I’ve never been one who does well making and keeping resolutions in the new year. I’ve only really been successful at it once, so I only do it sporadically, and usually last-minute. This is probably due to the vagueness of past resolutions, more than my unwillingness/laziness, though both of those have come into play at times.
This year I decided to do something a bit different. I am not making any new year resolutions. Instead, I am setting some specific goals for the year, something Michael Hyatt and my friend Chad Brooks have both stressed recently as important for leaders, particularly leaders in the church. What’s the difference between setting goals and new year resolutions, you wonder?
Resolutions celebrate the destination, often ignoring the process. They tend to be vague, lacking the imperative of deadlines and measurable success. You resolve to lose 15lbs this year; how and when you get there doesn’t matter as long as you arrive.
Setting Goals celebrates the journey toward a specific end. When setting goals, one typically decides on an end result, yes, but also the measurable steps that will be necessary to attain the goal. This provides opportunities to not only celebrate the attainment of the desired end, but also to recognize what is happening along the way. With this frame of mind, you might still set a goal of losing 15lbs, but you will also set parameters for measuring success, such as a completion date, and the steps necessary to attain that goal.
It may be a matter of symantics, but I think you get the point. This year, I am setting some specific goals with measurable markers for success and with plans for how to achieve those specific goals. This year it will be about the process, rather than the end goal.
The grand narrative of the Bible tells the sweeping story of God’s love for humanity. The overarching thread in this story is God’s ultimate goal for his people: holiness, which is righteous love of God and others. This righteousness is something which we are told cannot be produced by us, only received as a free gift of grace. It is a righteousness grounded upon, and set in motion by, Christ’s meritorious crucifixion, death, and resurrection. It is a righteousness that cannot be known apart from a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our heavenly Father.
Like goal setting, the holiness of God’s people is not just some vague future goal reserved for life after death. It is a goal to be realized in the present life as well, and God has given us parameters within which his people can grow in holiness, and markers by which we can witness the transformation of lives.
The key to success in achieving goals lies in developing new patterns of life. We cannot hope to achieve new goals while continuing to do the same things we have always done. Likewise, we cannot hope to have our character transformed (to gain holy tempers), if we continue to follow the same patterns that we have always followed.
The Bible is full of God’s decrees, which were made to establish new patterns for Israel. I urge you to take some time to read Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I know some of the language is difficult, but you can’t help but notice in reading them that God is setting up new patterns for the benefit of his people, not for the purposes of control and repression.
Even (maybe especially) now, the patterns of life that we see in scripture point those who follow them toward God and his purposes. They help to reorient us. Holiness is the free gift of God to those who believe and follow him along the road that leads to eternal life. But there is more to this than simply looking toward the destination. Becoming a holy people is about the journey as well.
Here are just a few of the patterns that the Bible demonstrates for us. I wonder if we haven’t missed something critical to discipleship when we fail to live into these patterns of life, and instead follow our own wisdom.
In a recent Productive Pastor podcast, Seedbed Sower-in-Chief J.D. Walt, Jr. mentioned that the Sabbath is the first thing in the Bible that God calls holy. It is a day of rest established to interrupt the ordinary pattern of existence and re-orient us toward God. In Jesus’ day the Sabbath had been twisted through the addition of laws which missed God’s intended purposes, and he reminded us that Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In our day we have done far worse than the first-century Israelites: we have jettisoned the Sabbath altogether. I know very few people within the church who take a true Sabbath (your’s truly included). It is not our right to take down that which God has instituted for his people. What would we look like as individuals and the church if we were to insist on taking Sabbath as God has commanded us?
This is another area of struggle for me. As an American I live in a place of plenty. Even though my family is at the low-end of the fiscal scale, we do not often suffer or go without. Our society has become gluttonous with success. We have forgotten what it means to rely upon God to supply all of our needs and have built idols of gold for ourselves. Throughout the centuries the church has observed a regular practice of fasting, which continues the pattern set by Israel before. Fasting is observed for many reasons and in many ways, but always at the heart of a fast is the desire to develop complete dependence on God. We are called to fast in solidarity with the poor, to protest injustice, to cry out to God for mercy, and for a myriad of other good reasons. In all of these, we fast in obedience to God until the bridegroom (Jesus) returns.
The pattern of fasting in scripture is balanced by a pattern of feasting, where the people of God give thanks to God alone for his provision and give praise to him for his loving-kindness. Feasting loses its true meaning without the fast. In our society, feasting has become the norm, to the extent that it is mere gluttony and self-indulgence. When we first live into a pattern of fasting first, we can then rightly feast on the knowledge of God and his good gifts.
Just as there is a time to fast in solidarity, there is also a time to mourn. Some cultures have created an art form out of mourning, and even employ professional mourners for necessary occasions. This was the case with Israel in the first-century. I wonder if we don’t also have our professional mourners. They don’t follow a funeral procession, wailing and crying for the deceased. Instead, they constantly wail and cry about the church, declaring her damaged or dead, not recognizing that the lifebeat of the Holy Spirit still courses through her veins. They forget that the Bride is beautiful and instead declare her a corpse. But what if we returned to a Biblical pattern of mourning, where we cry out at injustice and persecution, and where we openly lament that so many are wandering lost, apart from the saving love of Jesus Christ?
As feasting provides the balance to fasting, so also thanksgiving brings balance to mourning. I am saddened when I reflect on the times when I have been thankless, even bitter, in the midst of God’s great blessings. When I read stories of the persecuted church around the world, I am often amazed by the declarations of hope and thanksgiving uttered by those who have lost everything, but gained Christ. What would it take for us to become a people of thanksgiving, who related to others first and foremost through a posture of complete gratitude to God for his love and mercy?
What other patterns of life do you see in scripture that help to orient you toward God? What challenges do you face in living into these patterns? And what do you think about the five patterns listed above? Leave your comments below and let’s reflect together on what it means to be called by Christ to be in the world, but not of the world.