I’m skeptical of New Year's resolutions. Why? Because some days I don’t like being dependent on God, and a system of reform is an easy way back to self-sufficiency.
Depending on someone else is often painful. This is probably because I lived most of my life dependent on my own ability to be good in a world that celebrates self-sufficiency. Even as I came to faith in Christ, I relished the ways I learned to be good and not so needy. I loved the feeling that I had all I needed to achieve godliness within myself. It was reassuring, comforting, and safe. Well, those days are long gone.
The presence of God is like paint thinner, removing the layers of color I’ve happily applied over the years to make sure my inner sinner is concealed. Now all that remains is a broken heart that cannot beat without the life-support of Jesus and His Spirit in me.
The Miracle of Neediness
This is a miracle! I am the hard-hearted, self-deceived, and self-reliant Pharisee who walked into the temple thanking God for all the ways He has helped me be holy. I walked out the hopeless tax collector crying, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”
What feels backward to my flesh is actually forward for my soul! God delights in a broken heart and contrite spirit, and these are the precious gifts He has given me. And in moments of clarity I beg Him with all my heart never to take them away.
But some days I look back on those days of confident self-sufficiency with envy. It is for this reason I am skeptical of New Year's resolutions. They beckon me like the song of the sirens to leave my state of neediness and join them on the deadly island of control. A life I can manage through careful planning and structure seems like a dream! But God knows it would be the death of my soul . . . and so I cling to Jesus.
Before you start imagining that I spend my days as a weepy mess surrounded by chaos (which don’t get me wrong, I have those days!), let me clarify: I plan my weeks, I work out four to five days a week, and have a Bible-reading plan. Structure, goals, and purpose are good! They are graces in my life that keep me running in the direction of obedience to Jesus. Aimlessness is never a good thing.
But. But . . . I am keenly aware that I have a tendency to trust these outward goals to fix my inward poverty. And they can do no such thing. Because at the end of the day, my main problem is a sin problem. And at the end of the day, only one thing can solve my sin problem: a Savior.
Maybe you have this propensity, too. Maybe we all do. I think it is for this reason that Paul cautioned the church in Colossae to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).
Paul saw a real threat to these believers in things that “have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23). He was concerned they would choose outward reformation over inward transformation.
So in a season of resolutions, where self-made religious activity and the practice of faithless self-denial are prevalent, how can we see to it that we are not captured? Paul’s words in Colossians 2 give us the answer.
Aim at the Substance, Not the Shadow
After his opening warning in verse eight, he proceeds to use the phrases “in Him” or “with Him” six times. What is he getting at here?
In Him we have been made complete (v. 10).
In Him we were circumcised (v. 11).
With Him we are buried in baptism (v. 12).
With Him we are made alive (v. 13).
All we could ever need for the rest of our lives is found in the very person of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are united with Jesus and already have what any resolution would aim to give us: life, fullness, and godliness. They are already ours!
“Therefore,” Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 16).
Often, resolutions can set our hearts on the shadow, the physical goals. But the substance of these things is Jesus! And if you are a Christian, you already have Him. Let all reforming in 2017 be aimed at clinging to the Substance, not the shadows.
Trust Your Savior, Not Your System
So we have Jesus. That’s great and all, but what does that mean practically? We cannot see, touch, or hear Jesus, so what does it mean in our daily lives to embrace this union?
In verse 20, Paul explains: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?”
Let me summarize: If you are with Christ, you have died to this world and its ways. So why do you submit to the ways of this world and its systems as if you are still in it?
Personally, my answer to his question would be because systems seem so predictable and effective! Don’t eat carbs, lose weight. Don’t touch your phone til 10 a.m., get more done. They put the control of my transformation in my hands and like I said before, that lure toward control is a strong temptation for me. While these human precepts have value and can be helpful, they cannot deal with our sin. Often these systems of self-reformation only mask the deeper problem.
No, we don’t need a system of reformation, because we have already been reformed! Paul reminds us that though we were dead in our sin, God made us alive with Christ, “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (vv. 13–15).
We don’t need a system to be triumphant in 2017. We have a Savior who was and is and will be triumphant. He is our victory! He is our success! No matter how hopeful you feel in January or how despairing you feel in June, trust your Savior, not a system.
Jesus saw through the world’s flawed definition of success and modeled a different way: one of dependency (John 5:19, 30), servanthood (Matt. 20:25–28), and death (Matt. 16:21–23). So don’t be disappointed if you find yourself a more needy, broken, lowly person in December. In God’s economy, these are the marks of true spiritual maturity. Let us see the victory in how God is pruning away self-sufficiency and growing faith in Christ in its place.
Whatever your goals are for this year, know that God’s goal will ultimately triumph: to conform us into the image of His Son. And gratefully, we can trust that He who began this good work in us will bring it to completion. Hallelujah!