One week into the 2018, and I am reminded in conversations everywhere of New Year’s resolutions. It seems like wherever you go people are wondering what your resolution was, or how it is going. I no longer make resolutions, and you can read about my day to day approach in “Who are You Following?”. However, it seemed like a good time to talk about what do you do when resolve fails?
We have probably all been there, setting out on a new day or a new season in life with determination that “This time it will be different.” or “This time I will be tougher on myself and will see it through.” I know in the past I have tried through self-will alone to make many different changes. Everything from saying that this year would be the year I would stick to a schedule and read through the Bible in a year, to determining that this would be the year “I will get my drinking under control”
Probably not surprising to many of you, every time I determined in my own strength to make a change in life, I failed miserably. Sometimes more dramatically than others, but failure just the same. Perhaps that sounds familiar, perhaps you are saying to yourself even as you read this, that you have it figured out and this year will be different for you. While I would certainly wish you the best in making a positive change in your life, I think it would be far wiser to look into God’s Word and see what it says about changing in our lives.
You may have noticed in my example that I experienced failure when trying to do things in my own strength. When we try to live our lives in a different way based solely in our own strength, we do just as the Pharisees did during the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The book of Malachi was written as the last prophetic voice before the coming of the Messiah. In Malachi, God spoke through the prophet and rebuked His people for various actions. These actions were many of the same ones that we find people struggling with and being defeated by today. However, a careful reading will reveal that the issues were heart issues. This was confirmed by none less than Jesus Himself. The major themes in Malachi are addressed by our Lord in His “Sermon on the Mount”. For example, in Malachi 2:13-16 God brings a fierce rebuke on adultery.
So in the period of time between Malachi and the birth of Jesus, we have 400 years of silence from heaven. In this time a sect of religious leaders rose up in Israel, that were extremely focused on the actions of following the law. These leaders became known as the Pharisees and were the subject of the harshest rebukes that Jesus brought to anyone. They became so focused on the action that they ignored the heart. They added to the laws of God, and rather than seeing their need of God, they became proud about how they perceived their actions as righteousness.
Jesus said however, that it is the heart that determines if a man or woman is righteous or unrighteous. So when Jesus took a theme Malachi addressed, such as adultery, and spoke on it during “The Sermon on the Mount”(Matthew 5:27-28), He explained that the issue was the heart. The physical act of adultery begins in the dark recesses of the heart as lust. In God’s perfect standard, that lust of the heart is the same as committing the physical act.
Now maybe you are asking yourself if I am saying that it is pointless to even try to change? That is not the case at all, I am saying that in your own strength, the very best you can hope for is to become like a Pharisee. In your own strength, you may able to force yourself through the actions, to grin and bear it, and to appear to be different. However, if nothing changes on the inside, then no change has in fact occurred.
This brings up one of the most critical questions that faces mankind. How do people change? It is only through Jesus, and His redeeming power that people can change.
Romans 8:1-4 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The power of change is only found in Jesus, and when we accept the gift of salvation, that He bore God’s wrath in our place, we are brought from spiritual death into spiritual life. This brings up another major questions though in a discussion of resolutions, and resolve. What happens when a Christian falls? Have you ever been in that place, where you despair at your most recent failure? Perhaps you begin to question your salvation, or to be angry at God that you are still struggling in this area. Maybe you feel so defeated that you are at the point of wanting to give up, or you start to believe that there could be no restoration for you at this point.
I lived through a point like that in my life. I had spent a few years struggling with alcoholism, and falling progressively farther away from God. When God delivered me from that place I knew that He had done a mighty work in my life, and that I had been freed from the cruel bondage of the bottle. However, I now had a new problem. I was so aware of the damage that had been done by my sin, I felt too unworthy to even pray. While I could identify with the tax collector in Luke 18, I felt unable to even do that. Partially due to a misunderstanding of who God is, and how He works redeeming lives. In this parable Jesus makes a comparison between the way of the Pharisee and the man broken before God.
Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:’God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
One of the things I believed in error, was that while God had forgiven me through Jesus, I felt like He would no longer hear me. That I had so disqualified myself, that I could not even approach as the tax collector had. I have talked with many Christians who have felt the same way. I believe that this is one of the effects of a Pharisaical mindset, and is played out tragically in churches all through our land. I remember a dear Christian friend on the phone in tears as a story of brokenness, bad decisions, and another cycle of hurt was described. I was able to share the following part of my story that night on the phone.
A man God sent to help me through that time of early recovery was talking with me, and I shared how I felt disqualified to even approach God in prayer. He suggested that I start reading in Psalms, and sit there with God reading until He spoke to me. I was desperate enough to listen to him, and so I began in Psalm 1. I have to confess that for the first couple of chapters I was not in a frame of mind to hear from God and was in fact fuming at such a silly plan. Then I got to Psalms chapter 6, and everything changed.
Psalm 6:1-9 Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.”
That phrase “The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.” was the breakthrough I needed. You see, this Psalm was written by David, the man God said was “a man after My own Heart.”. Yet he was also the shepherd boy become King, become adulterer, become murderer. He was a man I could identify with! While the sins were different, and they are for most of us, the root is always the same.
So if you are in a place where your resolve has failed, and you no longer feel able to carry on, I would like to encourage you with the words of the Psalmist. That if you cry out for mercy, if you weep over your sin before God, He will hear your cry and your prayers will be accepted before God.
Then I would encourage you further with a reminder of what the redemptive power of Jesus does in the life of all who trust Him.
II Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
Christ came to reconcile the world to Himself, not to shut out those that know they are broken. When your resolve fails, cry out to God, and let Jesus begin anew the work of reconciliation in you.