Today is the very first day of a brand new year. And for many that means renewed efforts at a fresh start. New Year's resolutions, we call them.
This is the year. It all starts now. We resolve to turn over a new leaf-and this time we're serious. This time we're really going to try, we're not going to quit. We promise ourselves that we're going to quit bad habits and start good ones. We're going to get in shape, eat better, be more content, more disciplined, more intentional. We're going to be better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. We're going to work harder, pray more, serve more, plan more, give more, read more, and memorize more Bible verses. We're going to finally be all that we can be. No more messing around.
Well...I say try. Seriously, try. You might make some great strides this year. I'm hoping to. There are a lot of improvements I'm hoping to make over the next 12 months. But don't be surprised a year from now when you realize that you've fallen short...again.
For those who try and try, year after year, again and again, to get better and better, only to take three steps forward then two steps back, one step forward then three steps back...I have good news for you: you're in good company!
My friend Jean Larroux sent me this powerful illustration that he got from Jack Miller.
Miller recounts the valiant efforts of Samuel Johnson (a literary giant of the 18th century) to fight sloth and to get up early in the morning to pray. Taken from Johnson's diary and prayer journal, Jack gives us a record-through the years-of Johnson's life-long resolutions, failures, and frustrations:
1738: He wrote, "Oh Lord, enable me to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth."
1757: (19 years later) "Oh mighty God, enable me to shake off sloth and redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by diligent application of the days yet remaining."
1759: (2 years later) "Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth."
1761: "I have resolved until I have resolved that I am afraid to resolve again."
1764: "My indolence since my last reception of the sacrament has sunk into grossest sluggishness. My purpose is from this time to avoid idleness and to rise early."
1764: (5 months later) He resolves to rise early, "not later than 6 if I can."
1765: "I purpose to rise at 8 because, though, I shall not rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise for I often lie until 2."
1769: "I am not yet in a state to form any resolutions. I purpose and hope to rise early in the morning, by 8, and by degrees, at 6."
1775: "When I look back upon resolution of improvement and amendments which have, year after year, been made and broken, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal." He resolves again to rise at 8.
1781: (3 years before his death) "I will not despair, help me, help me, oh my God." He resolves to rise at 8 or sooner to avoid idleness.
I love the never-quit effort of Johnson. What he chronicles sounds so much like me over the years. Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year I get better at some things, worse at others.
For example, this past year I've become much more patient with my children--more tolerant of their mishaps. Therefore, I've been enjoying them more and micro-managing them less (one step forward). I'm not as concerned to defend myself when attacked. I've also seen real growth in the area of how I feel toward those who criticize me--I'm much more apt to reach out to them personally rather than ridicule them privately or publicly (cha-ching, cha-ching). But, due to a lack of discipline on my part, I've also allowed myself to be stretched too thin this past year and as a result, those I love most have suffered (one step back). I've promoted myself too much and prayed too little (gong! gong!).
To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I've gotten worse, it's actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I've gotten better, it's actually a sign that I've gotten worse. And round and round we go. Furthermore, no matter how hard I try, I still get frustrated by the same things that frustrated me 20 years ago: traffic jams, unexpected interruptions, long lines, feeling misunderstood, people who "play it safe", and so on and so forth. You get the idea. In some ways we get better. In some ways we get worse. And in other ways we basically stay the same.
Whoever told us that the experience of "Christian living" was one of escalating progress lied to us. Most of the time it feels rather static, doesn't it? In my opinion, there's way too much abstract and idealistic theologizing about the Christian life these days. And because this kind of theologizing is so detached from the way we actually experience life, it doesn't help people. I much prefer this honest and realistic description by the late Gerhard Forde:
Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, I don't seem to be getting better. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I'm getting tired! It's just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn't think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification! But can it be, perhaps, that it is precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all that? I hope so. The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain humor, a certain down-to-earthness.
What I'm most deeply grateful for (as was Samuel Johnson) is that God's love for me, approval of me, and commitment to me does not ride on my resolve but on Jesus' resolve for me. The gospel is the good news announcing Jesus' infallible devotion to us in spite of our inconsistent devotion to him. The gospel is God's promise that no matter how weak your faith and unsuccessful your efforts may be, He is always holding on to you. The glory of a new year (and of every year) is the chronicling of God's successes perfectly meeting my failures. It's His faithfulness, not mine, that is great--and worthy of worship.
It's comforting to me as this new year gets under way to remember that I am weak and He is strong--that while my love for Jesus will continue to fall short, Jesus' love for me will never fall short. For, as Mark Twain said, "Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, your dog would get in and you would stay out."
Happy New Year!