I love the honesty of News Years Resolutions. Behind our many well intentioned goals is a confession: our lives aren’t perfect. We recognize that we want to change, or improve. So we resolve. We come to a definite decision that this year will be the year of healthy living and increased discipline; the year where things finally come together. I want to ask you something … how did that go for you last year? Are you one of the 75% who fail and realize that your resolve wasn’t so definite after all?
Resolutions are good, but often they fail to recognize two things: the complexity of our hearts, and how we actually change.
Lets say, hypothetically, I resolve to lose some weight (… which isn’t a recurring goal for me at all). Why do I want to lose weight? Maybe it’s so that I will be more healthy, which is a good thing. Maybe its economical: I want to save money and fit into my old jeans instead of buying a new pair. But maybe it is also vanity? Maybe it is insecurity? Maybe it’s that I think my value is based upon my appearance and my own self-satisfaction with my looks? Our goals reflect our hearts and reflect our sense of security in ourselves. They are simultaneously good and bad. “If I lose weight, then I will be a better person” we whisper to ourselves in the darkest corners of our conscience, while justifying the pursuit by the health benefits that come along with it. Our hearts are complex.
Now, how do I go about tackling the surface issue of losing weight? I design a plan to change my eating habits, and to use my YMCA membership with more frequency. Perhaps I even succeed! I have learned the ‘secret’ that change is simply a result of trying harder, increasing discipline, and positive thinking! But, how is your heart? Of course you feel better about your body now, but did it fix your insecurity? Maybe. But are you feeling a little superior (… arrogant) towards those who lack the focus and resolve that you have? This approach to change is both good and bad. We need to apply some effort, this is true. But if we believe that simply trying harder will change our hearts and our true motives we are sorely mistaken. We can’t simply try harder to have a pure heart, or to feel secure about who we are.
St. Paul’s view of how we change is radically different than the “try harder” approach, he writes “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7). So how do we change? We change the exact same way that we receive Jesus: by faith. We hear the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—a great and good God condescending and accommodating for us by clothing himself in humanity, seeking not to heal the righteous but to save broken sinners—and we respond by trusting this reality.
We change not by trying harder but by believing in the message that has brought us salvation. It’s the very same message that brings about change in our lives. Why? Because it truly is good news. It’s a message that says to us in both our success and failure that we need grace, and that grace is offered freely. It’s a message that confronts our resolutions and asks us what is really driving our goals? It forces us to confront the condition of our hearts. It’s a message that asks us to accept our powerlessness and recognize that we cannot change, and even when we get more disciplined we can end up becoming worse.
It’s a message that accepts us exactly as we are and where we are. It’s a message that promises us that God will meet us in our brokenness and give us the strength and power to transform not by our own efforts alone but by his empowering presence and love.
But isn’t this counter-intuitive? Don’t we have to pull ourselves up by the boot-straps and do something? Yes and no. Any effort that isn’t motivated by the gospel and by faith is never going to produce true heart change. The only way we change is by trusting in Jesus and his ability to heal us from our sin and transform our hearts. He promises to do just that. The only work on our part that matters to God is obedience to Jesus and not to our own goals and efforts.
This new year, lets aim beyond our ability and fail epically that we might know the depth of God’s grace for us. Let’s resolve to dwell on the message of Christ’s saving love and power. And let’s see where he takes us.