Getting Fat on the World

Jesus assumed his followers would fast. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words, “And when you fast…” He doesn’t say “if you fast” but “when you fast.” When John’s disciples ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast, he replies, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast.” Again, Jesus says of his followers that after he leaves them “they will fast.”

Anyone familiar with the religions of the world shouldn’t be surprised to find fasting in Christianity. In the Baha’i faith, it is one of the greatest obligations with a nineteen day fast held every March. It is an integral part of Hinduism with different groups worshiping different deities fasting on different days. It is the third pillar of Islam; during the month of Ramadan Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down. In Judaism, it is traditionally observed on Yom Kippur and five other significant days in the Jewish calendar.

What is all this religious fasting supposed to accomplish? While the goals of fasting are many and varied, they can be organized into three main groups: to gain favor with a deity, to purge the person of worldly desires, or to express solidarity with the poor. None of these are the reasons followers of Jesus fast.

We cannot gain favor with God through religious devotion. We are sinners whose religious acts are ultimately dead works (Heb. 6:1) before a holy God. Our standing with God rests not on fasting but on Christ, the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Some may object that Jesus promised the Father will reward those who fast (Matt. 6:18). But the reward God gives is not his favor, nor material goods, nor special spiritual sense. As John Piper puts it, “…the reward we are to seek from the Father in fasting is not first or mainly the gifts of God, but God himself.”  He goes on to write:

The supremacy of God in all things is the great reward we long for in fasting. His supremacy in our own affections and in all our life-choices. His supremacy in the purity of the church. His supremacy in the salvation of the lost. His supremacy in the establishing of righteousness and justice. And his supremacy for the joy of all peoples in the evangelization of the world.

A Christian fasts out of a hunger for God. It begins with mourning, as we encounter our sin, see the brokenness of the world, and realize the need for more of God (Matt. 9:15). This mourning prompts us to fast; leaving behind the needs of the body in the wake of the need for God. Like a lover who has lost the beloved and any desire for food along with them, we long for the One who has loved us. It ends with great joy and satisfaction in God as he fills us more than any cheeseburger ever could (Matt. 4:4, 5:6).

We do not fast to purge the body of worldly desires. Fasting to this end only exchanges the god of our desires for the god of self; puffed up by pride and the power of one’s own will. Paul says in Colossians 2:23 that severe treatment of the body is “self-made religion” and is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” The things of this world are not bad things to be rejected by a superior will, but good gifts given by God. The problem is when we have more love of and joy in the gifts than we do in the Giver. Simple pleasures such as food, drink, television, vacation, and sex begin to rule us. Thus, we fast – not to master these desires – but because we yearn to know more of God because Christ has redeemed us and given us this yearning. For the religious, fasting is movement from the feast of the world to the famine of religious devotion and purity. For the Christian, fasting is movement from the feast of the world to the greater feast of all that God is for us.

Christians do not fast to express solidarity with the poor but to defeat sin for the good of the poor. The people of Israel were very religious in performing their fasts. However, during their fasts they were still practicing wickedness and oppressing the poor. So in Isaiah 58, God declares to Israel:

Is this not the fast I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

God is not telling the people to get to work but offering help. Their hearts had become hard and sinful and the only cure was a fast not only from food, but from sin and for the good of the poor. Therefore, to defeat sinful hearts calloused towards others God has prescribed fasting that starves our selfishness while it serves the poor.

Why is fasting so rare in the American church? Instead of being the overflow of our faith, it has been demoted to a tool employed when we need God to bless our plans. It is the occasional emphasis until some other spiritual fad turns our heads. It has even been used as a trendy weight loss program. Could the lack of fasting in our churches be evidence that our hunger for God has been filled by the fat of the world? Could it be because we have allowed life’s pleasures to be our gods and have excused our idolatry with Christian liberty? Could it be because we have surrounded ourselves with enough amusements and comforts to isolate us from the hurt and suffering of the world? What will it take for us to cry out our desperate need for God through fasting? May mourning over sin and hunger for God overtake the church in a wave that shatters our complacency and satisfaction with the world! Then we will fast and delight in God as never before.

Almost everywhere at all times fasting has held a place of great importance since it is closely linked with the intimate sense of religion. Perhaps this is the explanation for the demise of fasting in our day. When the sense of God diminishes, fasting disappears.

