by Jon Atkins
Ah…January 1, that magical time of year when we look back at the previous year that was and then set our sights on what we want to accomplish in the year to come. I’ve never been good at “New Year’s Resolutions.” Sure I have made some in the past and even done well at keeping some of them for a week or two. But my track record speaks for itself. I start off well but then very quickly fall off the wagon. What is it about the new year than prompts us to set goals? Why is it we always have to wait for that magical 1-1-XX date to start new? Many of us will make similar choices about diet, exercise, Bible study, and finances to name a few.
So here is my question for all of us “goal-setters.” What is your motivation? I mean what is the driving force behind what you are setting out to accomplish? Motivation and desire are powerful things. We can have good reason to want to change. For example, I have had to make some pretty drastic decisions in the area of diet due to my history of heart issues. Is wanting to be healthy a bad desire? Is it ok to want to change so that I can be around longer for my wife? Certainly these things are good reasons to be motivated, but are they what is best?
An Issue of the Heart
“From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” – John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”
“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” – Tim Keller, “Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promise of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters”
Honestly for most of us our resolutions are very pragmatic. I want to be _____. Therefore, if I do _____ and _____ , then I will achieve _____. Our motivation and desire for change becomes boiled down to a math formula. The key to success and change is to just be a better you. Do better. Try harder. Work at it. Join the gym. Do a soda fast. Be in bed by 9pm. Read the Bible at least 30 minutes a day. Do. Do. Do. No wonder after two weeks and a lot of good effort we feel so burned out. We have tried to accomplish all these things only to fail. Now what? What happens when the resolutions don’t work out? Depression, failure, anxiety, hopelessness and despair often accompany our failed efforts. Paul addresses this is Philippians 3.
The Problem: Effort Isn’t Enough
“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Paul was a man among boys. By any society’s standards, he had it together. As he testifies of his upbringing you cannot help but notice all that he had done. He was at the pinnacle of life. Who among us is blameless under the law? Who among us knew the Pentateuch from memory? I mean can you picture the modern day equivalent? Graduated high school at 16. Got into Harvard and graduated top of the class at 20. Got married at 21. Nailed a six figure income at 22. Retired millionaire at 40. I mean there you have it. Hard work, discipline, and a whole lot of effort earned Paul his success. And sadly for many of us in this generation we fall into the same pit thinking that somehow hard work, discipline, and a whole lot of effort will bring about change and success this year. Effort alone will always leave you wanting more.
The Solution: The Gospel
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
As we continue in Philippians 3 we see that there was something underneath Paul’s idea of success. There was a driving force that was motivating Paul to continually pursue change and it was not his upbringing. Notice the gospel words that Paul uses in this passage. He speaks of wanting to know of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are gospel words. These are words Paul uses to get our attention back on the cross of Christ where Jesus suffered and died in our place for our sins. Where Jesus rose victoriously bringing life and victory to all those who God promised to save (Ephesians 1). Our motivation must be that we desire to pursue Jesus and glorify God. In fact Paul states that all of his accomplishments are “rubbish” or “crap” without an understanding of the Person and work of Jesus. The point Paul is making is that all of his previous accomplishment and success is worthless compared to knowing Jesus. Every effort is in vain if the gospel of Jesus and the glory of God are not the ultimate pursuits. This is what drives Paul not just to know the gospel but to constantly pursue it.
The Ultimate Resolution: Pursue Jesus & Glorify God
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The prize that Paul was pursuing wasn’t physical change, financial stability, or more popularity. In fact the prize Paul speaks of isn’t even heaven, golden streets, and a mansion in the sky. Paul’s prize was Christ. That was what he longed for. More of Jesus. More of the gospel. More of the glory of God. This was his all-consuming treasure.
“If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?” – John Piper, “God is the Gospel” pp.15
“The saving events and all the saving blessings of the gospel are means of getting obstacles [like our sin and God’s wrath] out of the way so that we might know and enjoy God most fully. Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven – none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him. If we believe all these things have happened to us, but do not embrace them for the sake of getting to God, they have not happened to us. Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.” – John Piper, “God is the Gospel” pp.47
I want to be healthy and in shape so people will notice. I want to live a long life and enjoy my wife. I long to be financially secure and not have to worry about money so I have more “play” money. What if that was the desire for change stopped? The only real motivation for change MUST be rooted in:
1. The gospel of Jesus
2. The glory of God
So let me tackle these resolutions through those two filters.
I want to healthy and get in shape because in my current state my unhealthy lifestyle is not glorifying to God. I have not taken care of my physical body in such a way that pleases God. My temple (1 Corinthians 6) is worn down, much due to my own effort. God has entrusted this physical body to me in order that I may serve Him with it.
I want to live a long life and enjoy my wife. Marriage is a picture of the gospel. I want my marriage to communicate the truth of the cross because in doing so it brings God glory and is a testimony of the transforming work of the gospel.
I long for financial freedom not so I can spend money on whatever I want but because it would allow me to give more to the cause of the gospel. God has provided for my needs and therefore anything in excess can be best used for the Kingdom by serving others. Providing for the body of Christ is something that we do as a response to what God has given us. We are blessed beyond comprehension. And we have been given much so that we may serve well.
So let’s do our pilates, give up the smoking, and drop the pounds, all while remembering that Jesus is the ultimate pursuit. And when we fall off the wagon remember that our identity is not found in our accomplishments but in the accomplishments of Jesus. In fact, all of Ephesians 1 is dedicated to what our real identity is as a Christian. I can’t think of a better way to start 2013 then pursuing the gospel and the glory of God above all else. And in doing so I can be confident in this. Though my own efforts are futile and often lead to frustration, the power of the Gospel enables me and empowers me for change. Through the gospel at work in me today, by God’s grace, I can pursue Him and His glory. That truth is available to you as well. Now that is what I call good news!
(Written by Jonathan Atkins)