Mental health/illness from God’s point of view (pt 1)

Having a Sound Mind

Does Scripture offer any positive, practical help in the massive problem of mental illness that’s plaguing so many people today? Is God concerned about mental health and mental illness too?

Yes, he is. In the old King James Version of 2 Timothy 1:7, mental health is top priority on the Holy Spirit’s agenda, “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It is God’s clear desire that we humans have healthy, sound minds.

For ‘sound mind’ Paul uses the Greek word that means curbing one’s desires and impulses, doing all things in moderation, and being modest and discreet. It’s a mind, in other words, that’s under control. Other Bible translations use the English words ‘sensible’ and ‘self-disciplined’.

An example would be 1 Timothy 3:2, in the qualities looked for in a church leader. Taking words and phrases from several Bible translations for this verse it sounds like this: “A leader must have impeccable character, a blameless reputation, and be well thought of. He must be fair, wise, dignified, skillful in judgment, cool-calm-and-collected, shrewd in the management of his affairs, respectful, courteous and welcoming. He’s kind and thoughtful, not hurtful, hot-tempered or quarrelsome, and he never acts rashly, hastily, or foolishly.” And in verse 11, “No exceptions are made for women either – same qualifications, serious, dependable, worthy of respect, and not malicious gossips. They are discreet and can be thoroughly trusted” (The Message).

That’s a lot to consider, but Paul boils it down in Titus 1:8 to “having a good grip on oneself” (The Message). A healthy mind, simply put, isn’t ruled by, or even motivated by, emotion. Runaway emotions, by comparison, are a classic sign of a mind that’s jumped the rails.

Does that mean, then, that Christians should be totally sane at all times, and be totally free from nervous breakdowns or any other mental illnesses?

That’s not what Paul is saying, because all sorts of mental illnesses can be traced back to physical causes, like inherited weaknesses, prenatal damage, brain injuries, infections, accidents, impaired brain chemistry, alcohol and drug abuse, poor nutrition, exposure to environmental toxins (like mercury and lead), and physical abuse and injury caused by other people (like sexual abuse during childhood), all of which can affect a person’s mental state for life, and cause all sorts of mental problems, no matter how ‘Christian’ a person is.

But in answer to all that, Paul says, “Don’t panic, help is available,” and it’s help from a very powerful source too, the Holy Spirit. And what the Spirit has to offer is self-mastery, no matter how handicapped we are by our weaknesses.

Self-mastery is a marvelous gift, because, as one quote states: “God-given discipline (or self-mastery, or having a good grip on oneself) allows people to control every element of their lives, whether positive or negative. It allows them to experience success without becoming proud, and to suffer failure without becoming bitter or hopeless.” Our emotions, in other words, including the dreadful ogre of discouragement, don’t have to blow us to pieces, or lead us around by the nose.

But in saying the Holy Spirit is the source of such control, Paul is also saying that self-mastery over our emotions does not come naturally. We’re not born with self-mastery. It can’t be inherited, or learned in a classroom, or honed by experience. But not to worry, Paul says, we’ve all got access to the God-given gift of a sound mind to stop us becoming loose cannons emotionally, no matter what our circumstances or personality. It’s all part of the Father “blessing us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

But if it’s all Spirit-given, does that mean we cannot help ourselves?

Paul touched on that in Romans 7 and 8. In Romans 7 he talks very candidly about his own state of mind. He wanted to be a good person, like so many people today who have high morals, work hard, raise funds for needy causes, pay fair wages, sacrifice dearly for their families, help neighbours, and win Civic Awards for outstanding service to the community.

But Paul also admitted in Romans 7:21, that “When I want to good, evil is right there with me…waging war against the law of my mind” – and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He couldn’t help himself, in other words.

So, if meditation, therapy, medication, and endless sessions with a psychiatrist were available in Paul’s day, none of them would have worked, because in Paul’s experience what was happening to him was beyond human control. How could mere humans and human aids combat the ever-present and overwhelming power of evil? Even the heartiest believer in God’s law (like Paul) had no control over the evil thoughts in his head. It was Paul’s conclusion, therefore, that we live in a body of death, and only God can rescue us from it (verses 24-25).

