So! We have come to the halfway point in the year – 2017!—and it is time for a reality check! How are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions? /// No one? You do remember what they were, right? Anyone remember?
At the Princeton Fitness Center, there is always a bulletin board put up after Christmas on which people can post their New Year’s Resolutions. By January 1, it is covered up with sticky notes! Of course, losing weight is the perennial favorite, followed by exercising more, and eating better.
I am always amused by the folks who “resolve” something for someone else: “In 2017, my dog will get thinner!” (seriously) or “This year, my husband will spend more time with me.” I wonder how that one is panning out?
According to the online site Statistic Brain, 21% of people who vow to lose weight and eat better actually do!! But, sadly, of those who resolve to ”do good things for other people” only 5.2 % really do! Humph!
Why do we fail at doing what is right? We know what we want to do, what we need to do, and yet we don’t do it! Exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans:
Kellan (reading): “I do not understand what I do. Because what I want to do, I don’t do!”
But a voice says, “But what you hate, that is the very thing you do!”
Kellan (looking around): “Right,” I say, “but I have the desire to do what I know is good.”
But the voice says: “How do I know that you want to do what is right?”
Kellan: “I have the desire to do what I know is good. I can imagine it, I plan it, I talk about it…..”
“But,” says the voice, “you can’t carry it out. Right?”
Kellan: “Exactly! I can’t carry it out! The evil I do not want to do, I keep doing.”
Voice: “Because?” says the voice?
Kellan: “There is . . . weakness, and sin, and selfishness living inside me. It is like being at war with myself. What a despicable me I am!”
Voice: “Can anyone rescue you?”
Kellan: “Only Jesus Christ our Lord,” I say. “Thanks be to God!”
Boy, Paul lays it all out here: The frustration, the desperation of trying to be good and failing. You would think it wouldn’t be quite so hard. After all, we humans have these enormous 3 pound brains. We learn more and more about them every day. We now know that hunger is controlled in one area of the brain, pleasure in another, creativity in another, verbal acuity in yet another. We can modify genes, electronically stimulate nerves, customize drug therapy. We’re growing new organs in petri dishes, producing body parts on 3-D printers. Surely we can manage our own behavior!
But these superior brains come at a cost, too. Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, we are aware of our own mortality, and our developed logic and memory make us aware of other dangers. A wild boar knows instinctively when a tiger lurks nearby, but she doesn’t know what long-range dangers may destroy her grazing land or wipe out her species. The hummingbirds at my feeder fight each other for sips of sugar-water, but they haven’t developed the brains to make them want to drain the feeder into a bottle and take it all back to the nest. Animals don’t hoard, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t have egos or self-esteem; they don’t know right from wrong, they have not received what Paul calls “the law,” they do not sin, and they don’t make resolutions.
But humans can anticipate, plan for, and predict the future. We have figured out how to highjack more than our share of the sugar-water; we know how to build 401Ks that exceed our needs. In short, we have all the means and opportunity to be selfish – to eat too much of the world’s food, to use too much of the world’s clean water, to burn through too much of the world’s fuel, to build bigger barns when many are homeless, to amass a fortune when most of the world needs a meal. Comedian Will Smith says it so well: “We spend money we do not have, to buy things we do not need, to impress people who do not care.
Sadly, we even forget God’s commandments because we have made up our own rules: to eat/drink, be merry and secure, for tomorrow we will die. In other words, to assuage our fear, inflate our importance, and make ourselves more comfortable, we do not do the very thing we know is right.
On the microscale, the internal war looks something like this: Tomorrow I will give up my critical attitude and do the thing I want to do. I really will. I will let my “yes be yes, and my no be no.” I will do as Paul instructed: Whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy –I will think about these things! I can do this. Tomorrow I stop being critical!
And the next day everything is great — until I get out of bed. Then I discover the newspaper didn’t make it into the box but is in a puddle in the driveway. “Good grief! That carrier can do better than that! Isn’t that what he is paid for! “ WHOOPS. Correct the course: The newspaper will dry. It is no big deal. I live in a country with freedom of press. I’m happy to have a newspaper. I’m sorry God. I will not be critical.
So, I get back on track and look forward to meeting a friend for lunch. She confides that an acquaintance we both know has finally retired. “Wow,” I catch myself saying, “that was long overdue. Her classroom control got worse by the day and I don’t know how the kids. . . . “ STOP! Why did I find fault instead of celebrating this teacher’s long and dedicated career? I am doing the very thing I do not want to do!
On the way home, traffic comes to a crawl on 77. I am steaming by the time I finally come to an overturned tractor trailer. By this time, the wreckage (and the piglets) have been cleared from the road. “But why do drivers insist on slowing down and ogling every wreck. There is nothing to see, and I could have been home an hour ago.” WOW this habit is hard to break!
But by this time, something else is at work: that dirty word RATIONALIZATION: Don’t be so hard on yourself, Kellan. Anger is normal, you don’t want to repress it. Bottling it up inside isn’t healthy! Gossip is really only a healthy interest in others, and if we didn’t criticize nothing would ever get getter! Right?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It is the same line of reasoning we apply to everything: Everybody drinks a little too much; I don’t hurt anybody; hey, it’s better than popping pills. OR how about this: This relationship isn’t an affair. It isn’t harming my marriage. I just need someone to confide in; my wife doesn’t have to know about the texts and phone calls. OR I know I should be visiting Dad more often, but he’s now so confused he really doesn’t even know I’m there; he’s better off just sleeping the day away.
Sadly, we humans are so good at this stuff – at coming up with excuses. Like those goofy yellow minions on the cover of your bulletin, we get ourselves into trouble – over and over, vow to do better, yet fail! But, thanks be to the God who can save us!
Understand that doing the right thing is hard! No contest. Not trying to be like Jesus is a lot easier trying to be Christ-like. I recently saw a T-shirt that simply read, “I don’t want to do things, I want not to do things.” But Paul reminds us, as Christians, that suffering and wrestling with sin is not only part of the package but is a cause for rejoicing: We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts.” Paul says our “old self was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be done away with, and we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
From Second Timothy 2, these words: “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. . . Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
We know that God is on our side, but neither can we let down our guard. Jesus puts it this way – Stay close to me. In fact, I am offering you my yoke. It is easy and my burden is light. We will walk tethered together. That means talking to God in prayer, reading God’s word, submitting to God’s discipline, following Christ’s example. “Then,” God says, “you will be free.” Is this a contradiction? Discipline and freedom? NO. Discipline sets the parameters in which we can live freely, apart from temptation. Without discipline there is anarchy. Poet Robert Frost captured this balance of constraint and freedom: “Freedom,” Frost said, “is moving easily in harness.” To which scholar Louis Ginsburg added: “Only in fetters is there freedom. Without banks, can a river exist?”
And then, there is the practical Dr. Phil advice that bears repeating: “If you don’t want anybody to find out about it, don’t do it.” And, “sometimes we need to burn bridges to keep ourselves from crossing them again.”
Despicable Me 3 hit the theatres this week. Good battles evil again. If you are a fan of animated kids’ films, I’d venture to say it is worth your $8. As for me, if left alone, I can be pretty despicable myself. I can transform into one of those evil purple minions set on doing the very things I know are wrong! But thanks be to God who offers me his yoke and sets me free. AMEN