October 25, 2020

Sanctification and the Only Child

brat.jpegYesterday my wife told me that she wanted to make a suggestion on how I could be a better person. That’s a bit like shooting at a target the size of North Dakota, but she had a helpful, truthful criticism combined with some encouragement about a behavior I often overlook.

Of course, my feelings were hurt and I acted like it for a while. I would say I pouted, but grown men don’t pout.


Why is it so hard for me to take constructive criticism from someone who loves me and wants the best for me? Or be told “No”? Or take simple steps of repentance so that….well, because it’s the right thing to do, whether anything goes better or not.

I’m a generic sinner and a specific one as well. I can’t decode the whole mystery, but one of the reasons is that I’m an only child. You know, one kid to older parents. The whole universe revolves around me. I always got my way. Never learned to share. All that? I’m 50 years old and finally starting to understand what all those years without siblings meant.

Some of you live with one, or you’ve raised one. Some of you are one. Onlies are more common than they used to be as families get smaller. We probably deserve our reputation as being a bit difficult, though I hope most of us are avoiding prison.

What I’ve discovered is that being an only provides a window into why sanctification is a difficult process for me. Sanctification is the journey of actually becoming the person God has determined I would be all along. While justification declares me in right relation to God, forgiven, accepted and righteous, sanctification opens the way of change by way of my own choices and efforts.

The Holy Spirit enables and insures sanctification, but unlike justification, it’s something that I do in cooperation with God’s Spirit. Evangelicals have a surprisingly hard time grabbing ahold of that one. They are all about being “right with God” by grace and believing the Gospel. When it comes to living the life, however, walking the walk, working at holiness and all those things that don’t come to us any way but, as Paul says, presenting ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and presenting our members to God as instruments for righteousness, it’s a whole different matter.

If we think about it at all, we’d like sanctification to be easy, but it’s not. No short cuts. No instant operations. No secrets. No cruising. No matter how many praise songs you sing, sermons you hear, verses you memorize or conferences you attend, you still have to make abandon sin and do what is right. You still have to live the life the same way Peter, John, Abraham, David and millions of ordinary sanctified believers lived it.

Without a great deal of ink, you can probably understand why so many Christians are mean, selfish, angry, prejudiced, unforgiving, gossipy, addicted, vindictive, lazy, dishonest and so on. Repenting and walking in new life starts to sound like that narrow road of denying yourself Jesus talked about.

Can we skip it?

How has being an only child affected by own process of sanctification?

I don’t like to be told “no.” Sanctification means I don’t get my own way. I have to hear “no,” accept it, even embrace it. And I don’t like to hear that word. I want to be the exception. I don’t want the rules to apply to me. Everyone else? Sure. Me? No, I’m different.

I don’t want to share. A major problem in being an only child is that I didn’t have to share anything with brothers and sisters. I didn’t have to wait to use anything. I didn’t have to deal with second hand clothes. I didn’t have to let another child do what I couldn’t do. Those sorts of choices didn’t happen in our family.

So when it’s time to be part of the body, to share joys and suffering, to give money, to let someone else lead or be the one who is praised or helped, I struggle. That only child in me doesn’t get the point of living in a community.

I don’t want to think of others. Naturally, my first and most intense thoughts are of myself. Bringing my heart and mind around to others is against the grain.

I don’t like to be wrong. I’d like for someone else to experience the joy of repentance. Not me. I don’t want to suffer that moment of knowing that despite all the right things I believe, I still get LIFE wrong about a thousand times a day, and I need to be told so by someone who loves me.

I don’t want to get feedback or be told to do something differently for the sake of Christ, my own joy or usefulness. I’d like everyone to assume that I know it all. If you want to know what’s wrong with you, ask me. If I want to know what’s wrong with me….I’ll ask myself. Eventually.

I don’t want to be on the team. Can I handle things by myself? Can I be a group with just me? I don’t do well wasting time listening to people who can’t get to the point. Things will operate a lot more efficiently if everyone will listen to me talk and just nod.

(This is starting to sound like an explanation of why I like blogging.)

I don’t like to deal with relationships. Relationships are messy. I have the answers and what I need ought to set the tone, or so it seems to me.

