If January is often a month of new beginnings, a New Year’s clean slate, which we greet with a this-year-is-going-to-be-different kind of optimism, then February is often a month of discouraging realism. We often find our inflated hopes for change have sprung a leak, and our feet are back on the difficult ground where we started.
The euphoria we felt when we made our resolutions once again didn’t carry us over the arduous terrain to the promised land of transformation.
We’re all familiar with that euphoric feeling. It’s the surge of optimism we experience when we see the gracious benefits we could enjoy if we were to achieve a certain goal. The euphoria inspires us to form a new resolve to pursue that goal. And if kept in its proper perspective, it’s very helpful. God designed us to experience that feeling to encourage us to undertake the struggle of pursuing a new and better direction.
But God did not design the euphoria to carry us through the struggle. He intended us to follow through with prayerful determination, planning, discipline, perseverance, accountability, and endurance. Euphoria is the foretaste of the future grace we desire. It helps launch us on the difficult journey to obtain it. But if we mistake the euphoria as being the same thing as a resolution, we should not be surprised when our “resolutions” seem to evaporate.
Infatuation Isn’t Enough
Here are a few illustrations of what I mean:
To see the euphoria of a weight loss resolve, talk to someone who has just started a new diet program, or who has just lost 20 pounds in the last few months. But to know the real nature of the struggle and the benefits of weight loss, talk to someone who has kept off the weight for five years or more.
To see the euphoria of a Bible reading and prayer resolve, talk to someone who has just started a new plan, or has been keeping up with a plan for a few weeks now. But to know the real nature of the struggle and benefits of these spiritual disciplines, talk to someone who has persevered in them for many years.
To see the euphoria of romantic infatuation, talk to someone who has recently fallen in love. But to know the real nature of the struggle and benefits of romantic love, talk to someone who has faithfully loved the same person for decades, for better or for worse.
Now, in most cases, things like successful long-term weight loss, long-term exercise of spiritual disciplines, and long-term covenantal love begin with the excitement and hope of a new beginning. The eager enthusiasm is a good thing as far as it goes — as long as we remember it doesn’t go very far. No one who’s been on a real adventure very long is sustained by the adrenaline rush of initial excitement. Infatuation is not enough. It wasn’t meant to be. We need something more.
God Wants More for Us Than We Do
We actually need a lot more. And the reason we need a lot more than excitement to keep us going is because the transformation we need most — the transformation God is aiming for — goes far deeper and involves far more than we typically understand or expect at first.
Let’s take weight loss for example. If we’re overweight, we think what we need is to lose the weight and then we’ll be happy. Therefore, what we think we need is to stick to a diet and exercise regimen. Seems simple.
We make an enthusiastic, optimistic start, and maybe even make some encouraging progress, only to discover reality isn’t nearly so simple. We discover all sorts of powerful appetites and habits and fears and past pain and temptations at work in us that we didn’t fully appreciate. Jesus captured the difficulty in these few words: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
The Flesh Is Weak
The flesh is weak. That is the primary reason our resolves, especially worthy resolves, are so hard to keep. Like the disciples in their early days with Jesus, we are prone to underestimate the weakness of our flesh. And like the disciples, this is not only true regarding our fortitude, but also our motives. Unless the Lord disciplines us (Hebrews 12:3–11), we too tend to be more motivated in our resolves by a desire to be the greatest than a desire to truly serve others out of love for them (Luke 22:24).
God wants far more for us than we typically want for ourselves. Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). In his school of discipleship, he is aiming at helping us learn to walk by the Spirit so we won’t gratify the sinful desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). For the Christian, God uses the futility (Romans 8:20), as well as our sufferings (2 Corinthians 4:17), as a means of producing a more profound transformation in us.
What God wants for us is faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5–7). And all these things are cultivated through the various difficult struggles of pursuing a resolve.
How to Fulfill Every Good Resolve
We were never meant to fulfill our resolves on our own, because the transformation we need most requires a wisdom and power far beyond ours. Which is why Paul wrote,
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12)
Every resolve for kingdom good — which are the only kind we should pursue, whether it’s weight loss, spiritual disciplines, a potential marriage partner, or something else (Matthew 6:33) — and every work of faith requires the power and wisdom of God, because the outcomes God wants are bigger than we can produce.
God set it up this way so that we would experience the maximum, multilayered, fruit-producing joy from each outcome and his multifaceted glory would shine most brightly through us. If we understand this from the outset, we can receive as God’s gift the euphoric feeling we experience when we first resolve to undertake a work of faith. God grants it as a foretaste of future grace and to help us get started. But it is not a balloon to float us over the difficult road.
The real, substantial, faith-growing, love-expanding, endurance-training, joy-producing benefits are only realized through the hardship of pursuing our resolves. So do not lose heart in pursuing yours.