Modern-day mental health experts would roll their eyes at Paul’s diagnosis, of course, because they believe the mind and emotions are within the realm of human help, and can be corrected and balanced by medication and techniques for self-control. And the idea that evil is involved in mental illness is just typical, they say, of nutty religion trying to scare people.

But if these experts are right and there’s nothing spiritual at the root of mental illness, or anything spiritual needed to cure it, and we can all have our minds kept under control by pills and therapy, etc., why is there so much incurable mental illness still? Why are jails full of people with mental problems, that no counseling or medication can cure? And why are so many young people self-injuring and committing suicide if it’s within our expert control to stop them?

Paul has answered that already in Romans 7, but how many mental health experts today would accept Paul’s diagnosis that evil was messing up people’s minds? They’d more likely conclude that Paul himself was suffering from a mix of one or more diagnosable mental imbalances like Split Personality Disorder, or Schizoid Personality Disorder. Maybe Paul was even schizophrenic. They might even admit to Paul suffering from Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, but that would be very brave because no one yet knows the cause or treatment for it. It would also be admitting that maybe Paul had a point, that there really are things going on in the human mind beyond our human control, that includes (dare we say it) the powerful influence of evil.

But that’s a scary thought because it means delving into realms we have no understanding of, and no means of dealing with, either. On the other hand, it we can’t find ways of dealing with the likes of Hitler, or serial killers, or madmen who coldly blow up innocent people, or bullies addicted to inflicting injury for pleasure and power, and psychopaths who have no remorse or empathy for their victims, how much more suffering must we endure while we wait for the mental health experts to come up with new understanding and new solutions?

But who wants to admit that maybe we don’t have the answers, and God does? Or that Paul was right after all, that the reason we cannot come up with solutions is because “the sinful mind is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7)?

Oops. Now we’re really treading on sensitive ground, because Paul is stating bluntly that we’ll never come up with solutions to mental illness while our attitude to God stinks. “But what’s God got to do with anything?” today’s experts ask. “God’s more likely the cause of mental illness, not the solution,” they say, “because look at all the weird ideas that God-nuts in religion come up with, like messing people’s minds up with visions of hell and burning forever. Religious people and Christians have simply disqualified themselves from any contribution to mental health, therefore, because they’re probably the most mentally sick people on the planet.”

And sadly that criticism has merit, but putting aside religion and its silliness for a minute, does Paul actually have a point? He’s definitely right about our natural hostility to God, because we prove it every time we reject or resist any hint of God’s involvement in our world, either in its creation or its problems. But surely it raises the obvious question as to why we’re so hostile to God, when the only thing he seems to have done wrong is not let us do what we want without consequences. Other than that he’s given us amazing minds that get enormous pleasure out of life and learning, and discovering the wonders of creation.

But not all creation is wonderful. Some of it is horrible, like disease, accidents and natural disasters that remain a constant worry for us. Our minds are never free of anxiety about the future, the economy, or the inability of governments to meet all our needs. The planet is under stress, our kids are being bullied in deeply worrying ways, and their future doesn’t look bright as house prices soar, and secure, satisfying full-time jobs for life are under threat. On the surface people seem to be functioning, but there’s a growing undercurrent of helplessness that suddenly opens up in conversations when someone admits to problems in their family. Then the flood gates open as to what’s really going on, and we discover that all sorts of people aren’t coping at all well in this world.

Can we give Paul a chance, then, to explain what he came up with as the cause and solution to mental illness? And he’s not talking as some superior, look-down-your-nose, “I’ve got all the answers,” head-in-the-clouds religious nut, either. He’s talking our language. He admits to having mental problems himself, and how frustrated he is too at his helplessness.

