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Walking Points

Unconscious Holiness

1Thessalonians 4:1 - Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.

On the Tip of My Tongue

For a couple of decades or so I had a concept on the tip of my tongue that I never felt I was communicating adequately. I knew what I meant, but getting others to fully grasp what I was trying to say was a different story.

That concept had to do with what Oswald Chambers referred to as, “unconscious holiness.” I immediately resonated with it from the first time I read about it. But expressing it clearly to others seemed to elude me.

Stages of Spiritual Growth

In trying to teach classes about this idea, I would usually describe spiritual growth as follows:

There’s a spectrum of spiritual growth. Some folks, before they come to know Christ, "sin greatly," but because they do not know God or his Word, their sin does not bring a sense of guilt or conviction upon them. They see no reason to change their course.

The next stage begins when God’s Spirit starts to awaken them. Perhaps they have just come to know Christ as Lord. Bit by bit the puzzle pieces of faith begin to fit together, and they start to understand that their thinking, speaking, and living is not glorifying God. They realize that because they’re now in Christ, they must not live the way they used to, even if they don’t quite understand all the ramifications of that epiphany.

And because they’re now rightly related to Christ and his Spirit lives within them, they no longer want to live according to their old ways. And yet, they struggle to the point of frustration because it seems they’re just not making significant headway in their spiritual lives. The Apostle Paul’s struggle in Romans 7 comes to mind here.

As time goes by and these folks seek to walk more faithfully with the Lord, they begin to experience increasing growth in their lives as followers of Christ. They catch themselves before they fall into temptation. Or, they repent immediately after sinning because their hearts are grieved, and they do not want any obstacles to stand between them and their precious communion with God. And while they aren’t living in perfect harmony with the will of God, they’re making great strides in what’s called, “progressive sanctification.” That is, they’re steadily and increasingly becoming conformed to the likeness of Christ.

The last stage – the goal of every Christian – is to live a holy and righteous life by default. In other words, our hope is that Christ becomes so much a part of us, that we live faithfully for him and with him, almost unconsciously. We are so in step with the Spirit that holiness just seems to come by default.

It is probably not theologically accurate to divide one's spiritual growth into these stages since the different parts of our lives flow together like a river and you’re never really aware of the moment you’re moving from stage one to the next. And yet, the last “stage” is where I want to be. I want holiness and obedience to be so delightful to me that I automatically seek it, and in fact, it doesn’t occur to me to choose otherwise. Perhaps that’s what it will look like to be fully conformed to the image of Christ.

Think About It This Way

About ten years ago I was given a precious gift by a person in my Sunday school class who had a business background. Unbeknownst to her, she had a much better grasp of this idea of unconscious holiness than I did, and she communicated it far better than I had in all my years of teaching. I rejoiced at this revelation and have since "plagiarized" what she shared that Sunday morning.

She said as I was sharing with the class my idea of unconscious holiness, she remembered a business principle she had learned. She said there is first what is called, “Unconscious Incompetence.” That means you’re not competent at something, but you don’t know you aren't. Stage two is, “Conscious Incompetence,” which means you become a little more self-aware of your ignorance and inabilities.

The third stage is called, “Conscious Competence.” The idea here is that you become pretty good at something, and you know it, because you’re constantly working on it. It occupies your attention and your time. You’re intentional about improving and growing in that area. You’re also aware of the good results your hard work is producing.

The last stage, she said, is “Unconscious Competence.” This is marked by being good at something – bearing good fruit – without really being intentional about it. That’s certainly not to say you aren’t trying to do a good job, but instead, it means that excellent work is so much a part of who you are, it appears effortless.

The goal is to be so competent at what you do, that you reflexively perform well. It is the “default” way you do it because you’re so “in tune” with what you do.

See the Connection?

Our goal is to be unconsciously holy. That is, we want to get to a place in our walk with Christ where our holiness reflexively flows in and through us because we’re so filled with God’s Spirit and “in tune” with his Word and aligned with his will.

An Important Caveat

And yet, even if we are able to obtain unconscious holiness in this life, we are still called to intentionally pursue it. We want to deliberately please and glorify God. However, my larger point is that as we’re becoming more conformed to the likeness of Christ in our progressive sanctification, we are thus becoming more unconsciously loving, faithful, humble, others-centered, obedient, etc., in the daily living of our lives. It becomes our default setting. We become who God redeemed us to be. We become like Christ.

Unconscious holiness is what I’m shooting for in my life. That’s what I’m trying to pass on to others. Where are you?

Walking Points

  • If our sins are forgiven by Christ and we are unable to earn our way to heaven, then what is the point of trying to become holy (more like Christ) in the first place?   
  • How can you tell if you are growing in Christlikeness?   
  • What stage best describes where you presently are?
  • Do you think there is ever a point in this life in which you are done growing in your faith? Why or why not?
Dale Tedder

Dale Tedder is a United Methodist pastor in Jacksonville, Florida. If you would like to read more on godly manhood, check out Dale's book, Foundations: Key Principles for Godly Manhood. Dale also writes devotions at his website, The Right Path.
Books by Dale Tedder

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