Happy New Year, ya’ll! May God bless you with the comfort of good memories and the hope for a brilliant 2014. This will be the only post this week, so I made it a double-edition. Enjoy!
OF RESOLUTIONS AND GOD’S PLANS
David C. Hughes
In many ways Mary and I are opposites, which we’ve found works really well in our marriage. She’s social and outgoing, someone who enjoys hanging out with people. I’m not. I’m of the “drinking makes you funnier” camp while she’s in the “drinking makes me funnier” faction. She loves parties, loves going out, loves having fun. I’d rather hole up in my office curled around a good book or tapping away on the next New York Times best-seller. She’s spontaneous and relatively flexible, someone who can receive a last-minute text inviting her for impromptu margaritas with the girls and actually say yes. And like it. I don’t. In fact, those kinds of invitations make my hands sweat and my toes curl in my sneakers; give me a month’s notice if you ever want me to join you out for a beer. I’m as flexible as a piece of rebar, as spontaneous as a potato. I’m a planner, a recovering goal-setter, a former militant to-do list subscriber.
Mary doesn’t worry about a darn thing. I, on the other hand, fret about everything, and I churn enough anxiety to butter a piece of toast the size of Jerry World with angst and apprehension. She actually owned a T-shirt picturing a turtle crossing a little span above a stream which said “Build a bridge and get over it.” It was her answer for everything. Me? I worried about the bridge being safe enough to cross, whether the appropriate load derating was applied before bridge construction began, and whether the expansion joints were properly located and gapped. Well, maybe I didn’t worry about those particular details, but I did–I do!–worry nonetheless. I’m a Martha, and she’s a, well, a Mary. And, yes, there really is something about her.
So it logically follows that when it comes to making New Year’s Resolutions, Mary and I are no different in our differences: Mary thinks New Year’s resolutions are just plain silly. I, on the other hand, plan my year around them. Or at least I used to. But now that I’ve got more gray hair on my head than I do brown, I still make resolutions, but only two or three of them, and more to set the general tone for the year rather than to plan an around-the-world flight in a Cessna 150.
“You’re just setting yourself up for failure,” Mary told me when I asked her why she doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions. “Why do you have to wait until January 1st to start making a change anyway?” Yes, true, “today is the first day of the rest of your life” and all that. But there’s just something about lowering the curtain on the past year and raising the expectations on the new one that plucks at the heartstrings of second chances. It’s the call to let go of the past and start afresh and anew. It’s the remembrance of lessons learned and goals accomplished, of tasks planned, objectives completed, and milestones yet to be completed. It’s the admonishment of the inner critic to quit bringing up past failures, to move on, to build the proverbial bridge and get over it. It’s the challenge to finally tone down the hyperbole and capricious flourish and get on with writing that’s blessedly to the point. With all those enticements, I just don’t know why Mary won’t give in to the siren song of heady resolve.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always generated at least one or two resolutions to carry me into the New Year. I don’t want to waste a perfectly good opportunity to set myself up for failure, right Mary? Ha! But what Mary should realize is I’m a pretty persistent fellow, and once I sink my teeth into the meaty forearm of a challenge, you gotta all but break my jaw to force me to let go. I pursued Mary for quite a few years before she finally said yes (and she’s the first to admit it’s one of the best “yesses” she’s ever uttered). So, for me, New Year’s provides the coiled squat from which springs the lunge onto the calf muscle of what’s most important to me. Like toning down the hyperbole and capricious flourish and getting on with writing that’s blessedly to the point. Not.
Many years ago I’d spend hours–hours!–developing, honing, and polishing my resolutions until they shone like Jesus ascending into His glory. I’d sit on the couch poring over my financial status and adjust my monetary goals for the coming year. I’d resolve to exercise more, get outdoors more, and–gulp–spend more time with people. I’d examine my conscience and resolve to serve more, give more, become more involved in church. All those fresh shiny new resolutions neatly listed one after another in my notebook would stare back at me, give me a little thrill of hope . . . and scare me to death. But I’d hook my thumbs in my belt loops, hitch up my pants, breathe a sigh of determination, and move forward. I actually don’t recall accomplishing many of those shiny new resolutions (especially the financial ones, go figure), and after the year was out, most, if not all, got sliced into the water hazard of reality even as I teed up the resolutions for the upcoming New Year. So over the years my rigid carving of resolutions into granite softened to two or three reasonable goals penned into my notebook to provide general direction for the year’s expectations.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote “Resolve and thou art free,” but if resolutions are not put into the proper perspective they can just as easily tie you up in the Gordian knot of rigidity and inflexibility. For a planner and self-confessed control freak, this has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. I had put so much emphasis in life planning, goal setting, and determination to succeed that I forgot (or brushed aside) one of the most important aspects of life: enjoying it! I turned goals into idols, and once I engaged my life’s focus on the altar of accomplishment, I flagellated myself with the whip of determination, only to fall short time after time at the foot of that altar. Then, amazingly, I’d drag myself back to where I’d started, bind my wounds, and do it all over again. So when Mary said that resolutions just set you up for failure, I have to admit that, when framed within the perspective of pride and selfishness, her declaration is true. Been there, done that.