Well, the first revealing thing Paul says in Romans 8, is that the human mind is governed by two laws, the “law of the Spirit of life,” verse 2, and “the law of sin and death.” Putting aside the religious-sounding language, it’s good to know, at least, that there are laws involved, which is something we can understand. Paul also explains in less religious terms in verse 5, what each of these laws does in our minds. The law of sin and death, or “the sinful nature” as Paul calls it, kicks our minds into doing what our “(sinful) nature desires,” while the second law of the Spirit of life kicks our minds into doing what the “Spirit desires,” each with its own visible consequences (verses 6-7).

This can only be observed in humans too, because humans are the only creatures on earth with what Paul calls a “spirit” (verse 10). The Greek word for spirit means the power we humans have to feel, think, decide and make choices, and what Paul then shows in Romans 8 is what happens to that spirit inside us with and without the Holy Spirit.

What happens to our human spirit without the Holy Spirit is slightly unnerving, though, because Paul says it’s dead. In verse 6 he says “The mind of sinful man is death,” and in verse 10, “your body is dead because of sin.” In other words, if we’re simply operating by the first law of what our nature desires, our entire being, body and mind, is floating like a dead fish downstream. It has no control over the evil impulses banging away in our heads that make us (like Paul) do things we don’t want to do, or not do the sensible things we know we should do.

When a person is diagnosed in the secular world as having Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, therefore, what it really means is the poor chap is operating by the first law alone, and there is nothing in the whole wide world that can stop the injury to his mind and body.

No wonder so many promising young people suddenly begin to fall apart emotionally and start cutting themselves and attempting suicide, as they too discover there is nothing they can do about their volatile emotions and the damage they’re doing to themselves and to others. And they feel utterly helpless, because no one, it seems, can help them.

They may receive therapy and medication that enables them to function, yes, just as Paul was able to function in Romans 7, and thousands of people today without the Holy Spirit are able to function as well – but functioning isn’t “life and peace” – as Paul calls it in Romans 8:6.

Functioning doesn’t stop the rage that wells up inside us when somebody doesn’t live up to our expectations, or life isn’t treating us the way we think it ought to. Functioning isn’t enough to stop people wondering, “What’s the point?” after years of struggle and not much to show for it.

Functioning helps, but it doesn’t equip a person to deal with the stresses, pressures and the horrors of a selfish world bent on its own destruction. It doesn’t stop the madness lurking inside our heads that can spill out any second when sensitive buttons are pushed and our emotions explode. But functioning is all that the world of psychiatry and experts in mental illness can offer, leaving a person open and susceptible to emotional collapse and self-disgust, just like Paul who wailed at how wretched and helpless he was in Romans 7:24.

The tragedy of functioning is that it never gives a person the pleasure of being independent. He is always dependent on others to keep his mind from blowing to pieces, whether it be therapists or friends or the endless patting on the back by parents, spouses, teachers, coaches, employers, minions and mentors telling him he’s such a fine chap and doing great. But one let down by any of those people can send a dependent person into a spiral of depression and self-hate again.

What a tragedy that he can never experience the pleasure of being in control of his life, of having mastery over his weaknesses and phobias, or having mastery over the negative and deceptive influences of others, mastery over his reactions when horrible things happen, and mastery over getting a big head and wanting to be admired and noticed. Wouldn’t it be great if none of those things bothered him anymore, and like Paul he could be content in whatever situation he found himself in (Philippians 4:12)?

But such is the power of the second law, “the Spirit of life.” It offers contentment, an inner peace and life that carries us through the ups and downs, that keeps us on a steady course as the storm rages all around us, that enables us to be independent of all the gods and idols of society selling their empty but highly attractive wares as the means to happiness and self-mastery.

God would love us to be independent of all that stuff, and have dominion over this world as he phrased it in Genesis, not be sucked in by it as Adam and Eve were with the promise of “wisdom” from a tree. Wisdom can’t combat evil, any more than a pill or therapy can enable people today to win the war against their rotten thoughts and runaway emotions.

