New Years Resolutions, Slow Progress, and the Grace of God
As another year comes to a close, and as we contemplate how we hope things will be different in 2020, I thought it might be good to be reminded of what the Scripture says about change. Desiring change for the person in the mirror, dreaming of a better version of ourselves, is a good thing. But how can we get there? In pursuit of an answer to this question, I have been contemplating Galatians 5:16-25. I thought I would pass on a few of my reflections to you.
The error of moralism says that we can become better people by keeping rules and striving to be good. But Scripture rejects this idea. Instead, Scripture insists that character develops only in the context of freedom. Change comes not from striving in our own strength to be like Jesus, but by developing a habit of being and communing with him.
Moralism calls for change from the outside-in through cosmetic, behavior-focused self management. Grace produces change from the inside-out through heart renewal and transformed motivations. Change happens only as our motivations and desires change—when we are led by the Spirit, our ‘God-desiring’ nature over-and-against the flesh, our ‘sin-and-law-desiring’ nature.
To destroy a pornography habit, for example, desire for pornography must be replaced by another, deeper desire. The heart must come to desire purity over objectification, covenant love over consuming lust. Overcoming this or any sin, then, follows this universal principle:
Behavior is always driven by whatever we desire most.
For behavior to change, desire must be transformed first. It’s inside-out, not outside-in.
The ‘flesh’ (Gal 5:16) is a term Scripture uses to identify our sin-desiring nature. Sin is not simply a list of bad behaviors. Sin is bad behaviors that result from and flow out of unclean desires (Gal 5:16-17). Sins, as the Bible calls them, are addictions that lead to distorted behaviors. The behaviors are the symptoms. The heart addictions are the disease.
Sins of the flesh can be either secular or religious in nature. In Galatians 5, seven of the fifteen sins listed are characteristically secular of sins like distorted sexuality (immorality, impurity, sensuality) and substance abuse (drunkenness, drinking binges, etc.). The other eight are characteristically religious or churchly in nature—enmity, strife, jealousy, anger fits, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy. It is because of these sins, usually found in conservative churches, that Gandhi chose Hinduism over Christianity.
“I like your Christ,” Gandhi supposedly said, “but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Gandhi’s alleged critique should humble us who identify as followers of Jesus. It should lead us into self-reflection and should swiftly direct our eyes toward Jesus. Secular sins and religious sins, sins of the world and sins of the church, are equally as grievous and damaging. Nobody is off the hook. In this way, religious people and irreligious people are actually quite similar. Their behaviors are driven by the same things—idols—things we believe we must have in order to feel happy, whole, worthy, significant or valuable.
It is also crucial to see that the Holy Spirit’s fruit can be counterfeited, just as Pharaoh’s magicians counterfeited God’s miracles in the Exodus account.
For example, the the fruit of love is giving oneself to and serving others for the intrinsic value of who they are. Love is counterfeited when we ‘serve’ in order to put others in our debt, or when we give in order to receive something in return.
Joy is delight in God for being God. It is loving, enjoying, and resting in God for God’s own sake and discerning that at his right hand there are pleasures forevermore. Joy is counterfeited when we our fondness of God is conditioned on whether or not our lives are going like we want them to. But real joy, the fruit of the Spirit kind of joy, remains constant in the lean times as well as the rich times, in the hard times as well as the happy times.
Peace is having confidence in God’s wisdom and control of our lives, versus thinking that we know better than he does what is best for us. Peace is trusting in God’s character and promises more than we trust our own feelings, our own ideas, or what our culture says. Peace is counterfeited when we feel thankful and happy only when our plans, agendas and wants are working out like we want them to.
Patience is a deeply forgiving spirit, the opposite of resentment and holding grudges. Patience is counterfeited by embittered ‘tolerance’ or a passive-aggressive posture, ‘putting up’ with people while also judging and feeling superior to them in our hearts.
Kindness celebrates and loves others as we celebrate and love ourselves, rejoicing in their prosperity and flourishing as we do our own. It enjoys seeing other people doing well, lifted up, praised, enjoyed, promoted, and favored…without a shred of envy. Kindness is counterfeited when we are nice on the outside but preoccupied with envy, jealousy, discontent, anger on the inside.
Goodness is having the grace of sincerity and integrity. The fruit of goodness makes us behave the same with one person as we do with another, showing no partiality, treating every person as worthy of our attention, care and friendship. Goodness means we are the same when nobody is looking as we are when everybody is looking. We are the same in the dark as we are in the light. Goodness is counterfeited when we behave like chameleons—changing our personalities and ‘colors’ depending who we are with at the moment.
Faithfulness makes us dependable, whole-hearted people. Faithfulness is reliable, loyal, committed, and keeps its promises. Faithfulness is counterfeited we make promises but don’t follow through with them, when we set goals but never persevere to accomplish them, when we make ‘resolutions’ but consistently break them.