“The Lord knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile,” the psalmist wrote in Psalm 94:11. So if, from God’s perspective, and as I’ve learned over the years, human plans are futile, why did the Good Lord give us a brain and the capacity for us to use it for planning purposes? Why, in heaven’s name, would He give me the spiritual gift of administration if He didn’t expect me to use it? The key lies within the Wisdom of Solomon: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans” (Proverbs 16:3). Ah ha! So for the majority of my life I’d gladly usurped God’s authority, made my own plans, and tried to follow them. And as a result I’d played the role of God about as well as Jim Carrey’s character in the movie Bruce Almighty: miserably. But you know the awesome thing about God? He’s the ultimate gentleman and always honors our free will.
He’ll watch as we go our own way and learn our own lessons, all the while calling to us, encouraging us, exhorting us to peel our eyes away from our own self-made vision and turn back to the vision He put in front of us: His will for us. Want a fire-and-brimstone reality check regarding this? Check out what God said through the Prophet Isaiah as the Hebrews sought Egypt’s help rather than God’s counsel to protect them against an impending Assyrian invasion: “’Woe to the obstinate children,’ declares the Lord, ‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin’” (Isaiah 30:1). The Assyrians later swept across Judah and blockaded Jerusalem.
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails,” Solomon wrote in Proverbs 19:21. So our purpose in life is to seek, discover, and align ourselves with God’s purpose for us–His will. But, again, this was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. To say I can be stubborn, self-centered, and hard-headed is like saying the federal budget is a little out of whack: definitely an understatement. But how do we know what God’s will is for us? Think outside the box.
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). Quit following the crowd, stop keeping up with the Joneses, quit undulating with the sheeple, stop caring about what you think other people think of you and start listening to what God thinks of you (hint: it’s pretty cool! And pretty freeing). After all, He’s the only one that counts anyway. Then and only then can your heart and your eyes be opened to what God truly has in mind for you. And once you discover your path, you can trust God will guide every step you take in fulfilling His purpose for you (another hint: what’s your heart telling you to do? That’s most likely the direction of God’s will as long as your intentions are to please God. What are you afraid of? Remember, God promises to provide everything you need to fulfill His plans for you. See Philippians 1:6 and 4:19).
But you have to quit thinking like the world thinks and start trusting what God thinks. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” Solomon wrote in the Book of Proverbs, “in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). In other words, get thee out of God’s way! Submitting to Him, trusting in His provision, His authority, and His love was, for me, one of the hardest steps I’ve ever taken, but once I made that leap of faith from the world’s security to God’s wonder, you’d be amazed at how He’s straightened my out path and lined it with the most incredible signposts pointing me in the right direction.
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed,” Solomon wrote in Proverbs 15:22. “Plans are established by seeking advice; so if you wage war, obtain guidance” (Proverbs 20:18). And what is life but a hard-fought, long-executed war for the establishment and growth of God’s Kingdom and against indifference, apathy, and mediocrity? God created us to be purpose-driven and aligned with His will, and He created people to love each other, encourage each other, and help each other grow in wisdom and in truth. And for any of us to reach our full potential we have to be willing to seek counsel from not only God, but also from those to whom He has imparted His Wisdom for the glory of His Kingdom and for our benefit. Again, because of my bent toward independence, even from the God who created me, I’ve harbored an unwillingness to seek counsel from others, choosing instead to rely on my own knowledge and wisdom garnered from the school of hard knocks. The result: sometimes I end up like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, living the same thing over and over and over until I finally relent and admit I need help.
And as always, I strive to remain in God’s word as I move along the path of His will. Each morning, while eating my bowl of oatmeal and drinking my half-caff, I read a meditation from Susan Young’s Jesus Calling and glean the suggested Scripture readings for the day. I also read the verse of the day on LifeChurch.tv’s YouVersion Bible App, and, of course, I dive into the Bible as I research and write my book, The Epiphany of Joy. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
So, even as Mary and I enter this New Year as a couple of opposites aligned like a bar magnet in the same direction, and even as she sticks with her attitude toward resolutions and I morph my own attitude toward one of reasonableness, trust, and alignment to God’s will, I can’t help but look back on the past year with wonder, nostalgia, and a sense of amazement that the King of kings and the Lord of lords would resolve to love me no matter how boneheaded, stubborn, and selfish I’ve been. “He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake,” David wrote in Psalm 23:3. My resolutions, thankfully, are now all for His name’s sake. I have resolved. And now I art free.
Copyright © 2013, David C. Hughes