What I Learned About Progressive Sanctification From Alcoholics Anonymous...(Sort-of)

The subject of this post is somewhat connected to the last...but from a different perspective. A couple of years ago I took a counseling class on "Addictive Behaviors in Family Systems." In it, I learned that many counselors believe that their job is not usually to take an "all or nothing" approach with those who come to them for help in overcoming an addiction (such as alcoholism). In fact, the client chooses for him-/herself what his/her goal will be...whether he/she wants to quit the behavior altogether, or just limit it in some way (how often, how much, etc.). The counselor, then, assists the client in reaching this goal.

How do I relate this concept to pastoral ministry? The correlation to pastoral counseling, especially in the area of addictions, seems obvious. But is it? Is it the pastor's duty to urge everyone to perfection immediately, or should some people be steered closer to Christ in incremental "stages"? (I've heard the idea that if the bar - of whatever expectation - is set high enough, people must continue to strive to reach it; however, if it is set too low, then they will feel no need to give it their best effort. I know many ministers feel compelled to take this approach to spirituality.) But, is a step in the right direction not a good thing? I think that, as ministers, sometimes we have misguided expectations of people...and even of ourselves.

Because the Bible affirms it, we believe that God sets free, heals and delivers people from all sorts of maladies. And most of us believe that He does so in two different ways: either immediately and once-for-all or, as we seem to witness more often, progressively ("God helps those who help themselves"). Perhaps this should inform the way we deal with people in our congregations and communities who desire to "do better" (whatever that may mean for them), but just can't seem to get it quite right.

If a person can take one successful step toward what we would consider "righteousness," then there's hope that he/she can eventually take another (ad infinitum), right? And besides...don't we take on Christ's righteousness and surrender our own at the moment of salvation, anyway? This, then, would seem to be the practical definition of progressive sanctification.

I came across a quote from Plato recently that seems to apply here quite nicely: "Never discourage anyone...who continually makes progress, no matter how slow." I can't recall an instance when Jesus did.


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