As believers we cannot expect a life of ease; in fact, we should anticipate a life of labor. We labor to serve one another in the church. We labor to disciple and discipline our children well. We labor to cultivate and develop our spiritual gifts. We labor not to sin — to control our personal inclinations to sin and the motives and desire that provoke us to ungodly living.
Most of all, we labor to pursue Christlikeness and fight sin. The quest for godliness is no easy journey. It is labor, a task, and a weight. The pursuit of sanctification is in many ways simple (don’t do anything ungodly, do everything godly, and think Christlike thoughts) — but the achievement of it is hard.
It is true that our sanctification is a gift of God’s grace. But our sanctification is mediated through His Word and through our hard labors. We are not sanctified by ease. We are sanctified by intentional hard work.
It is notable how frequently the New Testament speaks about the hardness of this labor. Consider just a few examples (I’ve italicized the terms relating to hard work):
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Cor. 15:58)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:10-13)
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)
For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me. (Col. 1:29)
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight… (1Tim. 1:18)
But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness… (1Tim. 4:7)
Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2Tim. 3:10-12)
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin… (Heb. 12:3-4; consider also the example of many believers in Scripture, especially 11:32ff)
As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. (James 5:10-11)
Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pt. 1:13)
We should not be discouraged by the hardness of the spiritual life. God intended it to take laborious and intensive work so that we would learn to lean on Him, the only sufficient power for our transformation and not presume to be adequate for spiritual transformation in ourselves.
The spiritual life demands intentional work, endurance and perseverance, difficulty and suffering — and none of these things are unusual. Believers have always endured such things, and our Savior endured these things in His life with God while on earth. What we must not focus on is the difficulty in pursuing sanctification, but the provision of God for our sanctification (read Romans 8, for instance).
G. K. Chesterton noted that the Christian life “has not been tried and found wanting, but it has been found difficult and left untried.” We should not expect ease while on the way to sanctification. But let us not be those who are overwhelmed by the difficulty; instead let see the hardness of the task and learn to pursue Christlikeness because it is God-honoring and worthwhile.