“New Year, new you.” Yeah, right. Now, this is not to say that change and growth is impossible. But in the land of resolutions and self-help programs, so many people believe the lie that they can fix their lives with some determination and good old-fashioned elbow grease. To be sure, they might lose some weight or watch less TV, even quit smoking or drinking. These can all be good things. But they’re not enough. The promise of a self-accomplished life-perfection never quite reaches fruition. Along comes another goal, another crisis to fix, another milestone. There’s growth, but the void remains.
This problem might sound like it belongs solely to non-Christians, but the reality is that most Christians, myself included, engage in this kind of thinking and behavior all the time. We think if we can just conquer that one pesky sin, then we’ll be “okay.” We use our New Years resolutions for quiet -time commitments or promises to stop lying or to love our parents better. Again, these are worthy pursuits. But even if we succeed, we still don’t feel perfectly loved and appreciated like we thought we would. It’s not enough. The puzzle won’t fit together; the bricks won’t fall into place. Because we’re putting personal growth in the place of salvation. Though the two realms are connected, they are not the same thing. Free grace comes through Christ’s work, not through ours.
So what do we really want? If we want holiness for God’s sake, then practicing discipline and working to mortify our sin is important, and if God chooses to grant growth, jolly good. If not, we won’t be devastated because we can be confident in our salvation through Christ alone, not through progress. As Tim Keller says, we “don’t obey God to get things. (We) obey God to get God.”*
But if we want holiness for a feeling’s sake, then battling sin is a cover-up for the much deeper war of self-salvation. This pursuit only brings loneliness and shame. If one sin is subdued, another pops up, and we keep buying into the lie that we can only approach the throne once that mess is cleaned up. In this cycle, success is never enough, and failure is devastating. In this cycle, we can never be new.
This cycle isn’t just ineffective: it’s completely dishonoring to God. Instead of responding in worship to a loving Father, we treat Him like a vending machine, putting in what we think is enough to get out exactly what we want. When we don’t get it, we feel betrayed, abandoned, angry. Because we didn’t want God: we wanted His stuff. And that’s not how it works. If “my best life now” or “becoming a better me” is all we’re after, then we’re going to be sorely disappointed.*
Only in Christ can we be truly transformed. Only by dying can we be made new. Christ’s sacrifice pays the penalty for our sin and makes us free, and His daily work in us gives us more than just a cleaner mouth or a purer browser history: it makes us more holy, and brings us closer to the Father.
The call to us in the New Year as well as on every day is not to resolve to be better. It is to repent and believe; to turn our back on our deepest sins of idolatry, self-salvation, pride, etc., and believe in the perfect salvation of Jesus Christ, who does love us and who does fill the void.
That’s my very long-winded way of saying that I don’t expect this trip to “fix” me or my problems. I don’t expect a “new me.” When I come back, I’ll be the same man, with doubts, addictions, pet sins, and a rebellious heart. But if God deems it necessary and right for me, I’ll come back a little wiser, a little braver, a little more confident, even a little holier. But I will not be more loved than I already am, no matter how much growth I experience. Far be it from me to assume that I can earn and increase what is already free and infinite.
* If you want to see where I got all these ideas and insights (they’re certainly not just from me) then you should read “The Prodigal God” and “Counterfeit Gods” by Tim Keller. You should also listen to this discussion from The White Horse Inn. If that doesn’t work, go ahead and subscribe to their podcast and look for “The Gospel of Pragmatism.” Most importantly, go to the Bible. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 10 (esp. vv. 14-22); Philipians 1 (and the rest of it); and John 3 have helped me.