-Edward Farrell

I would like to credit John Piper’s book A Hunger for God for giving me the insights and inspiration to write the above.

-Brian

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“No Strings Attached” Preaches to the Faithful

“No Strings Attached” starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman edged out competitors to be this week’s number one movie at the box office pulling in $20.3 million. In case you missed the ads for this latest romantic comedy, the premise is that Portman and Kutcher are friends who hook up for casual sex. Portman is an overworked doctor-in-training who lacks the time for romance and Kutcher is a sensitive writer who lost his last girlfriend to his TV star dad. So they make a pact to continue having as much casual sex as they want without the entanglements of a committed relationship. It doesn’t take a Netflix member to guess that feelings develop and the plot swirls around the relationship that isn’t supposed to happen. Just another boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, boy and girl develop feelings story, right?

Casual sex leading to a romantic relationship is not new for Hollywood, seen recently in “Love and Other Drugs” and appearing again in an upcoming film entitled “Friends with Benefits”. This should no longer come as a surprise. As one movie critic remarked, the premise is “not exactly shocking.” Why doesn’t this shock us? Because popular entertainment has been preaching this sexuality for years and culture has been listening. James Harleman, a pastor at Mars Hill in Seattle who maintains cinemagogue.com, writes this about the role of cinema:

Cinema is a modern day pulpit. Movie theaters are not so different from church assemblies; people flock to their local multiplexes, group together, and find themselves moved by a worldview revealed in story form, allowing themselves to be emotionally led by directors and screenwriters who influence how we feel, think, and even act.

A worldview underlies every movie and is expressed creatively through the medium of storytelling. This includes concepts of God, reality, the nature of man, morality, ethics, spirituality, and even sexuality. As much as we resist the idea that our entertainment has any effect on us, anyone who has cried at the end of “Braveheart” or felt their heart warmed by the ending of “Toy Story 3” knows that it does.

Therefore, “No Strings Attached” and its predecessors are preaching a view about human sexuality to anyone who will part with $8.50 to hear it and they have heard it well. U.S. Census figures estimate over 6.4 million cohabitating opposite sex couples. Sociologist Michael Kimmel, reporting on The Online College Social Life Survey administered to 7,000 students on nine campuses, said:

What may be surprising, though, is how many young people accept that hooking up – recreational sex with no strings attached – is the best and most prevalent arrangement available to them… Now, hooking up is pretty much all there is; relationships begin and end with sex. Hooking up has become the alpha and omega of young adult romance.

Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone magazine reported on the dating situation at Duke University writing:

Much to the disappointment of many students, female and male, there’s no real dating scene at Duke—true for a lot of colleges. “I’ve never been asked out on a date in my entire life—not once,” says one stunning brunette… Rather, there’s the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by—well, nothing, usually. “You’ll hook up with a guy, and you know that nothing will come out of it,” says Anna. The best thing you can hope for, she says, “is that you’ll get to hook up with him again.”

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Did Hollywood drive this view of sexuality or does it merely reflect it? The answer is both. Just like in a Baptist church the preacher’s message shapes the congregation and the congregation comes to the preacher’s message with certain expectations.

As Christians, what is our response to a film like “No Strings Attached”? The approach of a previous generation – to boycott or ignore this kind of entertainment – failed, even if it was well-intentioned. It created a gap between the church and the wider culture and left Christians poorly equipped. Our response should be to critically engage with entertainment and display the glory of Christian marriage to the culture.

Our entertainment influences us. It influences many Christians more than the Word of God as they consume more entertainment in a week than they do the Word. Thus, some films would be unwise to consume because the worldview they preach so dishonors Christ or the content they contain so feeds sinful desires that it would poison our hearts which are the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23, Phil. 4:8). But we also need to critically engage and not just enjoy or avoid film. What view of God lies behind the film? What does it say about humanity? About truth? About sexuality? Who are the heroes and who are the villains and what do they champion?  James Harleman expresses our task this way:

It is our hope that people would enjoy and engage cinema and storytelling mediums not just as “diversion” but with discernment, engaging the culture around us and reflecting on how it distorts and reflects the larger narrative of our lives.