But where does that leave us if all the “wisdom” of the mental health community cannot win this war against our “sinful nature”? Are psychiatrists and psychotherapists stuck forever with a box full of blunt tools, condemning them to hours and hours of listening to people’s problems with no clear remedies for self-centredness, self-pity, and self-justification? I imagine some counselors must also wonder, “What’s the point?” as patient after patient leaves their counseling room still baffled as to how they can break free of what troubles them.

What troubles people is simple, according to Paul; it’s not knowing that the driving force in human brains that makes people think the world revolves around them and their feelings, their needs, and their wants, has actually been done away with. It no longer rules us, or better put, we no longer need to be ruled by it. It is actually possible, therefore, to break free of what troubles us, because in Romans 8:3, Jesus “condemned sin in sinful man.”

Jesus took the law that constantly injects evil thoughts into our heads, and condemned it. He did it by becoming “a sin offering” (3), meaning he took all that evil into himself on the cross – just like an animal sacrificed for an Israelite’s sin in the Old Testament took that person’s sin into itself. And the law of sin and death could never retaliate with a viable defence. It had killed an innocent man, for heaven’s sake. Never again, therefore, would it be allowed to rule people’s minds, just like a Judge who condemned an innocent man to death would never be allowed to preside over people’s lives in the dock again.

So the first law ruling our human spirits had its back broken by Jesus. It looks like it still has control over people, and we have a massive mental health community acting as if the first law still controls people too, as it constantly pumps out its own solutions to mental illness, rather than telling people that what’s troubling them has actually already been dealt with by Jesus.

And the evidence that it’s been dealt with by Jesus is the number of people in the world who are functioning really rather well. They go through a typical childhood in reasonably stable families, they get good careers, have their own families, become well-known and liked in the community, do lots of fun things with their children and grandchildren and friends, and their funerals are well attended.

And the amazing thing is, they manage to do it all without ever understanding or taking any interest in why Jesus was crucified.

How can that be? Well, they’re simply reaping the results and living in the afterglow of Jesus destroying the power of the first law, allowing the world to at least keep functioning without us all going mad and totally wrecking the planet. But it’s still only functioning. It’s a far cry from the “life and peace” that only the second law can supply. It’s all well and good that Jesus’ death freed us from the ravages of the first law, but to be truly free from it personally requires “the law of the Spirit of life” too, verse 2, because, verse 13, it’s only “by the Spirit that we put to death the misdeeds of the body.”

It’s only by the Spirit’s desires influencing our spirit INSTEAD, therefore, that we have self-mastery over the emotions that cause our misdeeds in the first place, and we have total independence from evil and the influences of the world.

We’re living in a world that thinks that’s all nonsense, however. But where do these happily functioning people turn when things go terribly wrong in their own lives, when their emotions spin out of control, nasty thoughts fill their minds, they say and do things that cause damage they can’t repair, they’re plagued by guilt and self-disgust, and they’re tempted to do something really stupid to themselves and to others? Where do they turn to stop the self-loathing and rage in their heads that threatens to destroy them in both mind and body? And what if their mental health deteriorates to the point they admit to needing counseling? What help can these people who have no interest in God then expect?

Well, let’s hear it from Dr. Allen Frances, who served as the chairman of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the most influential guidebook on mental illness in the world. He’s also had years of experience as a leading psychiatrist, and he said this: “I have reviewed dozens of definitions of mental disorder and find none of them the slightest bit helpful either in determining which conditions should be considered mental disorders and which not, or in deciding who is sick and who is not.”

In other words, the mental health establishment can’t even determine if what’s going on inside your head even IS a mental illness, or not. But that’s the tragic situation this world finds itself in for not being interested in mental health and mental illness from God’s point of view. It is left with no understanding of the laws governing the human mind, no understanding of what opened up to the human mind because of Jesus’ death, and no clue as to what treatment God made available through the Holy Spirit.

