The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.