Christians also need to portray the wonderful vision of biblical marriage as an alternative to the culture. The sexuality preached by “No Strings Attached” is a lie that is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. A Michigan State study revealed only one in ten “no strings attached” relationships end in romance with 90% adding stress and ending friendships. The sexuality preached by the God of the universe is radically different and more glorious. In Genesis 2:24 he declares: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This is a story of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy marries girl, boy and girl become one flesh and enjoy the pleasure of sex in the security and joy of marriage.

“No Strings Attached” is preaching a message and the culture is listening. Are we willing to critically engage that message and offer a compelling alternative?

-Brian

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The Arrogance of Ignorance: I Don’t Need That Doctrine-Theology Stuff

Why do Christians avoid doctrine? Fear, laziness and appeal.

In the years I’ve spent working, studying, serving and living with Christians, I see few consistencies. One of the most consistent, however, is the inconsistent approach to Christian doctrine and theology. If you asked five different Christians to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, you might get five very different explanations. Across denominational lines, and even within churches, the varying degrees of doctrinal knowledge are infinite among churchgoers. Why?

Each denomination has its own method of interpreting, teaching and understanding the Bible. Some champion doctrine while others focus on pragmatism. Pastors who teach sound doctrine are preaching both to those who listen and those who don’t. Church members who hunger for deep theological teaching might get only steps and videos on Sunday morning. In any event, it is every Christian’s personal responsibility to know the doctrines of their faith.

Some churchgoers would rather settle for a religious experience that offers comfortable choir numbers, scripted Sunday school and sweet devotional books rather than challenging themselves in the deep waters of theology and doctrine. Debates are a waste of time, I’m going to heaven anyway, so please take my offering and let me be. Fear: I might have to change my beliefs and I don’t want to.

Others take the same approach to knowing their faith as they do to flossing: it’s probably good if I pursue this, but I just don’t feel like it. Isn’t it enough that I don’t eat candy and I brush every day? Isn’t it enough that I like to serve on mission teams and I help clean up after events? I play the guitar in both services, I strike up conversations with the homeless…Jesus was all about loving and doing. I don’t have to be a stuffy, theological type to know and serve Him. Laziness: I really don’t want to work to know truth, so I’m going to pretend it’s a waste of time.

As the growing trend of casting off denominations gains steam, so is the idea of fuzzy doctrine. Since some churches have no history or parent-church, they don’t know what they believe, so most anything is okay. Existing churches (wanting to be relevant) are shedding theological poundage to better squeeze into the world while some church plants evade doctrine entirely. No one wants to scare off the lost with big words and divisive theology…they might not come back. Bring on the doughnuts and U2 music, but check that systematic theology book at the door. Appeal: to gain followers, we must bury the difficult things about Christianity and placate them with easy-to-swallow ideas.

Some Christians believe ignoring doctrine is the high road. If you want to discuss theology, you’re a know-it-all, cramming knowledge down throats at will and belittling those who don’t know as much. It’s an easy chip for any shoulder. In avoiding these things, the riches of God’s truth, character and purpose are missed. People don’t know why they believe things, resulting in a shallow faith they can’t explain and might abandon. Why don’t people evangelize? Why do people slide out of church? The Christian faith remains a mystery with a few familiar icons and parables tagged onto moral living and fun events. Can we blame the world for their cynicism?

To those who allow fear to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right doctrine comes right worship.  Millions gather weekly for singing and preaching…why? It feels good? They’ve got the songs memorized? They like the speaker? Many stand and sing with no zeal because they don’t know what they are singing about. Many listen to heresy every Sunday but don’t realize it. How can you sing about His blood if you don’t know why only His blood would do? How are we to discern bad preaching if we don’t know sound doctrine? It is in our understanding of doctrine that our songs are actual worship and we discern truth from error. Yes, knowing doctrine will change our thinking and even some long-held beliefs, but as a result we offer true worship to the right God in the right manner.

To those who allow laziness to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right theology and doctrine comes right works. Should we give to the needy? Yes. Does God want us to serve the local church? He does. Buy why? Do we do good things as atheists, because we know we should and like the feeling? What happens when we don’t feel it anymore? Are we trying to earn salvation? Are our works gospel centered? Understanding doctrine will bring a holy motivation, biblical confidence and eternal perspective to every task.