So, what is God doing about this awful mess, if anything?….(continues in part 2 on February 26/18)


The conflicting response of Christians to sex and gender

On one end of the spectrum are Christians who believe all sexual orientation outside the scriptural bounds of male and female is wrong and must be cured by the church through prayer, counselling and conversion therapy.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who believe the church should welcome those with different sexual and gender orientation as fellow humans made in God’s image. It’s not their fault the way they are, they were born that way, and God made provision, therefore, for sexual relationships other than heterosexual husband and wife.

The result, unfortunately, is yet another source of conflict in the Christian church, not only on what God’s word says, but also on what the church is for. Is the church a curing house or a safe house?

How, for instance, would each of those two groups of Christians run an AA meeting? Would the first group only invite alcoholics who want to be cured? But isn’t that what the church is for, the first group asks, to cure people of their ailments? What’s the point of the church if it doesn’t encourage and promote repentance and change? You don’t create a hospital for sick people to remain sick, you create it to make them well. And isn’t that what Christ came for, to “turn each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26)?

But, the second group says, people aren’t wicked if they have a problem with alcohol; it’s something they’re born with. It’s not the church’s job, therefore, to cure them, it’s to provide an environment where they feel loved, accepted and safe as they are. The primary purpose of a hospital is not to make sick people well, it’s to make sick people feel comfortable. And isn’t that what Jesus made people feel when they came to him? He didn’t condemn prostitutes, for instance, or insist that they stop being prostitutes to be accepted by him. They felt safe and comfortable in his presence as they were, which made it so much easier for them to approach him.

Is the purpose of an AA meeting, therefore, to cure alcoholics of their alcoholism, or to make them feel safe and accepted as alcoholics?

Well, it’s both, isn’t it? And don’t hospitals do both too? Hospitals exist to make sick people well – and to make them feel comfortable.

So, what if the Christian church did both, where it never stops preaching repentance and cure on the one hand, but it also makes people feel safe and accepted as well? It’s a tricky balance, yes, but surely worth seeking to ease the present conflict in our Christian response.

“I can’t help it, I was born this way”

One of the saddest signs I’ve seen was one being carried by a marcher in a local Pride parade that stated, “Born this way,” suggesting it was inevitable that he would be homosexual, or whatever other sex or gender he identifies as.

It’s sad because the man believes he had no choice. He is convinced that his brain was wired since birth to make him what he is, and his future, therefore, was fixed from the start. In reality, therefore, he has reduced his life to little more than a programmed robot that can only do what it was wired to do.

One has to wonder, then, if it’s just as inevitable that a person will become a pedophile, or a serial killer, or an alcoholic. Or that a person should never marry because he was born to abuse women. Or maybe a person shouldn’t be alive at all, because he was born to be depressed and suicidal, or destined to life in a mental institution.

If that’s true, though, that no influence of family, culture or religion, or even God, can steer you away from what you were wired to be from birth, then what happens if you’d rather not be what you were born to be? What if you hate the idea that you’re stuck for life with whatever internal conflicts or marginalization by others your birth wiring creates, and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it?

Society’s solution to that is to get everyone to “celebrate diversity” and accept whatever wiring we humans are born with as special and unique. But that faces huge resistance from those who see much of what is considered “special and unique” as a cover-up for several disruptive mental disorders. It also faces strong resistance from those who cannot and will not accept that we are stuck from birth to be a certain way.

On the other hand, after centuries of people making wrong choices that conflict with what God said he created us for, perhaps it’s true after all that people are being born with different wiring in their brains.

The good news God broadcast through Jesus, however, is that he’s more than willing to heal whatever damage our ignorance of him and our resistance to him has created. He doesn’t back off the fact that we’ve really messed up the wiring in our heads, but he also made it clear through Jesus that he’d love to straighten out our messed up wiring – if that’s what we would like too.

So even if it’s true that we’re born a certain way, God says we’re not stuck with it.

Are gender identity and gender expression really that important?

To God they are. Knowing who we are and expressing it are exactly what God would love us humans focused on.

