Read Eph. 5. When a new year begins, we blossom with new ideas. We start new plans. We hope to be new people. We ask ourselves questions like: “if we could ask God to change one thing about us, what would it be?” But it’s a cliche that these kind of resolutions fail. In their place, we instead find a growing sense of alienation, misery, numbness, dissatisfaction, restlessness and ennui.
Why? And how can we actually change? The short answer is: we need to learn how to swim with flippers instead of forcing our way through the water. Right? As Anne Carson explains in a new story in the New Yorker: people “think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty….Every water has the right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke.” 1=1.
What Carson says about swimming strikes me as being true of making resolutions. We fail them with each stroke. When we make resolutions we tap into our inborn desire for perfection. But perfection, like water, is a place in motion. We have to keep finding it.
When Carson’s narrator puts on small flippers, however: “The difference is like the difference between glimpsing a beautiful thing and staring at it. Now she can stream into the way of the water and stay there.”
So how do we learn to stream into the way of the water? (note to self: how do we learn to write like Anne Carson?). If we want to know the way of the water, we can find it. For instance, in the chapter before us today, we read: “Live a life filled with love.” Eph. 5:1. We sigh. That sounds so good. As usual when we crack open Scripture, it cracks us open. We read this verse, and we realize we kind of, sort of, maybe, forgot about living a life filled with love. Other goals crept in and pulled us off course, seaweed choking our flight through waves.
Chastened, we read on. Paul tells us to avoid sexual immorality, greed and impurity. He tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit instead of getting drunk. Good idea, we think. Paul goes on to suggest that wives treat their husbands with respect, and that husbands love their wives. Of course, we think. Who wants to be contemptuous or unloving to their spouse? We dimly recall reading John Gottman’s insightful, practical books on improving our marriages. Weren’t those all about removing the four horsemen of criticism, contempt, flooding and defensiveness and instead asking intimate questions to improve our “love maps”? We nod as we read. We know this to be true.
Paul even gives us a specific antidote, a practical recipe for change. He tells us that instead of immorality we should be filled with thankfulness and sing songs of praise to God in our hearts constantly. Be thankful instead of greedy? Sing praise instead of gripe? What a grand exchange! For anyone who is a Christian at least, just reading a chapter like this fills us with the desire to do it. Isn’t wanting to be good enough?
Nope. Here’s how our hearts really work. When I read this chapter, I started at the word greed, sandwiched as it was between the obvious finger-pointers of sexual immorality and impurity. Hold it. You mean greed is right up there with sexual immorality? What? Are those jelly beans that disappear from our front hall on a daily basis a bigger problem than I realized?
“Yes,” Paul says, and it was as if he was talking to me: “Yes,Caroline, a greedy person is an idolater, worshipping the things of this world.” Eph. 5:6.
Eek, I thought. Horrors. To be greedy is to worship something other than God? I resolved to never be greedy again as long as I lived.
Here’s where things got interesting. The moment I made the resolution to never be greedy again for the rest of my life, I ate dessert at lunch.
But I hardly ever eat dessert at lunch. I didn’t really want dessert at lunch. And then I ate a Dove bite on top of it. And then another. What? So why did making an extreme resolution create in me a desire to do its opposite? What is wrong with me?
Apparently I’m in good company. Paul, writing as a Christian, says the moment that he read in Scripture that he shouldn’t want anything that belongs to anyone else, he found himself full of the desire for things that belonged to everyone else. Romans 7:8. Paul explains that the human heart is just messed up: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Romans 7:19.
This rebellious streak in our hearts is why making resolutions and just trying harder to be good completely backfire. We try to swim into the way of the water on our own, over and over, and feel only anxiety. We think the problem is our technique or maybe the water. Shouldn’t it be saltier? We’re anxious swimmers, trying to respect and love, but hearing sour notes creep in; trying to be drunk on the Holy Spirit but saying sure, why not, to another glass of wine: trying to be thankful to God and sing His praises but hearing ourselves murmur and complain instead. We just can’t do and be all that even this one little chapter asks of us.
So what’s the solution? Not reading Scripture? Just doing whatever we want and accepting it?
Some might say yes. But deep down, we know that doing whatever we want has never really worked for us. We’ve all tried it. It never delivered on its promises. Deep down, we all know that what Scripture tells us is right and true. So what are we to do? Aren’t we doomed?
Yes, and here’s where we start to fasten our small flippers. Realizing that we need God’s help is the beginning of freedom. Just intellectual knowledge isn’t enough, though. We have to know, really know, that we are helpless and hopeless without God. Only that realization unleashes our pride from its stranglehold on our hearts. Failing causes us to cling to our Savior out of desperation, in a way that success usually prevents us from doing. We need Christ. We need to know we need Christ. We start to swim in the way of the water when we realize we need something to propel us. Or perhaps, most of all, we swim best when we know we need the God who can walk on water.
That’s when the fireworks start in our heart. Joy and peace return. We find ourselves singing spontaneously to God out of gratitude for how He saved us on the cross. We praise him out of an overflowing heart. It bubbles up from inside, not as a formula. The joy that has eluded us for so long makes our grins so broad people think we’re in love.
Because we are.
It would be lovely to avoid this cycle of trying hard on our own, failing, remembering we need grace, and begging for it. But that’s called being perfect and I haven’t met one of those humans yet. I think that these eureka moments arrive best when we properly diagnose our problems as spiritual and so find the right cure. Making resolutions are just grandiose gestures to try to unite with beauty; they provoke only anxiety. But uniting with Christ, who is our beauty, causes us to stream in the way of the water.
Knowing that and allowing ourselves to rest our heads on the chest of God; allowing Him to draw us close; letting Him whsiper to us that everything’s going to be alright; in that relationship lies the beauty we truly seek. There lies the rest for our souls we long for. There lies the peace that surpasses all understanding, and the joy that makes us kick up our heels and sing.
Trusting in Jesus allows Him to start changing not just the one thing about us we can come up with, but an infinite number that only He knows. Because He knows our hearts best. He made them. He fashioned us in His image. He wants to clear away all the things that hold us back from living the life of love that we all want but just can’t do apart from Him. So yes, we can make resolutions. But perhaps the better word is that we can spend time staring at the most beautiful thing of all. The God of love, dying for us, to bring us to new life.
Posted by Caroline Coleman in a Chapter a Day on January 14, 2016