read Luke 5. It’s the time of year when everyone is asking what our New Year’s resolutions are, so I googled: “do people keep their New Year’s resolution?” I had a pretty good idea of what the answer would be. Sure enough, up popped an article with the gloomy title: New year’s resolutions doomed to failure, say psychologists. The article cites a study that found that 78% of people who make resolutions – like losing weight, giving up smoking or drinking, gaining a qualification or starting a better relationship – fail. The less than 25% who kept their resolutions did so by breaking their goals into smaller steps, rewarding themselves along the way, keeping a diary, telling their friends of their plans and treating occasional lapses as temporary setbacks.
If you’re like me, you immediately bump yourself into the less than 25% category. No problem, we think. We can do smaller steps, reward ourselves, cheer every time we delete a lecherous text from that hot guy we just met without texting back, and not over-react when we fail. Sure, I lost weight this fall by texting my long-suffering friend Christina Culver every time I lost a pound. But how did I do on losing my judgmentalism? Or my black and white thinking? What about my self-righteousness, or my desire to change other people? How did I do at losing that weight? If we’re honest, we will recall that we’ve had a 100% success rate on giving up things we don’t really care about, and a 100% failure rate on giving up things we love or think we need – until we find something we love or need more.
The article on failure of resolutions spawned a host of responses. Clearly, it struck a nerve. Most of the commentators wrote that resolutions are things to make every day, not on some arbitrary date. Others said to resolve to do something positive – like take up a fun new sport or eat healthy food. More than half of the people who commented on the article slid into sarcasm. They said they had resolved to give up smoking – and that they were guaranteed to succeed as they don’t smoke. They said they have resolved to give up resolutions. They wrote they have promised to have more random casual hot sex with complete strangers. In other words, people sense in themselves a desire to make resolutions, and an equal opposing powerful force in the opposite direction. No matter how hard we try to mask our discouragement in humor, our words speak for themselves: we all fail at our deepest resolutions.
Here is my favorite comment on this discouraging article: “The New Year is a good time for resolutions, you can declare bankruptcy on the failure of the old year and start anew. You are likely to fail – but there is a chance you will not. And ‘broken’ resolutions might well pave the way for real changes later in the year. Go for it.” This writer has honed in on the Christian secret to real change: in failure and brokenness lies success.
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, Christianity is too good to be true – how could God love us so much He died for us? But the fact that God’s love for us is incomprehensible doesn’t make it any less true. The Bible explains the true reason for the failure of our deepest resolutions: it says that we cannot change ourselves. “Can a leopard take away its spots?” God asks Jeremiah, and it’s a rhetorical question. God goes on to say: “Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” Jeremiah 13:23. But while the Bible begins by pointing out that we are doomed to failure at changing ourselves into perfect people, the Bible doesn’t end there.
Instead, you find a nuanced beautiful portrait of the Christian journey through our failure into the arms of forgiveness. Look at the analogy Jesus makes at the end of Luke 5: Making resolutions is like trying to patch up torn clothing. I lost 9 pounds but gained 4. We give up drinking and break the speed limit. We tell the truth except when we “have” to lie. It’s called changing yourself by just trying harder. That is what the Bible calls the “old covenant” – it’s the way of trying to earn your way to heaven by following the law. No one can do it. It’s doomed. Have you looked at the Ten Commandments lately? Can you honor your parents every single minute? Can you never lie – ever? Can you never want something your neighbor has – not even their 25 year old wife or adoring husband? What about Rod Stewart’s baby blue Lambourghini (I happen to know he has one, as he just drove past me in it two days ago in Palm Beach). Or can you love God above all else, all the time? Really? Honestly?
Of course not. But that’s what we all try to do, all day long. And we all fail. It’s no wonder that half the world is addicted to alcohol, and the other half has a prescription for Xanax stashed in their medicine cupboards (I know YOU don’t … but everyone else does).
God offers us instead brand new clothes. He offers to fill us with new wine. But the first step in the journey is to want the new clothing and new wine. You would think that was obvious and that we would all want it, but it’s not. As Luke points out: “no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.” Luke 5:39. That’s why it’s good to be broken. It’s good to fail. It’s great to find out that the old way is not just fine. We all need to try to change ourselves in our own strength first. When we fail, we finally ask for God’s help. And God says: I don’t just want you to lose five pounds; I want to give you a whole new self – I want to give you myself, and change you completely. What God wants is to fill us with the Holy Spirit – that’s what this new wine is that Jesus is talking about.
The first step is to know, like the tax collectors with whom Jesus eats, that you’re in need of a doctor. Luke 5:27-31. The first step is to know you’re sick; to know you’re a sinner. It’s to know you need God’s forgiveness. But instead of focusing on our own issues, how often do we find ourselves looking down our noses at other people, just as the religious leaders do here? How often do we find ourselves thinking of others as “scum”? There’s an ugliness inside all of us – a self-righteousness – that completely blocks us from loving other people. How can you love someone if you think of them as “scum”? Here is where the words of Jesus act like a mirror that shows us the look on our own faces: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt?” Matthew 7:1-5 (the Message). It’s when we start to notice these ugly tendencies in ourselves that there’s finally hope for us. As Jesus puts it: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” Luke 5:31.
