The Bible gives us two stories that speak to this situation, though we might not realize it unless we give the matter some thought. The first story, in the Old Testament, relates to a vision of the prophet Isaiah:
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple… “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:1, 5).
Isaiah’s very clear reaction on seeing God in this vision was one of understanding his own spiritual inadequacy and “uncleanness.” Now compare this story with another in the New Testament – how Jesus revealed his divine power to Peter and the men fishing with him:
“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret … he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”…. When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break …. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:1-8).
Although these two stories may seem very different on the surface, Peter’s reaction to seeing even a small glimpse of Jesus’ divinity was not unlike the effect of the vision of Isaiah – it was a realization of his own unworthiness and sinful nature. Admittedly, these events occurred at the beginning of the careers of the two servants of God, but the principle remains the same – the more we come to understand of God, the more we are conscious of our own failings.
It was many years after the conversion of the apostle Paul that he wrote: “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24), and “… I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle…” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Yet Paul continued this same thought to the Corinthian Christians: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (vs. 10). Despite his painful awareness of his own failings – after many years of God working with him – Paul could still say near the end of his life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Both statements were true! Just like the rest of us, Paul doubtless realized his own spiritual failings all the more as the years progressed, yet he knew that God was changing him and completing a purpose in his life.
To use a simple analogy, before conversion we live in spiritual darkness – like living in a dark room – and cannot see any of the “stains” and “black marks” of sin that cover us. As we are converted and move toward the “light” (remember, God is spiritual light), the more we begin to see those black marks on ourselves – and the brighter the light becomes, the more we see even the smallest stains.
It is a simple truth of the Christian life that the more we grow and come to see God, the less we like what we see of ourselves. Yet this can be encouraging – looked at the other way around, the less we like what we see of ourselves the more we are probably seeing of God and moving closer to him!
This is not the same as living our lives in a despondent spiritual attitude that focuses on how unworthy we are. It is just an honest realization of our own spiritual inadequacy and a heightened awareness of ways in which we do fail – sometimes in small things that we would never have noticed earlier in our Christian lives.
Perhaps we can say that our occasional discouragement with our own failings can be turned around. The more we see the failings of our own nature, the more we can be encouraged that we are doubtless moving closer to God who is enabling us to see those things. We can rejoice that just as we see ourselves more clearly as we move closer to God, he can continue the process of helping us to see him and making us more like him.