I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the New Year is fast upon us. Like, I think it arrives sometime on the weekend, which, if you’ve decided to lose ten pounds and read hundreds of books, you probably need to scrap your plans for today and get cracking. Looking at my own scale just now, it appears that I need to go on one of those unhealthy starvation situations to lose all my covid weight. But you know what? I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to cut myself another slice of gingerbread and complain about other people in my usual way.
But first of all, here is the podcast I did with Melanie about making Resolutions. It was a pretty fun conversation. We thought it was going to be light and fluffy, but ended up getting into some deeper waters. Hopefully, it will be just the thing as you begin examining yourself for the year to come.
Which is really what I want to talk about. Matt intruded upon my quiet early morning internet scrolling with a very well-meaning and, I would say, well-argued piece. The author–a better Christian than I will ever be–urges his readers to resolve in the coming year to grow in godliness. He begins this way:
As I have written before (and here), I have been working through Jerry Bridges’ book “The Practice of Godliness.”This thought provoking volume has caused me to ask the question recently “how do I intend to grow in godliness in 2022?” Below is the quote that caused me to start asking the question. “So there is a sense in which we are growing in our character every day. The question is, In which direction are we growing? Are we growing toward godly character or ungodly character?” “The Practice of Godliness” by Jerry Bridges
This, I think, is an excellent self-reflective question. Which direction am I going? What are my inclinations? Could anyone tell that I am a Christian not just by the manner of my life, but by my growth over time? He goes on:
This quote appears in a section where Bridges makes the point that developing godly character is a progression. You must “train yourself for godliness” as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7. In other words, godly character is not going to just “happen” to you. You aren’t going to wake up one morning in perfect imitation of Christ. Godliness takes effort. The word “train” should make you think of an Olympic athlete. An individual does not magically compete at the Olympic level. It requires training. Work. Commitment. Dedication. In commanding Timothy to train himself unto godliness, Paul is calling Timothy to work and to put forth consistent effort. [Emphasis his]
Paul uses the imagery of racing competitions far too often for my own taste (that’s a little joke), but I am ok with them as long as I never actually have to run anywhere. And, for real, I am not going to argue that a Christian should not do what Paul commands to “train yourself for godliness.” It’s in the Bible, so, we are all on the same page. But I do think I immediately begin to have, what shall I call them, quibbles with the way this is going. The first is that–and I don’t think many of us believe it because it’s too unfathomable–we will wake up one morning in the perfect imitation of Christ. And that is at the sleep of death. The Chrisitan dies and wakes up in the longed-for consolation of holiness–God’s own holiness. I don’t think this eventual reality should be forgotten, because when a Christian stops to look at what is coming, the Christian is lifted out of the morass of discouragement and despondency. Or maybe I mean slough. Can’t remember.
Second, the life of being a Christian does take effort, of course. But it takes a different kind of effort than any other earthly pursuit. And this is where I dare to disagree with people like Jonathan Edwards and pietism in general. It’s not the same kind of work. In fact, it is the opposite kind of work, which is why it is so hard. Let’s skip forward a few paragraphs to see what I mean:
There is no neutral territory when it comes to godliness. Today, you will either grow in godliness or in ungodliness. The same will be true of tomorrow, the next day, and every single day in 2022 and every year after that. For the Christian, there is no “middle ground” between godly character and ungodly character. The actions you do, the things your heart values, and the thoughts you have on any given day are either in accordance with God’s revealed character or they are not. Therefore, it makes sense to conclude that whatever you find yourself habitually doing, thinking, and feeling indicates whether you are becoming a more or less godly person. This has enormous implications. If Bridges’ point is true, then every day where you feel like you have not grown in godliness is a day you regressed. There are no “rest days” in your pursuit of godliness. If you resolve to work out more consistently in 2022, you can take rest days and still achieve your goal. But if you want to grow in godliness, you must commit every day to the pursuit of it. [Emphasis his]
I think the author, and many Americans in general, muddle too many categories together in likewise fashion. It is true that nothing is neutral–there are a thousand seemingly small decisions that end up bearing fruit one way or another. If you begin to criticize someone with your mind, eventually the criticism will sink into the heart, and it will be the thing that comes out of your mouth even when you’re no longer thinking about it. You end up in a sort of heart/mind/will feedback loop that the Apostle James likens to a raging fire. It’s very bad, and it begins with small, unconsidered, but nevertheless extremely important decisions that turn into habits. The word we’re all looking for is “sin” which is definitely not “in accordance with God’s revealed character.” Likewise, it’s possible to make a decision–a small one–that turns out to be good over the long run. I could decide to say yes to the emotional needs of my child in a small way, and the muscle will grow, and I will keep saying yes, and eventually I will be able to deliver up the soul of my child to God as I am commanded to.
But here’s the kicker, and what is not accounted for in articles like this. How do I do that? By trying harder? By examining myself more? I would argue not. Trying harder is the problem. Endlessly striving is not the means by which Christians become holy. On the contrary, it is by making every day into a rest day–by flinging yourself endlessly back on the work of Christ–through trust in the power of God to make you holy that you become holy. You can’t take the world’s “try harder” as the way that you grow in godliness. It is only by giving up–constantly giving up–and radically depending on the holiness of Christ that you can become more holy.
Of course, self-examination plays a part. You are supposed to look at yourself honestly and admit that you are sinning in particular ways. But then what do you do? Try harder to stop sinning? No, you confess your sin, and God who is faithful and just will cleanse you from all unrighteousness. You say to Jesus that you are sorry and ask him, again and again, for help. You do that–and here is the part I feel is so important–you stop thinking about yourself. You just go on with your day without obsessing about yourself and your own sin or holiness. You take a big rest from yourself by putting yourself in Jesus’ hands and getting on with the real work of your life–like actual work. Planting your vineyard, building the wall around your vineyard, fortifying your watchtower, watering the olive shoots around your dinner table, earning money so that nobody starves to death.
Just one more bit before I rush into the day. The writer concludes with this advice:
This is where the “rubber meets the road”, so to speak. If you want to commit to grow in godliness in 2022, you are going to have to commit to daily, honest, self-reflection. You are going to have to take stock of what you did, what you felt, and what you thought. For most people, that means taking some time in the morning or before bed to get out a journal and prayerfully ask the Lord to help you see your day through His eyes. Then, you can examine ways you made spiritual progress, things you need to repent of, and ways you can improve tomorrow. [Emphasis his]
Speaking as an Anglican, I would say that concentrating on how you can “improve tomorrow” will actually inhibit the kind of growth you’re longing for. Rather than journaling about your faults and sins and trying to see anything through the eyes of God–which you cannot do no matter how hard you try–you should take up a spiritually externalized discipline that lifts you out of yourself, something like praying the daily office. You can click on the link and by yourself or with your family or your church on zoom, you read the scriptures and then pray. And then, you go on with your day and don’t think about yourself anymore.
This blog is brought to you in part by the fact that I’m reading another Christopher Lasch book. This time it’s Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. It is a great great book, chiefly because he’s saying out loud what I have been quietly thinking to myself–that everyone is enmired in personal and corporate narcissism. This is a grave problem, one that makes even Christians more and more unhappy, not less so. The way out is not to try to baptize self-consideration. Nor to take to oneself the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Christian above all people has access to the greatest gift given by God–to lose track of oneself in the worship of a holy and merciful God.
Have a nice day! I’m off to write up my resolutions for 2022!