To begin with, however, gender is not the top priority. By God’s definition in Genesis, ‘who and what we are’ is not primarily about being male and female. Our true identity – socially, culturally, physically, mentally, emotionally and any other word ending in ‘ally’ – boils down first of all to: we are human.

That’s how God introduces us in Genesis 1:27. He starts off with, “God created humans.” So when we look at each other we know that – no matter what shape, colour, social construct or genetic soup we’ve ended up with – we’re all related. It means I’ve got all these humans who easily recognize me as ‘one of them’, and when they see me that way it’s a grand start to us getting along. We can share all sorts of things together that we can’t with dogs, goldfish, or turnips.

So first of all we identify and express ourselves as fellow humans.

But God goes one step further because he also says in that same verse we can identify and express ourselves as little likenesses of him. Oh. So when I look at you and you look at me, what we’re actually seeing in each other is a little image of God. But really that’s just as obvious as the fact we’re human, because what other creatures on this planet have the powers of a god? My cat doesn’t, even if it thinks it does. But in one minute I can come up with ideas and thoughts that chimpanzees and dolphins would never come up with in a lifetime.

Wow, so I can identify as a mini-image of God. I have no trouble, then, expressing God-like thoughts too, some of which, I happily notice, have a powerful effect on people when they’re God-like loving thoughts. It seems, then, that if I realize who and what I am on this level, and I express it wherever I go, I am a positive power to be reckoned with.

It’s only then – after God identifies us as human mini-images of him – that he says he created us male and female. It doesn’t change the fact that we all share exactly the same identity, but it does enable us to reproduce and have families. And that really does make gender identity and gender expression important because without the active and continuing contribution of both male and female we cannot reproduce as humans, and if we can’t reproduce we become extinct, in which case we’d be better off being dogs, goldfish, or turnips.

“Forgive us, for we know not who we really are”

Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” in response to his killers and the mob rule that got him killed. He looked beyond their actions to the ignorance that caused them.

I hope desperately, therefore, that the Holy Spirit will do the same for me in my response to the actions of government, the medical profession, schools, psychotherapists and parents allowing young children to decide who they really are and identify as. Children have no idea who or what they are. I know I didn’t. I wasn’t born with an inbuilt understanding of who I was or what my purpose on this planet was before I died. Those things did not come to me naturally. I needed to be taught those things by people in the know.

But therein lies the problem, right? Because who are these people “in the know”? Who actually knows for certain who or what we really are, and what our purpose is? And who knows for certain that those people “in the know” really know? And to what ultimate source do we go for confirmation? Science? But those who believe young children know who they are ignore science. Politicians? But politicians hardly ever agree on anything, and the same goes for philosophers, psychologists, mystics and religious folks. It’s total confusion out there.

And that’s what Jesus saw when he looked out on the crowds following him wherever he went. He saw them as sheep without shepherds, and that’s what really got to him. Here were all these lovely humans, struggling with all sorts of mental illnesses and sicknesses that no one had any idea how to solve. They had no idea what their purpose in life was either, other than following a culture shaped by people who were messed up mentally themselves.

And isn’t that the way it is today? The people we idolize for their great wisdom turn out to be corrupt and selfish, and their ideas and teachings conflict. Not only can’t they agree on who and what we are before we’re born, they now can’t agree on who and what we are after we’re born too.

So we still have no certain idea as to who or what we are. Like a field of corn, meanwhile, we sway to wherever the prevailing wind of culture blows us, and we have no idea if we’re in the right track or not. But rather than condemn and berate people, Jesus saw ignorance as reason to ask God to forgive them. Could God do the same for us today, therefore, and forgive us for still not knowing who we really are?

Is there any ‘resolution’ we make as Christians?

New Year’s resolutions seem like a good idea for pumping new life and energy into our Christian walk, but what exactly can we resolve to do when we’ve already got “everything we need for life and godliness,” 2 Peter 1:3? And what can we do to make gains spiritually next year when we “do not lack any spiritual gift,” 1 Corinthians 1:7? In fact, where does making resolutions come into the picture at all when we’ve already been “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” Ephesians 1:3?

