He was just terrible.
I finally made it to one of my son’s first soccer games ever. My wife Jenn had tried to warn me that really the goal today was just to see if he could stay on the field. I thought she was joking.
She wasn’t joking. (And yes, I am adjusting for the relative skill level of the other four-year-old soccer players.)
The little guy was so overwhelmed with all the new people and new commands and new skills that half the time he just watched everyone practice. Then in the (20 minute) “game” we had to encourage him to just stay on the field for a quarter (5 minutes) without crying.
But one other thing stood out to me during the practice: the soccer chant. It was unusual, to say the least. The coach would gather all the four-year-olds up and chant quietly “Every day a little bit better” until the kids picked it up and they chanted together “Every day a little bit better!” and finally the kids were jumping up and down and yelling “EVERY DAY A LITTLE BIT BETTER!”
It was brilliant. In a moment the coach was resetting all the kids’ expectations and goals (and more than a few of the parents too).
An Expectation Reset
I heard a wise pastor once say that we as Christians constantly overestimate what we can do in the short-term and underestimate what we can do in the long term. So often, that’s me.
I see a pattern of sin emerge in my relationship with Jenn and think “I need to stop this…and I should be able to do that by the end of the week, right?”
Then at the end of the week, I find myself discouraged and frustrated because I may have made progress, but part of that progress was finding out that the pattern of sin was worse than I thought. (Likely, something my wife had been trying to tell me all along.)
But sometimes I see a pattern of sin that is so deeply rooted that I wonder if I can really ever make measurable progress. I’ve battled sinful anxiety as long as I can remember and some days I see it and the way it wraps itself around many areas of my life and I want to give up.
But the truth is that when I look at the area soberly, I have made progress (slow and halting as it has been at times).
We Have a Certain Hope It Will Get Better
Paul encourages us in Philippians 1:6 “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Now he’s speaking there in ultimate terms–when Jesus returns or we die and find ourselves with Christ our sanctification will be completed. That’s encouraging. But look at the logic: if God began this work in us then surely he will complete it.
Paul says later that when we work to become more like Jesus “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Day in and day out the same God who brought our hearts back to life is shaping us and helping us become more like Jesus. He is the power behind our sanctification.
I still remember one of the most theologically profound charts I’d ever encountered. I was reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology when I stumbled across the chart depicting sanctification. It wasn’t a straight line from salvation up and up and up to glorification.
Instead, it had peaks and valleys, it went up and down, but over time it kept climbing. “Oh,” I thought. Because honestly, I think I had assumed that my growth in godliness would just keep going up and up and up forever.
But what I experienced in life was the chart, not the endless climb. I felt so relieved.
These scriptural truths are humbling and invigorating. We shouldn’t get discouraged at setbacks because I think our lives will prove out over time that God is shaping us to look more and more like him, in more and more areas, in more and more ways, over time.
We can put our hope in that. “Every day a little bit better” is our hope because Christ is at work in us.
We Strive to Become A Little Better Every Day
That encouraging verse from Philippians two actually begins this way: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV). Rather than using God’s work as an excuse for giving up Paul uses it as motivation to get us to strive and strain to look more and more like Jesus.
Similarly, Paul charges us in Ephesians “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-25).
There should be things we “put off” every day and things we “put on” every day. “Every a little bit better” is the way we press forward.
But this is where we must acknowledge the reality that sanctification is often slower than we’d like it to be. In 1 Corinthians Paul has to confront the church about multiple areas of serious sin. To be honest, sometimes I wonder why he didn’t just give up on the church and start over. But instead, he thanks God for the grace at work in them (1 Cor 1:16).
We need to have sober expectations that especially with patterns of sin in our life, growing will be a process. It won’t take a day, it won’t take a week, it probably won’t even take a month. But we can grow.
Recently I sat down with a friend from church who was struggling with getting sinfully angry at work. He was frustrated that it was still happening. But I was able to point out that it was actually getting less frequent and that it was slowly improving. That deeply encouraged him. He needed to see that in order to keep pressing forward. We all need to see it.
Small Victories on the Field
In the end, my son improved dramatically over the fall soccer season.
Dramatic improvement looked like breaking down sobbing 10 minutes into practice, to making it all the way through practice before sobbing, to making it through a full quarter before sobbing. Finally, at long last, in the final game of the season, he was actually running around kicking the ball (at least when his coach grabbed his hand and literally ran with him up and down the field).
Progress is progress.
We got in the car and one day he said proudly, “I did a little bit better.” And it was true. It was easily missed but it was so important to this four-year-old. It’s important for all of us.
Remember, friend, that you have hope in every day being a little better because of God’s work in you. So put your uniform on and take the field.