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.


Is there nothing we do to help ourselves?

Does a Christian’s life depend entirely on the Holy Spirit, or are there things we do to help ourselves? What about depression, for instance? Do we just wait on the Spirit to cure us, or can we use human resources too, like counselling, medication and positive thinking techniques, and perhaps even some religious exercises as well, like meditation?

Fortunately, Paul explains in Romans 8 what the Spirit does, and what only the Spirit can do, because there are needs in our lives where we cannot help ourselves. It is only “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body,” for instance (verse 13). The Spirit is the only cure for our sinful nature too, and the only means by which we can fully meet the righteous requirements of God’s law (verse 4) and want to please God rather than resist him (verses 7-8). The Spirit is also the only means by which we understand the relationship we have with God, that we are his children (verses 15-17), that we belong to him (verse 9), and that he lives his life in us (verses 9 and 11) – so that even now we can begin to experience “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (verse 21). It’s the Spirit who gives us hope in a frustrating, decaying world (verses 23-24), and the Spirit that testifies with our spirit that glory awaits us (verses 16-17). And if we are weak in any of these things, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (verse 26), and “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (verse 27).

“What, then, shall we say in response to this?” Paul asks in verse 31. His answer? “If God be for us, who can be against us?” To Paul, that’s the starting point for a Christian. It is not what we can do to help ourselves, it is what God has done, is doing and will always do for us as his adopted children and heirs. We also have Jesus Christ “at the right hand of God interceding for us,” verse 34, so that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” verse 37.

On the other hand, Paul does accept that even when we know we’ve got all this going for us, we still “groan inwardly,” verse 23. It is quite normal for us to get depressed and frustrated. Who wouldn’t be in this world? But rather than place our dependence on human resources as our first step, Paul emphasizes dependence on the Spirit because it’s the Spirit who keeps our spirits up and gives us the hope that saves us (verse 24).

It’s only the mind that’s “controlled by the Spirit” that has “life and peace,” verse 6.

“I’m a Christian; how on earth did I sink this low?”

For years George enjoyed a fairly steady, uneventful life being a Christian. He went to church every week, helped in the community, took time with family, and put in an honest day’s work.

But suddenly, things took a turn for the worse. There were problems at work – daft policies from management, and idiot co-workers not pulling their weight. There were problems at home too – the older kids were becoming demanding and insensitive to anyone but themselves. George had also made a bad financial decision that upset his wife terribly. And then there were problems at church, politicking among the leaders for position, a new pastor with bright “new” ideas, and conflicts over traditional versus contemporary music. George wasn’t feeling that good, either. The stress of all these problems at once was taking its toll. He lost his temper more, he delayed going home at night, and he found reasons not to attend church. He knew he was spinning uncontrollably into an emotional black hole.

He didn’t feel like praying either, or talking to anyone. Advice only made him more frustrated and angry, and he became sullen, depressed and a pain to live and work with. And then one day he thought, “I’m a Christian; how on earth did I sink this low?”

The answer, of course, was obvious. George knew his Bible well enough to remember 2 Corinthians 4:7, that says we’re “jars of clay.” We may be Christian but we’re still made of the same stuff as everyone else, and sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that, just as Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth. They weren’t anything special, superior or better than others just because they were Christian. They were still clay pots, which of themselves had no power whatsoever.

But Christians don’t exist to show off their own power. They exist to show off God’s power. We still exist in our powerless clay pots “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” And to prove it, God lets the world knock the stuffing out of us, and so much so at times that it’s only by his strength that we survive at all (verses 8-9). But that’s the point. It’s only by his strength, “so that HIS life may be revealed in our mortal body,” verse 11.

Everyone in the world is a helpless jar of clay – but that’s all we’re meant to be, “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body,” verse 10. We are perfectly designed as containers for the life of Christ to be lived out and demonstrated in us, and sometimes things have to overwhelm us to remind us of that.

Is it true that “God helps those who help themselves”?

What do people actually mean when they say “God helps those who help themselves?” Do they mean God is more likely to get involved in their lives if they’re doing their part? For instance, will God more likely help us find a job if we’re out there looking for one? Or that he’ll more likely heal us if we’re doing our best to stay healthy, or more likely protect us if we do up our seatbelts, or more likely favour us if we’re working hard? Because if that is what people mean, is there support for it in Scripture?

There’s support for it in fable. One source quoted is Aesop’s fable of Hercules and the Waggoner, from 6th century Greek mythology. The Waggoner couldn’t free his cart stuck in the mud and prays to Hercules for help. Hercules replies, “Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.” In other words, don’t just sit there expecting the gods to do all the work, get in there and do what you can for yourself and then the gods kick in. In modern evangelical jargon it’s “God won’t steer a parked car,” meaning there has to be action on our part for God to help us. Or, that God only acts on our behalf, or grants us his favour, if we show some initiative and exert some effort ourselves first.

