Well, time for our annual skepticism of New Year’s resolutions to take off a little (despite a promise to stop - our wills are bound here!), with this timely reflection on habit-change coming from our friend Jim McNeely:

It’s New Year’s!

It’s a new year, and I’m always excited about that. This year is especially a time for me to set new directions, new career paths, new relationships, and new patterns and disciplines. However, I’ve learned about myself that the cliche can be true, that these things last only so long. You have to be careful to plan things that are doable and simple, and can stand through a bit of failure, or else you plan to fail. This year, I’m going to become a new man! I know what you’re thinking – stop laughing out there!

But I don’t want to talk about any of that! New Years is a season of considering transformation and change, and Christianity concerns itself with this. Some quarters practically deify change and what is called “progressive sanctification.” I want to talk about what is involved in real identity-level transformation.

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Feathers in Your Cap

Suppose I have decided that I admire the Native Americans, and I want to be more like them. I put on a headdress, because that’s what I think they might wear. Success! It would help if I snapped a picture to post on Facebook at just the right moment. There are several problems with this strategy:

  • It is unsustainable
  • It is a weird goal
  • It shows a very poor understanding of Native American identity
  • It is offensive to real Native Americans
  • It is a lie. You haven’t changed, you are only pretending

If you want to be more like a Native American, there is no more certain way to do this than to actually be born as a Native American. Then you don’t even have to try, and every word out of your mouth is the authentic real deal. Every breath you take is a Native American breath. Every mistake you make is a Native American mistake. Your relationships with other Native Americans are authentic relationships because you are actually Native American, down to the bone and DNA. You’re not just wearing a headdress. You’re not trying to be something you’re not. There’s nothing offensive or inauthentic about it. You don’t even have to think about being a real Native American. You actually are a real Native American.

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Legalistic systems of Christian repentance seem to work like this to me. People set up silly and rather arbitrary ideas of what constitute “true spirituality” or successful “sanctification”. They strike temporary and uncomfortable poses of an artificial holiness and then present that as their public persona. When they are unable to sustain it, everyone is shocked. The truth is, trying to make yourself fit into your weird idea of “holiness” is a problem because:

  • It is unsustainable
  • It is a weird goal
  • It shows a very poor understanding of genuine Christian identity
  • It is a lie. You haven’t changed, you are only pretending

The Real Deal

If you want to transform into a genuine Christian spirituality, you can’t just set up a caricature of righteous living, and then pose as that. It doesn’t work at all. You have to truly believe in Christ and Him crucified and risen, and hope only in Him. You give up on the hope of your success at posing, and enter your genuine identity. You are a failure and a sinner and a faker. It is only when you have let your posing, whitewashed self die with Christ and allow Christ to raise you up a new creature that any good is even possible. It is not about being a perfect poser, it is about being a genuine though imperfect believer. Our posing isn’t what overcomes the world. Our faith is what overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).

So what do you do? Resolve to admit your failure, and die to your self-righteous self-salvation projects. Believe that God first loves you and sent His son to die for you. Period. Everything you do that doesn’t flow from the joy of your salvation is like holding your breath and taking a snapshot. Here is true transformation: simply believe that you are loved.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

-1 John 4:10-14 (NASB)