As an only, relationships usually amounted to me being asked what I wanted. When I was told to do what I didn’t want to do….I could pout. Of course, I don’t do that anymore. Like I said, I’m a grown man. You never see ministers or church leaders pout because relationships don’t revolve around them. How childish that would be. (Ahem)

I don’t want to do the hard things. It’s more comfortable to me if the difficult things are left off, or if someone does them for me. This may explain why, if I’m not careful, my prayers start sounding like they came out of the Joel Osteen prayer book, assuming that the universe has been waiting around to show how much I deserve God’s favor, no trouble and lots of advantages.

As an only I was too often protected. I missed out on experiences I know wish I’d had. My parents loved me, but they weren’t ready to risk an only child in some things that other kids did. That didn’t work out well for me, but I can’t blame them. I’m all too often about continuing the same pattern, with God in the place of the cosmic parent.

When you stop and think about it, all of us have a bit of only child in us when it comes to God, and especially to sanctification. The family of God is meant to help us in a lot of ways. Yes, to feel loved and appreciated, but more importantly, to help us see the value of sanctification in God’s economy. It’s important for us. It glorifies God, and it makes us a lot more useful and joyful in life.


  1. Hi Michael,

    “I’d like everyone to assume that I know it all.”
    You do, I know, I am one too. (for the most part.)
    You nailed it. Because of this, I had 2 children, back to back. Now a different problem – I’ve had a difficult time dealing with siblings. My parents had it much easier!

    – Craig

  2. Wow, can I ever relate to this, and I’m not even an “only”! While I an totally relate personally, this has also been my observation about the body of Christ so often. Thank you for putting it into words so well.

  3. How does the whole “birth order” thing affect relationships in the Church? I’m a first-born (family of 5), and I can see some of the same issues in “Body Life” that come up in family life…people seem to expect us “old bossies” to start stuff and fix stuff. It’s hard to quit being everybody’s parent and just let God be Father. We are not responsible for everybody’s sanctification.

  4. Mrs. Only says

    Thanks for this. It comes at a perfect time. I’m a newlywed, married to an only child, and as the third of four siblings it can be really difficult for me to relate to my husband sometimes. We all have our selfish streak, but sometimes his seems a little extreme, and it’s something I’ve been having a hard time dealing with lately. As a middle child I grew up often feeling overlooked, so I’m tempted to become really hurt when my husband seems to ignore my needs or fails to consider the impact his actions or decisions have on me. This post gives me some good insight into where he’s coming from, and it’s also a good reminder that we’re to depend on the Lord for happiness and fulfillment, and not on other people. Thank you.

  5. Michael,

    Thanks for this. While the “only” might struggle as you have described, all of us have the same struggles.

    You have accurately described my long-held contention that “being a disciple of Christ means doing what you don’t want to do” (for which I’m mostly critized).

    God bless,

  6. Tom Huguenot says

    It’s strange, but I have never felt my experience as an only child ever had an influence on my spiritual life.
    True, I can be quite individualistic in the way I live my faith sometimes, but it is more something coming from my denominational background, I think.

    Anyway, when I see the problems some people have with their brothers and sisters…;)

  7. LMTO! Michael, this is choice! I, too, am an “only,” tho my straight-from-the-OldCountry Prussian grandmother who reared me was a taskmaster whose grand mission in life was to make darn sure that her grandchild didn’t turn out to be one of those notorious “American BRRRRRRRATS!!!!!!” (Never mind that her other 2—German—grandkids were super-brats.)

    The part I can most relate to in this essay is “I don’t like to be wrong…I don’t want to suffer that moment of knowing that despite all the right things I believe, I still get LIFE wrong about a thousand times a day.” Hence part of the reason for the major struggles with assurance.

    Thanks for another re-readable essay. (PS: Maybe ya shoulda married another “only”? 🙂 As in “like understandeth like”?)

  8. I’m a baby of three, and i didn’t realize until i had my own set of three that what my brothers said of me was true… i had it a wee bit easier than they did. 🙂

    I think in America we tend to like the easy sanctification because we are taught an easy salvation.

    I would be curious as to how Colossians 2:6 fits into this from your perspective?