If that’s true, though, does that mean the opposite is also true, that God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves? Or that if we don’t do our bit, God won’t kick in with his bit, or that Hercules won’t help Waggoners who don’t put their shoulders to the wheel?

But if God only kicks in if we do our bit first, what happens if we can’t do our bit, like we can’t pray because we’re too upset or angry? We desperately need his help but our prayers feel empty and useless. Does God not help us until we pray hard enough? But if we can’t pray hard enoiugh, what happens then?

Well, first of all God understands our dilemma, Romans 8:26, where Paul writes “We do not know what we ought to pray.” Hey, it happens. We have no idea how to pray about a situation, or we’re too frazzled to pray at all. So what happens now? Fortunately, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” The Spirit doesn’t wait until we can help ourselves – he’s quite willing to go ahead and help us when we can’t help ourselves. And that’s the God that Paul focuses on, not the gods of Greek mythology.

“You’re free to drive away”

So how can we be “dead to sin,” Romans 6:11, and “freed from sin,” verse 7, but then be told in verse 12 to “not let sin reign” in us or “obey its evil desires?” If sin no longer has mastery over us, why the worry about falling victim to it again? But if we can still fall victim, is Paul now saying it’s up to us to resist it? Is this the part we now play, then?

No, Paul is saying it’s now possible for us to not obey sin’s evil desires “because you are not under law, but under grace,” verse 14. This is why sin no longer has mastery over us, because we’re under the rule of grace now. When we’re under law, that’s when sin has power over us, because the law simply reveals how much we sin. That’s why the law was created in the first place: “Through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20). From Adam to Moses there was no law defining sin (5:14), and “sin is not taken into account when there is no law (5:13).” but with the law, sin suddenly becomes obvious (5:20).

It’s like putting iron filings on a piece of paper over a magnet – suddenly, the invisible magnetic field appears. And the law serves the same purpose. The sins we can’t see become obvious when defined. We then see how much sin has mastery over us – and how easily we fall victim to it, too. It’s like driving for years, picking up all kinds of bad driving habits, and one day the police pull you over. For the life of you you can’t think why. “Yes, Officer,” you say, ever so humbly, “what may I do for you?” Well, he’s seen it all before so he ignores your drooling charm and lists off the eight flagrant violations of the law he’s seen you perform after following you for the last mile or two. 

What can you say? The law not only defines your sins, it also reveals how easily bad habits creep up on you, without you even realizing. Eight violations? You couldn’t even think of one! But then he says to you, “Not to worry, you’re not under law, you’re under grace, and as such your eight violations have been rendered powerless. You’re free to drive away.”

But free to do what? To live what our access to grace has opened up to us, the chance at last to live in a world where sin doesn’t creep up on us unawares, because Christ is now saving us by his life. 

What exactly DOES God want us to do?

Does God do everything for us, or is there something he wants US to do as well? But what? And what can we do when we’re entirely dependent on God for eternal life and all that goes with it, like the fruits and gifts of the Spirit?

Scripture is clear that salvation from beginning to end is a gift and it’s all done by God’s grace, Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Add to that Romans 4:6 that says “God credits righteousness apart from works,” and Hebrews 7:25 that Jesus is “able to save completely those who come to God through him,” and what’s left for us to do? If no works are required from us and it’s all done for us by Jesus, what do WE do?

There’s a clue in 2 Peter 1. In verse 3 God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness,” so it’s all still a gift and salvation is still completely God’s doing, but in verse 4 we’re “given these great and precious promises SO THAT you may PARTICIPATE in the divine nature.” Well, that makes sense, because what are we going to do with all these gifts and promises God lavishes on us? Obviously, he means us to participate in them, like a child would given a sack full of gifts at Christmas-time. The child doesn’t sit there looking at them, he launches himself into the bag, grabs a gift, rips the wrapping paper off and participates in what that gift was meant for.

Likewise, God gives us all these gifts hoping we’ll participate in what they were meant for, too. They were meant to help us participate in the divine nature – with several examples provided of what the divine nature is, in verses 5, 6 and 7. So how do we participate? By “adding” to them, verse 5. God gets us started with a sack full of gifts from his divine nature SO THAT we’ll dive in, see what we’ve got and make full use and enjoyment of all that he’s given us – because, verse 8, “if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive.”

The purpose of all these gifts God gives us is to enable us to live effective and productive lives. And all we do for our part is “use whatever gift he has received,” 1 Peter 4:10. Use what he’s given us, add to it, increase it, do what it was meant for, like a child who plays with a new toy for all its worth!