Once again we are celebrating the beginning of a new year. And once again, most of us will be making some sort of resolution concerning how we will live during these next twelve months. And once again, most of us will be no better off come March than we were this past November.
As I write this note, I am sitting in my office. It is Friday, December 18th – Kerrie, the kids, one of their friends and I will be leaving for Minnesota first thing tomorrow morning. The seven of us will have quite a road trip! And it will be measured in miles traveled, towns and cities passed, state lines crossed… In some ways, our journey through life is like that. We are born, we go to school, we begin careers, take new jobs, some of us marry, some have kids, we retire, and ultimately we die. And through it all we tend to look forward with either anticipation or dread to what comes next! Humanity is a very forward looking species.
When it comes to our inner, personal lives, I think we have the same tendencies. When we acknowledge that we could be improved in some way, we tend to seek methods for improvement. “Self-Help” is a billion dollar industry! I have read a number of self-help books. Perhaps you have too. And in my reflecting on this literature, I believe that one of the reasons that so few people are actually helped by these types of books is that they all seem to have as a foundational premise the idea that you and I are good people who simply need to commit ourselves to better habits. And this basically good person is merely passing through different towns and states on the journey of life. Where we have been – and even who we are, is not nearly as important as where we are going. We can reinvent ourselves and get to a new destination and presto – all is well!
While there is some truth in this perspective, it is not sufficiently biblical to sustain a healthy and growing Christian life. The problem with seeking self-improvement through a forward-looking resolution is well described by one of my favorite, hymnists, preachers, and theologians of the turn of the last century – the Presbyterian evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman. One-hundred years ago, Chapman put it this way:
“A man told me yesterday that he expected to reform. Very well, reform and you will touch yourself and your present, but you won’t touch your past sin. You may resolve to be better from today, but your resolution does not touch yesterday. Reformation fails, resolution is powerless, sin… demands repentance and atonement.”
If the sermon in which Chapman said this were in print today I would encourage you to read it entirely! But this brief quote gets at the heart of his sermon: Jesus does not call us to reform ourselves. Jesus does not call us to make resolutions to improve ourselves. The one word summary of Jesus’ preaching, in all of the gospels, is “repent.” The foundational premise of Jesus’ teaching ministry, and of both the Old and New Testaments generally, is that we are deeply broken people, indelibly marked by sin, and in fact unable through our own volition to actually improve ourselves. This is why Jesus again and again and again calls us to repent if we would experience newness in our lives.
At my parent’s old house in Columbia, Maryland, there is a long garden bed that runs along the front of the house. For years, despite the most thorough weeding I could manage, poison ivy would invade the pachysandra that my mother wanted to grow there. I made many spring-time resolutions to pull up every last bit of poison ivy, and to replant with more pachysandra. Even as an adult, when we visited I would break out the work gloves and attack that garden bed with the best of intentions. Short term gains were always enjoyed. But by Fall the poison ivy was back with a vengeance. One summer the entire bed had to be dug out to repair the house’s foundation. The soil was searched for even the smallest segment of poison ivy root. The pachysandra had to be replanted. For those who did the work, it was pains-taking and back-breaking! This is not unlike the work that must be done in our lives. Repentance always involves a deep and penetrating disturbance of the status quos in which we live our lives. Repentance involves a searching examination not only of actions, but also of values, priorities, desires, habits, motives… Repentance demands that you actively identify areas of your life in which you do not simply need to resolve to “do better” but in which you need to “stop sinning.”
Repentance is what Jesus calls you to. In the first of his famous Ninety-five Theses, the great preacher and theologian Martin Luther sparked one of the greatest revivals in Western history with the statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
This year, try something different. Instead of merely resolving to do some new good thing, focus on repenting of some past and present sin. God forbid that you cannot think of one. And experience the new life that can come from forgiveness instead of condemning yourself to even more guilt and frustration for once again failing to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and being a better version of an already awesome you. Do not merely resolve to leave your current state behind and get to the next mile marker or town on the road trip of life, but repent of where you have been and where you are. Only then, with forgiveness in hand, step out in a new direction by faith.