The Terribly Good News About Sanctification

“Thanks,” I said, “we’ve suffered a lot together. That’s why we are close.”

Sarah Condon / 11.1.23

A few months ago I was standing in church with my brother, sister-in-law, their new baby, and our two kids. A young woman tapped me on the shoulder at the end of the service and said, “You all are such a beautiful family! You seem so close. It was really nice to sit behind you.”

I knew what she meant. Since we lost my parents a few years ago, we are close. Despite varying levels of commitment to church, everyone came, sat really close in a long pew with plenty of room for us not to. I got to hold my tiny nephew while he crinkled paper. We put our hands on shoulders, I rubbed my kids’ backs, and smiled at my brother and sister-in-law. I was so happy to have them with me I could have burst.

I turned to her and smiled, “Thanks,” I said, “we’ve suffered a lot together. That’s why we are close.”

I wanted her to know why. I did not want her to think that this was the way we have always been or to long for her family to be that way too. I would not wish that kind of tragedy on anyone.


I would never in a million years have predicted the softening of my heart and my ambition that has come in the wake of loss. Before the tragedy I was much more focused on me. How was I doing in my career? How can I keep up my appearance? Am I likeable to the world around me? Even the people in my life I loved the most could often be seen through a lens of what was good for me. I have lost all of this and I pray that God never gives it back to me.

To be clear, this is how the world looks before it gets cracked open. This is how the world looks before sanctification.

Often in the theological conversation around a low anthropology the idea of “getting better” or becoming sanctified can feel out of place. Human beings are such directionless clowns that hope for improvement sounds, well hopeless. Certainly, we are claimed in our relationship to Christ. But as miraculous as that reality is, it can still feel a bit nihilistic. For most of us, to be human is to long to be better. And being a Christian only ups the ante. We think that being a Christian means that we can become more gentle and forgiving people. Maybe now we can follow the greatest commandment. Shouldn’t God make us better people now that we belong to him?

And so begins the very human journey to claim self-improvement, even if we pin it on our devotion. We force ourselves into “quiet time” every morning. We study the Bible and show up dutifully for small group. We make everyone in the family go to church, no matter how far apart we spread in the pews. And in some ways, familial distance aside, these are wonderful things to do, but only because they may help us in our inevitable suffering. They also may fail us. That is all up to God.

But we should stop doing these things to make ourselves better Christians. In a world filled with narcissistic mirages, the last thing we need is a false sense of control around our sanctification.

Our dependency on Jesus is what drives us into his arms. It was not the Christian book study that made you love the Lord, it was that your pain drove you to open up that book that pushed you towards Him. Grief and holiness are not in opposition to one another. They hang squarely together in whatever loss has blasted its way into our lives. It is the best and worst news about us. Suffering equals sanctification.

I know so many stories of this being true. Widows who clung to the Bible, divorced people who weep at the altar rail, parents who expected to give birth to perfection and instead learned that their version of it comes with an extra chromosome. In my own life I was not someone who ever thought a lot about needing my family. And now I absolutely cannot live without them. My competitive drive is gone and has been replaced with an overwhelming need to eat casseroles with groups of people who share my DNA. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in me. That is how God uses even the worst things for good. That is sanctification.

When people talk about the good that has come out of something terrible, we often feel the need to caveat it. We might say, “I mean obviously I wish this had never happened.” I do not do this. Because I was never given the choice. This is what happened. Has God covered me with a merciful loss of ambition? Yes. But in its place has rushed in a powerful need for connection and with it a fulfillment I did not know was possible on this side of the veil.  And all I can do is find a way to rejoice in it.

Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us. (Rom 5:3-4)

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6 responses to “The Terribly Good News About Sanctification”

  1. Don says:

    So, so very true.

  2. I’ve been thinking about the futility of wasting my suffering by not leaning in to learn from it for the sake of others good.

  3. Marilu Thomas says:

    Thank you, Sarah. I have a personal ‘pain’ that throws me into the ‘why?’ of the me-centeredness. The reminder of low anthropology as Christ’s way was a relief once again.

  4. Pam MacArthur says:

    Wonderful and oh, so true!

  5. […] “self-transcendence” one gains can never occur as an achievement, but as the uninvited and undesirable wisdom of failure and loss. The ladders we might construct toward heaven, whether it be through costly […]

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