Gentleness is manifest through meekness and humility. It is self-aware but not self-conscious or self-absorbed, not preoccupied with ‘me, myself, and I’ because it is interested in the person in front of us. As CS Lewis said, gentleness or humility doesn’t think less of itself; rather, it thinks of itself less. It is confident without being cocky. It is secure without being self-important. Gentleness is counterfeited when we are nice but never confronting, deferential but never bold, ‘sweet’ on the outside but snippy, critical, or cynical on the inside.
Self-control means consistently choosing important things over urgent things, primary things over secondary things. Self-control is counterfeited by a rigid, unbending posture.
Tim Keller (who also helped me long ago to see how the fruit can be counterfeited) rightly says that our true character is measured by looking at the facets of the fruit where we are weakest. The word ‘fruit’ in Galatians 5:22 is singular not plural, which means that all the Spirit’s fruit grow together, never separately. A whole chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s the same with the Spirit’s fruit. If, for example, I am thought to be a kind person but rarely keep my commitments (lacking in faithfulness), what appears to be ‘kindness’ is probably motivated by something besides the Spirit—such as a desire to be liked, fear of ever offending people, etc.
Here are a few thoughts as to how lasting character change can happen…
First, we must reject the belief that a self-improvement
plan or ‘resolution’ can produce lasting change.
If we don’t like something about ourselves, what do we usually do? We adopt some sort of a plan or program to address the problem (hence the ever-growing popularity of ‘self help’ books). Quite often, we choose sin-management and behavior modification over heart renewal and inside-out transformation. We look at the list of the fruit in Galatians 5—and we say to ourselves, “I should become more loving, joyful, and committed” and we try to create a program or list of steps to move us toward our goal. We love formulas because we love control. But formulas don’t work…“Just do it” will never do it when it comes to character reformation. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on cancer or removing a weed with scissors. To “crucify the flesh” (Gal 5:24) is to put to death the idea that relying on the law (Gal 5:18) will produce lasting change.
Second, we must belong to Jesus.
Paul says it—those who “belong to Christ Jesus” are the ones who gain the power and will to crucify the flesh and its desires (Gal 5:24). So the first component of lasting change is to belong to Jesus! For character to grow, for us to become better versions of ourselves, it must be preceded by a desire for Jesus, and a love Jesus that supplants all other loves and usurps all potential rivals. Otherwise we will be living under whatever ‘laws’ those idols, loves, and rivals impose upon us, and the works of the flesh will follow (Gal 5:19-21). On the flip side, the closer we get to Jesus, the further sin gets from us.
Third, we must be with Jesus.
It is by “living and walking in the Spirit” (Gal 5:25) that we nurture a desire and love for Jesus. It is the Spirit’s role to show us the beauty of Jesus. If Jesus is the groom and we are his bride, then the Spirit is the matchmaker, the one who shows and repeatedly reminds us—chiefly through ordinary means such as Scripture reading, prayer, observing the sacraments, community, and private and public worship—that Jesus is the greatest beauty of all. The reason for rotten fruit in our lives, the reason why we stay stuck on certain sins for years, is that we spend too much effort trying to be like Jesus relative to the investment we make in simply being with him. If we want to become like Jesus, we have to stop trying to be like him and start responding to his generous, kind invitation with him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” Jesus is the beauty who kisses the beast in us. And when he kisses us, we become beautiful. We must receive his kiss.
What are the next steps? The answer is that there is not a fixed answer. If I give you a formula, five things to do to get closer to Jesus, I will invite you into a new legalism, a new religious formula. Everyone seems to have a program. A Presbyterian may tell you that the key is to learn sound theology. A Baptist may tell you to say the sinner’s prayer. A Pentecostal may say speak in tongues. A Prosperity person will say give your money to the preacher. A Bible person may tell you to read your Bible every day. A Pious person may say throw out your TV and stereo. A Social Justice person may tell you to minister among the poor. If you are living closely with Jesus, some of these things may result (and hopefully some of them won’t!), but…
For each person, the ‘method’ of getting close to Jesus will be different because each of us is unique.
Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made.
So if you are asking, “How do I live by the Spirit?” the answer is, “Whatever moves you toward Jesus.” For some, the Spirit must convict. For others, the Spirit must comfort, discipline, empower, weaken, etc. in order to get us all to Jesus who is our ultimate destination.
So, perhaps the first thing to do, then, is to begin doing what Jesus taught all of us to do—to ask our Father in heaven to give us the Spirit (Luke 11:13).
And there’s one more thing. If you are really serious about change in the new year, then consider joining me in reading John Owen’s little masterpiece called The Mortification of Sin. Let’s do this. But let’s do it the Gospel way, shall we?
Happy New Year.
May 2020 be your best, most fruitful year yet.