (so far that’s 4 1/2). My son, who is two, decided, very knowledgeably, to take down the bottle of baby powder and disperse it quite thoroughly, all over his thickly, shag carpeted bedroom. It covered a pile of stuffed animals, some plastic toys, the leather chair that sits in his room, and the side table. My husband asked how I would suggest he start the cleaning process. I thought for a moment about the most efficient way to tackle the winter wonderland disaster, and decided it would take more effort to explain than it would to just do it myself. So I said I would handle it.
I confidently whipped out my brand new vacuum with amazing carpet cleaning abilities, and within the first several passes over his room, it became clear, ironically amidst a foggy cloud of dispersing baby powder, that this mess was going to take MUCH longer to clean than I had anticipated. Five minutes of vacuuming hardly put a dent in the powder-white carpet, and by that point my bagless filter was clogged beyond hope… and is still waiting for me to hose it clean.
As I took a baby wipe to the leather chair this evening, collecting the residue of powder I spotted along the creases of the cushion, two weeks after the original incident, I had to laugh a little. How often do you start a cleaning project, only to realize it is so much worse than you thought? How often have you thought “Why didn’t I give attention to this sooner?”
Personally, I’m prone to put off deep cleaning projects of all kinds. I don’t like clutter, so it’s easy to make my house look neat, but clean is another story. Clean is that second layer. If I can scan the room and the surfaces are clear and pathways are unobstructed, then I tend to feel that I can put off the details one more day. Things like mopping and dusting are tedious to me, and time consuming. The problem is, when I finally mop or dust, I’m embarrassed by just how out of control the dirt has gotten. Waiting until the mess is un-ignorable is waiting too long— at that point I’m overwhelmed by the amount of effort it will require to rectify the situation.
Far more consequential than our living room, is our heart, yet I wonder how often we neglect the messes within just as readily, as long as we can keep things looking tidy on the surface. Confronting spiritual filth is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and time-consuming. We often underestimate the depth of the dirt in our heart. It is easier to procrastinate dealing with disorder until it is unavoidable. We know perfection is impossible this side of heaven, so the temptation is to lower our standard, and avoid striving too fervently, for fear of falling into legalism. But if you think about it, choosing to coast through the Christian life, rarely purposing to put to death sin and imitate Christ, is a lot like me thinking I could clean that baby powder catastrophe with a once-over with the vacuum. That kind of effort won’t make a dent in the grand scheme of things. If our hearts remain unrefined by the fire of God’s word, then they are going to be as thick with sin as that shag carpet was with powder.
Being holy should be a priority for followers of Christ. As early as Leviticus, God did not mince words about the unique and uncompromised calling of his chosen people: “You are to be holy to Me because I, Yahweh, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Under the unifying work of Jesus on the cross, God has made himself a people from many nations, not just Israel, and as believers we are part of that people called to set ourselves apart by living according to the standard set by our Maker. When Jesus comes on the scene, He makes it clear that even on New Testament terms the expectations for the people of God are high.
In the Sermon on the Mount, one of the longest recorded teachings of Jesus, he lays out a standard that basically one-ups everything anyone had ever been taught about what God required of them. I’m sure you are familiar with the oft quoted phrase, “turn the other cheek,” which comes from Jesus’ words, “if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39). The point He is making is that outward conformity to the law (checking boxes) is not true obedience. We are called to a much higher standard. Jesus makes it plain when he says, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill…whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17,19-20). At the end of forty-seven verses, Jesus has completely redefined our understanding of the Christian life and raised the bar far higher than we could ever hope to reach. Then he summarizes the whole mountain sermon in one final command, which leaves no room for misinterpretation: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
As disciples of Jesus, our calling is clear. But rather than be discouraged by such a holy standard, rather than call it quits before we’ve even begun, we have every reason to press on toward the goal because of the power of the Spirit that is at work in us through Jesus Christ!
Peter says it beautifully in 2 Peter 1:3-10
His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble.
This may be a hefty list of qualities to possess, but the good news is that His divine power and precious promises are what supply us with everything required for life and godliness— for escaping the corruption in this world. We must strive, we must “make every effort,” but as Paul testifies in 1 Corinthians 15:10, it is “by God’s grace I am what I am…I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me.” This is one of the glorious paradoxes of the Gospel! There is a mystery in the concept of working out our “salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), yet it is “God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose” (2:13). The more I exercise this calling, the more I experience this very mystery at work in my life! And the joy that accompanies it is unending.
It is my prayer that we would be more and more cognizant of the divine power of the Holy Spirit that is available to us as we strive with all of His might to reflect the holiness of our great God. Perfection doesn’t have to be a scary mandate, a taboo standard, or an unattainable goal, for “He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). The burden doesn’t rest fully on our shoulders. Our heavenly father is the one who began the work of perfecting us, and he will complete it.
This good work of sanctification (being made perfect) should not be chased in order to earn right standing before God—that is something we can never earn, but it was gloriously earned for us in Jesus alone. He is our salvation. It is in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection that we work. His death paid the price for our sin and brought us near to God. The curtain was torn in two and the power of God is not longer cloistered away for high priests only. That transformative power is ours, in Jesus Christ, our forever priest, who mediates on our behalf before the Father.
Let’s get to work, asking God to reveal those layers of dirt so we can harvest the joy that comes in being truly alive to God, instruments of righteousness, new creations! So that we “may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom [we] shine like stars in the world” (Philippians 2:15). You know what else shines? Anything not covered in baby powder. The more we rely on God to help us do the hard work of deep cleaning our hearts, the more we will shine amidst the filth and sin that surrounds us, and the more God’s name will be made great. To him be all the glory.