Pre-Atonement Projects

You know your blog has lost steam and substance when posts only appear in conjunction with the calendar (Christmas and New Year’s, for instance).  Perhaps I’ve officially joined the ranks of the periodic drive-by commentator pounding out shallow remarks about contemporary events, complete with the obligatory pre-post apologies.  At least I’m just in time for a New Year’s resolution.

For several reasons, I’ve thought about endings and beginnings a lot over the past few years.  I serve in a semester-by-semester ministry which invites constant back-end evaluation and front-end vision; I’ve had many close friends leave the TMC ministry and many new friends join it; and I’ve personally thought often about regrets and goals and transitions.

I’ve learned that resolutions can be very helpful, but are also quite dangerous.  And as with everything in life and religion, it’s the nature of the thing that’s essential.

On the dangerous side, beginning-of-the-year resolutions tend to be motivated significantly by guilt and regret.  We’re not simply taking a memoriless look forward, gazing guiltlessly at the dawn of a new year and eagerly anticipating all the wonderful things that might be.  There’s a deep night before every dawn, and this is often true with our resolutions.

This means that when we decide to make concrete changes, we’re often a few steps down the road of sin > guilt > shame > regret, and looking for a good way to cover our tracks.  It might be low-level guilt over things like keeping a dirty desk or being habitually late to appointments, the kind of quasi-guilt that plays like soft background music in the mind.  It might be medium-grade shame over a temper that’s come out more often that we’d like in the past year.  Or it might be an overpowering sense of guilt and helplessness pounding in the conscience because of a voluntary enslavement to pornography or an inescapable self-awareness about our body-image.

Whatever the level of guilt or the significance of the resolution, New Year’s resolutions are often plans for success driven by memories of failure.

The problem is that the next step on the sin > guilt > shame > regret trajectory is atonement.  Somehow, some way, we must resolve the problem of guilt.  Whether we view it as a problem to be solved, a conflict to be reconciled, a habit to be transformed, an embarrassment to be covered, or a regret to be reversed, we know that what’s wrong needs to be made right.  We need atonement.

But not only do we sense the need to make up for our past; we also know ourselves well enough to sense that the future may not be too different.  What has been is often what will be.  Which means that we can see ourselves drifting toward the path of sin > guilt > shame > regret even as we strive to pull ourselves in better directions.  We know that old habits die hard, and that though the spirit may be willing, the flesh will always be weak.  What New Year’s resolver doesn’t already sense the fear of failure?

This is where resolutions all too easily become (or begin as) pre-atonement projects.  We begin attempting not just to atone for our past, but to pre-atone for our future.  In the same way that resolutions can easily be so many payments against the debt we’ve built up in days gone by, they can also serve as strategic moral investments against the debt we know we’ll incur in the days to come.  So we turn potentially good and humble resolves into a self-focused mission to pre-pay for sin and to preempt regret.

The fact is, there will come a day, whether it surprises us (like Christ’s coming or an unexpected death) or arrives predictably (like a slow, timetabled passing), when we will all stand before God seated high up on His throne of judgment.  And on that day all of our self-perceived merit and our well-developed habits and our yearly resolutions will melt in the light of His holy presence.  This is not to say that our grace-motivated, Spirit-driven pursuit of righteousness is unimportant in this life.  Only to say that that pursuit is not what I want to be standing on at the judgment.

Of course, there are many wonderful strengths and benefits to godly resolutions.  They are a valid response to God’s wonderful mercies that can direct our focus, channel our energy, and help us refine and renew our priorities.  It’s no more noble to wallow in selfish, fleshly habits than to pursue self-atoning, flesh-powered resolutions.

So do I make resolutions or not?  (And now I’m not talking about New Year’s, but about the life of faith.)

Satan seems to have at least three major ways of tempting us as we answer this question.  On the one hand, he wants us to be overly simplistic and even fatalistic about our priorities and habits so that we feel either enslaved or invincible, but either way blind to the labrynthal nature of the human heart.  On the other hand, he would be equally happy for us to be mentally entangled in an overdone sense of complexity, thinking that our success or failure lies in the precision of our spiritual algorithms rather than the deep simplicity of our connection with Christ the vine.  To resolve nothing out of foolish simplicity or to make endless lists out of self-trusting resolve are both good-looking options to the father of lies.

Then there’s an equally dangerous middle path, the one I find myself so often walking, where we eschew complexity and look with suspicion upon simplicity and assume that we can find victory in the decisionless middle.  Here we resolve to only resolve perfectly — with perfect motivations, flawless intentions, unquestionable methods, appropriate balance, and absolute follow-through — and when we cannot, we end up looking with self-righteous condescension upon the masses who are foolish enough to resolve or apathetic enough not to.

So tonight, as the clock strikes midnight in a quiet study in Oklahoma and the first decade of the millennium slips away, I find myself looking to the one who perfectly lived out all the complexities of God’s law with the simplest love of a Son for His Father, one who resolved in the power of the Spirit to do only the will of the One who sent Him, and one who kept all His resolutions to the very end even though it took sweating blood and stiffarming legions of angels to do it.  I look to His resolve, to His obedience, and ultimately to the depth and power of His love.  In Him I find forgiveness for the sinful resolves still fighting to reign in my heart, and in Him I find power to fulfill the righteous resolves that He has created within me.

And so, fixing my eyes on Him, I resolve that this year, as in every year, He is worthy of my faith, my hope, my love, and my worship.  You might object that the last sentence is more adoration than resolution.  That’s because I believe that He wants the first to precede, and then to empower, the second.  Resolve means nothing without adoration, and adoration cannot help but fuel our resolve.  May it be so this year for all of God’s children, and for all who will soon be called by His name.

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