It's a fundamental building block in the foundation of the Christian faith: the belief that a Christlike life is actually possible, or at least approachable, when one is "in Christ" (to use Paul's characteristic descriptor). We say it is God Himself who makes this possible, God who empowers us for righteousness, and yet, of course, there is this gap--I'll call it the righteousness gap--between the life we believe to be possible in Christ and the life that we actually live.
Now here's another fundamental belief we Christians have: God is powerful to save, and desires to rescue us from all our troubles. Of course we may be quick to qualify this statement by quoting verses like John 16:33 ("in the world you will have tribulation") but the fact is, when a man is drowning, God is the one he calls out to for help.
Now, I do not want to disparage this, for who am I to parse and criticize the cry of a drowning man for help! I only want to point out that these two aspects of God that are fundamental to our understanding. Empowerment for righteous living, and his strong arm to save us when we're in dire need. Now, I think we're pretty good at crying out to God when we're drowning, or when we're surrounded by the proverbial bulls of Bashan. The fundamental prayer of this type is simple, "HELP!"
But I think we Christians run into trouble in the other matter, the matter of righteousness or Christlike living. Everyone's familiar I'm sure with the illustration of salvation in which the gap between men and God is bridged by the cross of Christ, but we don't often think that this righteousness-gap between the lives we live and the lives that God would desire for us is also a chasm that can only be bridged by the cross. This one, we fancy, we'll bridge ourselves. We imagine ourselves to be great bridge-builders, and the plans we devise for spanning this righteousness-gap are wondrous and diverse. But the problem is, very few of them actually work. We get about half way out on the rickety structure, trying not to look down, and the wind picks up, and the bridge starts swaying dangerously, and before you know it we're doing our best Wile E. Coyote imitation, falling into a yawning gorge.
Hmmm, do you see how these two fundamentals of Christian belief relate to one another? Sometimes, at least, our situation of dire need is connected to our attempt to build our own bridge across the righteousness gap. We do this, I think, by imagining the life we think we ought to be living (and, by the way, we don't really have a very good imagination in these matters), and then trying to live it. The trouble is, this life we imagine has everything to do with the world's definition of happiness and nothing to do with Christlikeness. The life we've imagined turns out to be something to do with health, prosperity, kids that never get in trouble, a job in which we get to be our own boss, etc. No wonder the bridge always fails!
Well, I sense that I'm about to stretch this bridge-metaphor to the breaking-point, so I'll just quit while I can. The point is, I know a lot of Christians who seem never to get beyond the prayer for help and move on to the prayer for holiness. There may be many reasons for this, but one reason can be inferred simply from the way I phrased the problem: I spoke of moving on from one to the other, as if the prayer for help must be answered before the need for Christlikeness can be addressed. This is a fallacy that we need to put aside once and for all.
Here's the thing: our need, our crisis, our distress, is the absence of righteousness in our very fiber. In our own, and in everyone else's. The cry for holiness IS our most urgent distress signal. I am not suggesting that we ought to point out a drowning man's sin before throwing him a life preserver, I am suggesting that in our personal prayers we ought to be deeply concerned with this righteousness-gap I speak of. Help, Lord, for I stand before this great chasm that I cannot bridge. And the governing principle here is that this gap too is bridged by Christ's cross.