It’s exciting when someone calls his shot.
A baseball player points beyond the stands to the parking lot and then lifts his bat. The sales goal is written on the whiteboard in the office for all to see. A boy runs in from looking at the starry sky and proclaims he’s going to be an astronaut.
Fans rise to their feet and wait as a hush falls over the crowd. Coworkers watch… and compete. Parents smile, pat the wide-eyed boy on the head and hope.
Only time will tell.
Have you called your shot? Have you made some resolutions for the coming year? If so, be careful.
Making plans is a dangerous thing to do. Oscar Wilde said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
This is especially true of Christians who feel moved to make commitments to God. Two tragedies await those who heed the call to a holy life: one comes from failure, and the other, success.
I recently attended a church men’s retreat. While gathered around a campfire, we were encouraged to enter into a solemn commitment, “…to uphold godliness, faith, love, truth, character, honor, commitment, strength, sacrifice, loyalty, grace and mercy.”
A month after the retreat, I had a chance to encourage the men to reflect on how they were doing.
Every single one of us failed to uphold the standard to which we committed. We all compromised. Some doubted. Some were hateful. Some were dishonest, dishonorable, lazy or weak. Some were selfish, backstabbing, judgmental or condemning.
In one way or another, all of us blew it since we promised to uphold godliness. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Still, while we all failed, we also managed a bit of success.
“Hasn’t there been some real godliness on display?” I asked. “Think about it, where have you been faithful? Where have you put others’ needs before yours? Surely you’ve spoken some truth,” I continued, “shown some strength of character and fulfilled your commitment in some way.”
Along with their failures, I wanted them to hold their successes in mind.
I admit, I led the guys down a path with two pits. Would they slide toward despair or toward delusion?
I had no idea what they were thinking or feeling at this point, but I know myself. I know how hard I work to make good on my promises. I know how I pat myself on the back for the smallest signs of faithfulness. “God has given me strength,” I tell myself with all the false humility I can muster. I also know how I beat myself up for my shortcomings. Accepting these tongue-lashings is just more false humility. I wouldn’t be so disappointed in my performance if I didn’t have such a high opinion of myself in the first place.
I told the men what I needed to hear. Whether we fall into despair over our failures or into delusions of grandeur over our successes, both are tragedies because in both cases we’re self-absorbed. Wallowing in guilt exalts self and sin over God's sacrifice, and even the slightest self-satisfaction exalts human effort over God's sanctification. Both are pride.
These are the two pits in the path of the planner. If you’re prone to making New Year’s resolutions, beware. “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
It is said that Rabbi Simcha Bunim, one of the early Hasidic masters, used to carry two notes with him on which he would meditate. The rabbi’s teachings were never written down, but oral tradition says he taught the following:
“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”
To be created in the image of God gives man regal dignity. To be made out of common dirt and destined for death is, well, humiliating. It’s a divine tightrope act between two thoughts that requires a tension at heights that are often disorienting.
“I am but dust and ashes” and “for my sake was the world created,” walking humbly with our Creator in these twin realities is the walk of faith.
So, with the pits in view and the notes in our pockets, how are we to proceed?
The only safe way forward is to take our eyes off of our plans, off our failures and our successes, and look to another.
There is one who set his plan in motion before time began. Jesus called his shot and he conquered death. Having never failed, he paid the price for all our failures. Having only succeeded, he made his victories ours. We can enjoy the same status as the God-man himself. Our part is to simply believe it (and Ephesians 2:8 teaches that even the faith to do so is a gift).
Jesus was, of course, wise to warn us about plans and commitments, and he offers us the way forward:
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”
– Matthew 5:33-37
It’s really not about us, and it’s not about our plans or commitments. It’s not about our sin and it’s not about our success. It’s about walking with a God who loves us enough to get us Home despite our best efforts to wander all over the map.
Steve Brown says, “Obsession with getting better is probably the biggest reason we don’t get better. It is only when we are obsessed with Christ’s love that we get any better. In fact, the only people who get better are those who know that, if they don’t get better, God will still love them anyway.”
Jesus isn’t asking us to make more commitments. He’s waiting for us to simply say, “Yes.” He is the planner and finisher of our faith. All we need to do is take our eyes off ourselves, set our gaze on the one who is the way and start walking.
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you ... He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it,' when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”
– Isaiah 30:18-21
It’s actually kinda funny. When we walk with him, aware of his presence, unconditional love and guidance, we’re already where we’re going. When we lose ourselves in him, we’re already Home.
May you enjoy the walk. Happy New Year!