Surely it’s “by the Spirit” too, not our resolve, that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” Romans 8:13, and Paul even called the Galatians foolish for “beginning with the Spirit,” but resorting back to “human effort” in their resolve to be good Christians, Galatians 3:3.

So what’s left for us to “resolve” to do if we’ve already got everything we need, and it’s only by the Spirit, not our efforts, that we grow spiritually?

There’s a clue in 2 Corinthians 5:18 where Paul tells us God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ.” Paul assures us our relationship with God is firm, secure and complete forever because of Christ. There is nothing we did to make that perfect reconciliation happen, and nothing we do now either – like “inviting Jesus into our hearts” or praying a certain way – to make that relationship happen.

But if God totally reconciled us to him already, why did Paul then say in verse 20, “BE reconciled to God,” as if there’s something we do too?

Because there is: It’s opening our minds to, and accepting, God’s reconciliation. It’s all well and good hearing about it, that God has totally reconciled himself to us for nothing we did or do, but have we really clued into that yet and accepted it? It’s like a child receiving a Christmas present and his parents crying out, “Well, go on, open it,” because what’s the point of the gift if the child doesn’t see what he’s got and enjoy it?

When Paul says “Be reconciled to God,” therefore, it’s a plea to Christians to please, please, please clue in to what we’ve been given and believe it. Believe that God has made us his friends forever, purely because of what he accomplished for us in Christ, so that next year, instead of fretting about our relationship with God, we can live in, bask in, and enjoy the fact that HE made and makes that relationship happen. It’s “the Spirit (who) works miracles in us” – the miracles of love for and faith in God. And all Paul asks of us is to resolve to believe it (Galatians 3:5).

Bah humbug to New Year’s resolutions

As Christians do we need New Year’s resolutions or the rigorous practice of “spiritual disciplines” to make ourselves more spiritual? It sounds like we do in 1 Corinthians 9:27 when Paul says, “I beat my body and make it my slave,” and in 1 Timothy 4:7 when he tells Timothy to “train yourself to be godly.”

But if Paul was truly encouraging human resolve and the practice of spiritual disciplines for spiritual growth in those verses he’d be contradicting himself, because in 2 Corinthians 3:8-9 he says it’s the “ministry of the Spirit that brings righteousness,” and in verse 18 that we “are being transformed into his (Christ’s) likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

So, where does our spiritual formation come from? From the Lord.

And who is transforming us into Christ’s likeness? The Holy Spirit.

And whose ministry creates righteousness? The Spirit’s ministry.

There is no talk of us playing any part in our righteousness or transformation into Christ’s likeness. Our spiritual formation and growth are entirely the work of the Spirit. And for Paul to even hint that spiritual growth involves something we do would open him up to being challenged with the same question he challenged the Galatians with in Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish?” he asked them. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”

The Galatians had been depending totally on the “miracle-working Spirit” (verse 5) for their spiritual growth – but now they were reverting back to depending on their own efforts.

But surely there’s some effort on our part required, isn’t there? Surely the effort of spiritual disciplines is necessary for “stirring” the Spirit, isn’t it? Won’t the Spirit work more effectively in our lives, in other words, if we’re doing our part better, like praying more, studying more and obeying more?

But that’s exactly what the Galatians thought and Paul took them to task for it in verse 2 with a very direct question: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Did the Spirit work miracles in their lives because of their obedience or their belief in the gospel – which? Oh, they knew which: It was their belief, and nothing more.

And that’s why I say “bah humbug” to New Year’s resolutions, or resolve of any human sort, because our spiritual growth is entirely the work of the Spirit, not human effort, and the only thing needed for stirring that miracle-working Spirit in our lives is belief in the gospel. It’s only foolish people (says Paul) who believe they can grow spiritually by their own resolve and willpower.