To those who allow appeal to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right theology and doctrine comes right witness. Avoiding hard truths and peddling “God is Love” will not grow heathens into disciples. We must present the truth boldly and answer tough questions biblically. Blank stares, half answers and flashy distractions repel the lost. There will be debates, disagreements and unpleasant conversations (enter Jesus and the Pharisees) but we are called to grow in knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18) and love Him with all of our mind (Mark 12:30). With solid theological roots, Christians share their faith confidently and the lost are saved.  Our pews will not be filled with empty souls awaiting entertainment, but solid disciples of Christ who know the One they worship and why.

God is not impressed or glorified by those who avoid His truth to make their lives easier. Christians believe in the God of the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus believed that the Bible was God’s Word and that its teaching was profitable, therefore so should His followers. Doctrines are not hand grenades, de-pinned and hurled across the sanctuary aisle. They are the foundational bricks of our faith, from God and for our good. Rejecting them is to despise Him, embracing them is to worship Him.

-Emily

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Christianity & Science: Friends, Enemies, or Frenemies?

Pope Benedict made headlines last week arguing for the similarity of science and religion as two quests for truth. Focusing on the Big Bang he accepted the science of an evolving cosmos while holding on to a God who devised the natural laws. This is another step in the Catholic Church’s effort to reconcile what many perceive to be a growing divide between Christianity and science. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome is home to numerous scientists who work on subjects such as biology, astronomy, and chemistry with guests like Stephen Hawking.  Pope John Paul II stimulated this effort in 1992 when he declared the church’s 17th century excommunication of Galileo was a grievous error.

In the last few years, “The Clergy Letter Project” has acquired the signatures of over 11,000 clergy calling for evolution to be taught in schools as settled science. The project birthed “Evolution Sunday”, observed each year on the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday, in which over 800 pastors and priests educate their congregations on science and evolution from the pulpit. Meanwhile, an organization such as BioLogos – founded by Francis Collins and consisting of Christians who are professional scientists, biblical scholars, pastors, and educators – exists to bring harmony to science and faith by “promoting a perspective on the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound”.

But is there truly a need to reconcile science and Christianity? What is science? At its core, science is founded on the scientific method – gather information, form hypothesis, experiment, observe, draw conclusions, and repeat. Remember that from middle school? A more precise definition from the Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology says science is:

The systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts. 2. The organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation.

At the risk of oversimplifying, science is a means of discovering truth about reality. Most Christians gladly accept the truth science gives us. However, we do not believe science is the only source of truth. We believe the God who created the world which science is able to discover also revealed truth about himself and his world in his Word. The truth God has revealed through his Word is the most accurate and authoritative; but it is this truth which spurs us to discover more through means such as science. Therefore, at the foundational level, there is no divide between science and Christianity since both are made possible by the same God who reveals truth through his Word first, and his world second.

The issue is not reconciling Christianity and science but Christianity and scientists. Elaine Howard Ecklund in her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think surveyed 1,700 elite scientists and determined 30% are atheists and only 36% “have some form of a belief in God”. While 20% were involved with a “house of worship” only 2% were evangelical Christians. The vast majority of scientists operate with a naturalistic worldview – everything is explainable by natural causes and there is no possibility of God or the supernatural. For the average scientist, science is the only source of truth and revelation from God is impossible. Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago expresses the view of the naturalistic scientist when he writes in the October 11, 2010 edition of USA Today:

Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.

There’s the issue – revelation is a lie and science is real truth. It should come as no surprise that there is a fight on the playground of truth when scientists arrogantly call us irrational and insist their means of finding truth is the only one allowed in the game.

So what is a Christian to do? First, trust the truth revealed in the Word of God. Clergy holding “Evolution Sunday” may believe they are reconciling two equal sources of truth, but all they are doing is accommodating the one that pays the bills to the one they believe is really true. If God has spoken through His Word, then it has the final say. Sadly, most ‘Christian’ attempts to reconcile science and God demand all the concessions from God and none from science. Science is carried out by sinful human beings with prejudices, biases, opinions, and worldviews and is constantly being corrected. As James Bryant Conant said:

The stumbling way in which even the ablest of the scientists in every generation have had to fight through thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks .

Second, Christians need to do science. Instead of being afraid of science, Christians need to run full speed into it and populate the universities. What would happen if instead of a priori dismissing God, scientists had a theistic worldview and a confidence in revelation? The same God who created this world has equipped us to discover more about it. Why shouldn’t we gladly pursue science as worship of this wonderful Maker?