When we realize we’re sick, we will do whatever it takes to find Jesus. Because Jesus sees our ugliness, but instead of turning away in disgust, beckons us to Him for forgiveness and change. Who wants to be ugly? When we find the most beautiful thing, we will do whatever it takes to get it. Like the man with leprosy here, we will not be too proud to bow our face to the ground and beg Jesus to heal us. Luke 5:12. Or like the paralyzed man, we will ask our friends to help us, instead of isolating ourselves in our pride and pretending we’re just fine. We will literally rip the roof off a house if that’s what it takes to find God. Luke 5:17-26.
Just as we all fail and succeed at different resolutions, so we all journey toward God’s help at different rates. The good news is that God meets us wherever we are. Some people, like Levi here, follow Jesus right away. God says come, and they do. Boom. Luke 5:27. Others of us are cautious, like Simon Peter, James and John. We sail “too close to the shore,” in the words of Sir Frances Drake. God has to lure us out – and He will. First, God will step into our boat with us, then he asks us to go “deeper” and cast our nets places we think are empty, and if we do, He will provide a miracle. Here is where we start to see the positive side of bankruptcy; when we cautious people take a small step toward obeying Him even though we think it’s hopeless, and we discover the rewards, we gain the courage to leave “everything” and follow Him. Luke 5:1-11. It takes most of us baby steps – and God is the perfect Father, holding out his arms to encourage us to walk, but there to catch us when we fall. We all have different ways of moving from a crawl to walking, and God helps us no matter what our style. It’s no wonder that David cries out with joy that God has taught him to “run” in the path of his commands. Psalm 119.
As anyone who has encountered the living God will tell you, it’s when we finally abandon trying to change ourselves, and beg for God’s help with the humility of a leper or lame man that we encounter the divine. When we do, we weep. Look at Peter’s response to the miracle of the full nets. He tells Jesus to get away from him, for he is a sinful man. Luke 5:8. When we meet God, we move from seeing our need to seeing our sinfulness – and we cry. We feel, deeply, and perhaps for the first time, the depth of our humanity – but in the very same moment, we also feel God’s love for us. Here, in the truth and love that IS God, we find the solution to every failed resolution: we find God Himself. We find we can’t just patch ourselves up with resolutions – like the woman I met on New Year’s Eve who told me, “every year I resolve to be more organized,” while her husband stood behind her rolling his eyes. Instead, God calls us to be cleansed, healed, transformed, and made new.
When God makes us new, changes happen organically. We, like Christ here, discover we want to be alone in the wilderness to pray. We don’t just “resolve” to spend more time praying – instead, we discover that more beauty lies in God’s presence than anything or anyone in this world can offer. We seek God out. We want to pray. We, too, like the disciples, discover God makes us fishers of men; we share about God not because we think we know better than anyone, but because God fills us with His compassion for other people. God’s presence gives us so much peace and joy that we want to share it with others. Our hearts overflow so abundantly that if we tried to keep in our euphoria, the very rocks would cry out.
We are the rocks that cry out. Our hard hearts melt. We cry when our hearts melt. We cry when our hearts become soft. We cry when we see Jesus. We cry because we’re melting. We cry because God Himself was not too proud to step into a little boat in order to talk to us. We cry because God suffered all the agonies of hell to tear the roof off our hearts. We cry because God beckons us to live with Him and be his love. It’s no wonder that when the crowds here saw Jesus, they “pressed in on him to listen to the word of God.” What else can we do when we encounter love but press in, as close as we can, and stay there. Where else can we go?
When we press in close to Jesus like this, and beg Him to forgive our failures and fill us instead with His Spirit, we begin to pray, along with Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wilder seas …. Where losing sight of land, We shall find the stars.” We long to lose sight of the land. We long to let go of our resolutions. Instead, we find more joy in pressing close to Jesus.
If we really want to make a New Year’s resolution that will stick, we can ask God what He wants to change in us. We can pray along with David that God would show us what to work on: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:23-24. To the extent we “let go and let God,” we will succeed. This process hurts. It involves a death – a death of our pride, our sense of mastery, and our illusion that we can be at the helm of our own lives.
The results, as the disciples found when their nets started breaking and the ships sinking, are overwhelming. The path of everlasting life breaks all the tools of our trade. That’s because God puts us on a brand new ship – one in which all the starry skies of heaven open to us. Our hearts open, and love flows out, like blood from a divine wound. God’s love for us changes us from the inside out. I know, God cries out, I know, the leopard can’t change his own spots, but I can change them for you. God took the punishment for our spots – our failed resolutions – on the cross so He can clothe us with His beauty. He clothes us with brand new spotless clothes. He gives us clothing that is better than anything I saw this week for sale on Worth Avenue (yes, even Pucci). God clothes us with Himself. All we have to do is want.
And if you’re anything like me, wanting is what we humans do best.
“Throw away your resolutions” posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on January 4, 2012