There’s a recent trend in American Christianity to speak of spiritual life as messy.
We’re sinful, broken people, this view argues, and even in our redeemed and reconciled condition we make mistakes that affect our and others’ lives. The messiness is pervasive, constant, and unrelenting. There’s no hope for the eradication of sin this side of Christ’s return, so the best we can do is embrace the mess and encourage one another to keep wading through the mire. The Christian life is a series of messes with a few mountaintops in between.
No doubt, this description is often used with honorable motives. We want to express humility and provide solidarity and support for our struggling brothers and sisters or new Christians—as we should. But there’s something about describing the process of sanctification only as “messy” that seems a little off. It’s certainly true that believers struggle with sin, pain, failure, and turmoil. I continue to wrestle with those things and more, so there’s a sense in which sanctification is messy. I definitely feel that myself.
Yet I also realize that Jesus didn’t die so we could live a merely messy Christian life. His desire isn’t for us to simply hop from crisis to crisis, doomed to failure, discouragement, and depression this side of glory. The gospel is more about joyful transformation than messy complacency.
If we’re not careful, a merely messy Christianity fails to do justice to a biblical view of the Christian life in at least three ways.
1. It Risks Normalizing Sin
One of the biggest dangers with “messy theology” is that it can create a sense of permissiveness among the people of Christ. If my sinful mistakes are just the natural outworking of my messy life, they can be shrugged off as normal, even unavoidable. The phrase “life is messy” can, if we’re not careful, sound like “I sin, you sin, we all sin.”
True enough, but should we settle for sin?
We mustn’t be indifferent toward sin. It’s not to be normalized or brushed off. We should never grow comfortable with indwelling sin. It must be attacked and destroyed. In Matthew 5:27–30, Jesus said sin is so serious we must be willing to rip out our eyes or cut off our limbs to eradicate it.
The apostle Paul didn’t write about coming to terms with sin or seeking a healthy balance between sinning and winning. He consistently spoke of overcoming sin through the Spirit’s power: “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
Life according to the flesh necessitates death. Life in the Spirit means killing sin. In the classic words of the Puritan John Owen, be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.
2. It Risks Minimizing Struggle
Unintentionally normalizing sin through a mindset of messiness minimizes the Christian’s daily struggle. This mentality seems too quick to settle for failure instead of striving—by God’s grace—toward victory. The Western church is already characterized by complacency in Christian living. We don’t need additional permission to become lazy in our spiritual struggle.
Paul spoke of discipleship as both a struggle and also a war. We are to put on the armor of God, a spiritual uniform of Christlike attributes to don in the battle against “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). At the end of his life, Paul encouraged Timothy to continue his spiritual struggle: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Christians mustn’t settle for spiritual stagnation, but should pursue grace daily to move along a trajectory toward holiness. We are fundamentally saints; our sinfulness and brokenness no longer define us or have the final say.
3. It Risks Diluting the Cross
Perhaps the most dangerous message of messy Christianity relates to the sufficiency of the cross. Jesus paid for every sin a believer would ever commit—past, present, and future. The purpose of his sacrifice was to free us from sin so we can serve him. Paul said as much in Romans 6:22: “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”
But if a messy theology subtly permits a complacent mentality toward sin and a defeatist attitude toward struggle, then the cross has not, in its practical outworking, truly freed us. We’re still enslaved to sin—perhaps not in position, but in practice. This messy lifestyle robs Jesus’s sacrificial death of its power to enable believers to daily resist the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jesus didn’t trade his life on the cross for ours so we could live a mediocre, halfhearted life. He vanquished sin and death, and our lives should testify to that victory as he progressively transforms us into his own image. He bore the penalty of sin for us and broke the power of sin in us (Rom. 6:12–14). We aren’t home, but we are on our way.
Mud Pies in a Slum
A merely messy Christianity normalizes sin, minimizes struggle, and dilutes the transformative power of the cross. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, famously wrote:
We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Embracing a messy Christianity philosophically falls short of God’s desire for the Christian life. Yes, we are messy, broken people who inhabit a broken-down world. But we’re not called to celebrate brokenness in community by overemphasizing our spiritual failures. We’re called to courageously combat sin and evil, in the context of a covenant community, through the supernatural power of the risen Christ.
Let’s not settle for mud pies when God has given us a holiday at the sea.