So can Christianity and science get along? Steven Jay Gould, biologist and atheist, writes:

I do get discouraged when some of my colleagues tout their private atheism as a panacea for human progress against an absurd caricature of “religion,” erected as a straw man for rhetorical purposes… If these colleagues wish to fight superstition, irrationalism, philistinism, ignorance, dogma, and a host of other insults to the human intellect, then God bless them – but don’t call this enemy “religion.”

Hopefully more scientists will take that advice and the church will take the pursuit of science seriously. And despite the New York Times reporting that it took the Catholic Church 359 years until 1992 to apologize to Galileo, it actually lifted the sanctions 242 years earlier in 1758. Maybe we’re all making progress.

-Brian

 

Sheep of Justice: Who Are the Least of These in Matthew 25?

Are you sure you know what a passage in the Bible means? Be sure to check yourself before you wreck yourself (and anyone who will listen to you). One Sunday night I planned to teach on the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. I was looking forward to the opportunity to do what I had done numerous times before – press my hearers to abandon their selfishness and involve themselves in ministry to the poor and hurting of the world. But as I studied and wrestled with this parable I ran into a problem – that’s not what Jesus was saying.

You know the parable. At the end of time the Son of Man will come in his glory and gather all nations before him. He will separate out the people like sheep and goats based on how they treated the “least of these”. Those who gave them food and drink, who welcomed them, clothed them, and visited them while sick and in prison are the sheep. Those who did not are the goats. The sheep depart to eternal life while the goats depart to eternal punishment. So this is a pretty big deal.

Now for those who think Jesus is teaching we must earn our way to heaven through acts of social justice let me put your mind at ease.  When understanding Jesus’ parables it is important to know who his audience is. In this case, it is his disciples (Matt. 24:1) who are already in the kingdom of heaven. This parable is not telling them how to enter the kingdom but how those in it will live. If this parable was addressed to the crowds it would be a different story, but it’s not (?). It is telling those who are already sheep how sheep will live their lives between Jesus’ first and second coming.

Now for those who think we are off the hook, let me disturb your peace. The reason it seems Jesus sends people to eternal life based on these actions is because he meant it to seem that way. Actions of mercy to the “least of these” flow so naturally from saving faith that if someone does not do them it brings into question whether or not they’ve met Jesus. To put it another way – feeding the hungry and clothing the naked won’t save you; only faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection will do that. But that kind of faith necessarily produces acts of mercy and kindness to the “least of these”. Sheep act a certain way. If you don’t act like a sheep you’re probably a goat.

Ministry to the “least of these” is vitally important for anyone claiming to be a follower of Christ. So who are they? Anyone that is hungry, thirsty, poor, sick, or in prison, right? After all, this is one of the key passages for those claiming Jesus’ message was ultimately one of social justice – not one of personal salvation.

Setting aside Jesus’ overall message, that is not his message in this parable. The “least of these” are not just anyone, but the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or imprisoned who are followers of Christ and thus part of His body. While we’re familiar with the phrase “the least of these” we are less familiar with the two critical words that follow it – “my brothers”. Who are Jesus’ brothers? I’ll let him answer from Matthew 12:49-50:

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

A brother of Jesus is his disciple who does the will of his father; in other words, a Christian! Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus call anyone a brother if they do not believe in him. Now the parable begins to make more sense. The people in prison sheep are to visit are probably persecuted Christians. The reason meeting the needs of the “least of these” is like ministering to Jesus himself is because they are part of the body of Christ. Craig Blomberg in the New American Commentary explains the phrase “the least of these my brothers” this way:

Who are these brothers? The majority view throughout church history has taken them to be some or all of Christ’s disciples since the word “least” is the superlative form of the adjective “little ones”, which without exception in Matthew refers to the disciples, while brothers in this Gospel when not referring to literal biological siblings, always means spiritual kin.

The parable of the sheep and the goats shows Jesus’ followers the critical importance of caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world after his first coming and before his second and may be the fuel behind the radical sharing of the early church in Acts 2:45.

Two questions arise. First, can’t we go on applying this parable to all of the needy in the world? We can’t because it would be a lie. We would be misrepresenting Jesus Christ and using the Bible for our own purposes. Second, won’t Christians lose their passion for the starving and suffering of the world? No they won’t because Jesus addresses the needs of those outside the faith elsewhere. While they may not be our brothers, they are our neighbors who we are commanded to love as ourselves as seen most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Just because the Bible teaches something, doesn’t mean it teaches it in every passage. Let us faithfully teach each passage of Scripture without having to bend it to our agenda. At least that’s probably what a sheep would do.

