Have you broken your New Year's resolutions yet?
I'm admittedly cynical about making lists of goals because I've seen so many people try this and fail. Year after year, I see my gym fill to capacity during the first week of January, then empty out before the end of the month. I've noticed the same pattern at my church. There are plenty of people who attend a service or two, and they seem enthusiastic to get closer to God and develop relationships with other Christians. Yet they don't come back.
I used to think people—including me—broke resolutions because we weren't truly committed to our goals. Then I noticed that I've often failed at things I deeply wanted to achieve. For instance, I've long held the goal of spending quality, daily time with God. While my devotional time is sometimes wonderful, warm, and intimate, there are many days when my mind wanders. My prayers are interrupted by thoughts such as, We're out of milk—need to buy some today …. And what are we having for dinner? … Ugh, do I have any clean underpants to wear to the grocery store? I end up repeatedly apologizing to God for the lack of quality in our time together.', 'Setting spiritual goals can be tremendously frustrating. I often hear Christian friends express defeat: "How can I be like Jesus when I'm so not like Jesus?" "How am I supposed to love my enemies when I don't even love my best friends consistently?" "Love AND joy, peace AND patience? As if. My best day is one I can get through without having a bad attitude!"
Here are a few mistakes I've made in striving for spiritual growth:
1) Trying to achieve spiritual goals solely as an individual. One definition of "resolution" is an "expression of consensus"—a group decides to uphold a decision or standard. The Christian church has many such resolutions: We resolve to work together and bring the Gospel to the world, to worship God together, and to grow spiritually together as the body of Christ.
Yet many of us instead focus on do-it-yourself personal improvement. Why don't we ask other Christians to support our own spiritual goals? Perhaps we're ashamed of our weaknesses, or perhaps we're convinced that going it alone helps us rely on God. While we do need to spend time alone with God, we equally need the accountability and spiritual gifts of other Christians for spiritual growth.
When I began losing the sight in my left eye a couple years ago, I initially didn't tell anyone at church. I figured God wanted me to learn to trust and rely on him more. My vision got worse, to the point that reading was extremely difficult and I couldn't drive at night. I broke down one Sunday morning and told two friends about my pain. They immediately prayed for healing—something I never would have prayed for myself. When my eyesight did return a few weeks later, I realized God had illustrated how much I need other Christians: I needed encouragement from my friends, and their faith and prayers.
2) Missing the lessons of failure. Earlier this month, German billionaire Adolf Merckle took his life by lying on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. He'd made some financial decisions that resulted in the downfall of the business empire he'd spent his life building. Still, his suicide baffled many because Merckle, an evangelical Christian, wasn't one to be fazed by the loss of money. He was a man of modest means who lived in a flat rather than a mansion, he didn't have bodyguards or even a security camera, and he bicycled to work every day. Rather, The Telegraph reported, Merckle's loved ones "blame his demise on a complex combination of pride, guilt over what he saw as failing his family, and, perhaps most importantly, loss of control."
We've all experienced those devastating lows that come from personal failings. Failure is especially jarring when we're trying to do the right thing. Some years ago, a pastor friend saw one of her ministry projects fail. It's one of her most painful memories, but in retrospect, she's glad that God let her plans crumble. She realized that she'd been focused on attaining her own goals rather than on letting God shape her and her ministry. The loss taught her to put God's will before good intentions.
The apostle Paul recognized that one of his personal struggles was spiritually helpful: He said it kept him from becoming conceited. And while Paul initially asked God to take away this "thorn in the flesh"—he reasoned that the problem hampered his ministry efforts—God's reply was, "?My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perhaps we need our own thorn to keep us from prideful self-sufficiency.
Another friend recently expressed frustration that she's still grappling with the same issues she's surrendered to God a zillion times. It's tough when God asks us to grow in an area where we've already done so much painful work. But failure is key to spiritual growth: When we fail, we run to God in acknowledgement that we need his strength and mercy.
3) Not striving for the highest moral standard. My small group leader posed the question, "What would the perfect Christian look like?" After arguing extensively that no Christian can be perfect, I finally got his point: We need to prepare for the day when we'll live and rule in God's kingdom.
Too often, we get frustrated that we can't keep God's laws, and so we give up trying. Or, we set minimal goals, patting ourselves on the back when we refrain from cursing out loud, or when we're civil to someone we can't stand. Such minimal goals are inadequate preparation for meeting our Creator.
Or, we attempt to be good because we think God's top priority for us is moral excellence. Here's the shocker: Our No. 1 goal isn't to reach moral perfection—it's to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5, Mark 12:28-33). With this in mind, we should strive for the highest moral standard because our efforts (and failings) teach us that sin is low, ugly, stupid, and futile. In other words, we're learning to hate sin (to hate everything that's in opposition to God), and thus, to love God.
4) Not setting specific spiritual goals. In his article "Radical Discipleship," Doug Newton suggests that the church must become more specific in its resolve for spiritual excellence. He asserts that merely rattling off the fruit of the Spirit doesn't cut it: "Every other world religion and philosophy prizes and advocates most, if not all, of those traits. What New Ager is not hanging a crystal or two to draw more love in and out of his life? What Eastern yoga practitioner is not bending and breathing her way toward inner peace? People as diverse as Dr. Phil and the local imam probably talk as much about the virtues of patience or self-control as Dr. Dobson and the local pastor." Newton continues: "As long as the church is calling people to nothing more than those generic traits, her people will become only about as Christian as the local cashier who's reading the latest Stephen Covey self-improvement best seller."
I'm currently writing up my own long-term spiritual resolutions as I ponder the question, "What would the perfect Christian look like?" Want some inspiration for resolutions of your own? Check out the 70 resolutions of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards.
What are some mistakes you've made in setting goals for spiritual growth? What are some specific goals you have?
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