Thursday, January 12, 2017

Beyond a Happy New Year

So here we are, face to face with a new year.  Over the past many years, I have expressed dismay at the traditional New Year’s resolutions ritual in which we inflict a performance review on ourselves and then decide what we need to do to improve ourselves.  My objection to this annual exercise is that it promotes a focus on ourselves and greatly minimizes a focus on God; it also engenders a self-righteousness that moves us away from God and others rather than toward them.

I would like to suggest an approach that I believe is more Biblical and more constructive.  Please consider with me the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians:  “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  This passage expresses the mystery of the Christian life: that we are responsible for our part, but it is God who is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

But how do we go about following Paul’s command?  How do we do our end of the “work” while remaining focused on our Lord?  I think King David can help us here.  King David knows something about falling short.  After initiating an illicit love affair with a married woman (adultery in David’s time was punishable by death via stoning), David responds to Bathsheba’s resulting pregnancy with a cover-up plan designed to deceive Bathsheba’s husband Uriah and the public.  When that plan fails, the King of Israel resorts to having Uriah killed, again in a deceitful way. 

We don’t have to wait until a New Year and a personal self-examination by David before the story continues.  The Lord sends Nathan the prophet to confront David, and David responds with an honest confession.  David also remains focused on the LORD rather than plunging into some self-directed self-improvement project.  We can read a more in-depth passage about David’s wrestling with his own sin in Psalm 32:

            How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
            Whose sin is covered!
            How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
            And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

            When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
            Through my groaning all day long.
            For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
            My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.        Selah.
            I acknowledged my sin to You,
            And my iniquity I did not hide;
            I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
            And You forgave the guilt of my sin.

It is easy to think that since none of us is the King of Israel with a personal prophet at our disposal that we might need to take the personal sin issue upon ourselves.  But please consider with me another passage in the Psalms written by David:

            Search me, O God, and know my heart;
            Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
            And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
            And lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:23-24).

David most helpfully models for us an open heart that invites the LORD to search his heart.  By doing this David not only exhibits humility in resisting the option of examining himself, he also demonstrates his desire for genuine holiness by involving the LORD into the examination process, the LORD who is not deceived by even the most deceitful heart.

I still do not entirely understand how this working out our salvation as God works in us comes together.  But I believe that King David has given us a good start.  It seems to me that cultivating a humble heart before God is essential.  To be sure, God can search the proudest and most self-focused of hearts, but it is the humble heart that will be able to hear Him.  Humility is hard to fabricate, but we can follow King David’s model and study and meditate on God’s Word.  As we do that, we will be better able to recognize who He is and who we are before Him.  And as we add prayer to Bible study and our daily life routine, we will be putting ourselves in a position to see and hear Him personally.  And finally, like David, we can be wise about the company we keep.  By pursuing relationship with one another and by remaining open to learning and hearing about the less than pretty parts of our hearts and lives, God can do His sanctifying work in us.

The wish for a happy new year is nice, but may we not stop there.  May we begin 2017 in full pursuit of our loving and sanctifying Savior, walking before Him with open and humble hearts.