-Brian

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Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail

“New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, friendly calls and humbug resolutions.” – Mark Twain

Flawed human beings (that would be all of us) love new beginnings. The infamous fresh start is a romantic zed idea– a new job, city, relationship or even haircut is the sufficient boost we need to reinvent ourselves and change our circumstances. Besides the abundance of alcohol and appetizers, many Americans look forward to the New Year for this reason. After we purchase that glossy calendar from the mall kiosk and settle on a party destination, we start thinking about possible resolutions.

Forty-five percent of Americans make resolutions each New Year. Topping the charts are weight loss, exercise, quitting smoking and debt reduction.  After one week, 75% of resolutions are still intact. After one month 64% are going strong. By July 1st, only 46% of the “it’s going to be different this year” resolutions are hanging around.  A meager 3% see their resolutions culminate in achievement. What’s funny is no one needs these figures to know resolutions are prone to failure. The cloudy thought hanging over many conversations about resolutions: “I never really keep mine.” Why?

There is nothing magical or compelling about a new calendar year to change one’s life. The calendar we use comes from the Romans (borrowed from the Greeks) who instituted this calendar around 700 B.C.; this is the only reason we begin measuring the year in January. If the doctor tells someone they will die if they don’t lose weight, many make inconvenient and difficult changes to do so. If someone decides to lose weight because January 1st is coming up, the odds are stacked against them. A calendar system is not sufficient motivation for weight loss.

To the elite 3% of self-motivated, we say carry on. For the rest of us, how are we motivated? By getting outside help, of course. Millions of dollars are spent every year getting someone else to do the work: trainers, counselors, consultants, support groups, etc. The poorer and slightly more committed buy a book, program or new equipment. If these fail, the solution becomes accommodation…after all, we’ve been doing it this way for a while, right? November rolls around and we remember there’s something we intended to change.  Why does this happen? Two reasons: wrong motivation and wrong method.

Christians are not motivated by a New Year for any life change – they are motivated by the worship of and obedience to God. Life change is better classified as sanctification – the work done by the Holy Spirit. At the moment of salvation, we are justified (meaning sealed and saved for eternity) but salvation is a continuous event. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

What is he saying? Those who truly repented and believed in Christ are being changed daily by the gospel (sanctification), which is evidence of their salvation. This is why we are sometimes puzzled by someone who claims they “got saved” but their lives look no different than before. A life yielded to the Savior will consistently bear fruit; if not, that life does not belong to Jesus.

The Christian life is not a finite series of boxes to check off for completion. Those indwelt by the Spirit will reflect His work by consistent life change. Christians cannot stay the same as they grow in Christ. Someone who has been walking with God for 30 years will look different than someone who received Christ last week. If we recognize an area of our lives that is not bringing God the most glory (from lazy Bible reading to poor housekeeping), we seek to change it. How? By hammering out some steps, strapping on self-confidence and choosing a reward for our impending victory? No.

The Holy Spirit is the all-sufficient source for lasting change. In John 14 He is called our Helper whom Jesus would send to teach and guide us. We are not asked to execute life change as lone rangers. Only a few verses later, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (15:5). When we see need for change, we seek God in prayer, repent of sin, search His Word, determine practical steps and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us according to God’s grace.

No doubt the names and faces of those who have accomplished positive change without seeking the Lord (non-Christian and Christian) are coming to mind. Achieving greatness apart from God, while possible, eliminates the need for Him and we become our own savior. Very few things are celebrated in America more than the self-motivated, self-sufficient success story…we love us! Change of this kind produces pride, self-righteousness and idolatry. Weight loss might make me healthier, however, apart from God, it brings me glory; if I can do this on my own, why do I need God for anything?

Many life changes honor God: overcoming an addiction, losing weight, making wiser financial choices, praying more, spending more time with your kids, being a better employee, etc. When we recognize these things, we pursue change immediately. James wrote “He who knows the good he ought to do and does not do it, to him it is sin (4:17).” The proper motivation and method brings God glory, joy to Christians and light to the lost. God will enact change in the lives of the obedient, no matter the date. So what are you waiting for?

Happy New Year.

-emily

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