by Justine Toh
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
The moment the Bible app gave me a green tick after I’d completed that day’s devotional, I knew that one of my New Year’s resolutions—to read the bible more consistently and faithfully—was doomed.
It’s not that a tick is especially triggering. Or maybe it is if, like me, you’re addicted to achievement. Does receiving excellent feedback leave you on a high? If yes, then you’d also recognise the thrill of crossing items off your To Do list—and how the satisfaction of achieving things can overwhelm why you wanted to do them in the first place. You’d understand how abiding quietly with God could easily morph into a performance of productivity. How a practice meant to enlarge His presence in our lives could become, ironically, full of ourselves and our agendas.
Of course, it could just be me. But I wonder if my failed experiment in forming a new Bible-reading habit captures the dilemma of all New Year’s resolutions: those earnest promises we make to ourselves in the hope of achieving lasting change in our lives.
The problem of the New Year’s resolution is that it tends to focus our attention on our efforts, rather than God’s.
Here are some usual suspects: Get fit. Make time to pray. Wake up earlier. Read books rather than scroll screens. Read the Bible more consistently. Take the stairs. Get outside every day.
Notice that, often, there’s no “I will” before any of them. That’s because we intuitively get the inbuilt premise of the New Year’s resolution. It’s one that also happens to be the default assumption of educated, middle-class people everywhere: that I am a self-made, self-willed individual responsible for my life. For change to happen, all I need is my calendar and my desire for transformation. Resolutions only need the action words—get, make, wake, read, take—because we know we’re the agents of change taking charge of ourselves.
At which point God, I’m sure, has to laugh. Either that or he’ll cry.
It’s not that we break resolutions within a week or that God dismisses our desire to improve. In fact, he has excellent perspective when it comes to our ambitions and our limits. But we don’t and so our situation comes to seem so tragic that it’s funny: we’re convinced of our need to change but find it virtually impossible to master ourselves. But since we’re stuck in the groove of our self-belief, we’ll still make more resolutions next year. And the year after that.
For the Christian, there’s an added irony. Our desire to strive for good things—like better Bible-reading habits—can easily warp into striving for our own significance. Or, if you like, building our identities on the rock of our performance rather than God’s grace. The risk is that we become full of ourselves rather than full of God. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), focusing on our accomplishments can blind us to our need for Him.
Then there’s the possibility that we try to recruit Jesus to our cause. For instance, take the popularity of Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”. Within Paul’s letter, the verse expresses his ability to be content whatever the circumstances. Yet in a world obsessed with success, it’s easy to misread the line as a promise that Jesus will baptise our hard-won efforts and cheer us on as we strive for our goals. As my favourite Christian comic quipped on Twitter, “I can do all things through this verse I took out of context”.
Perhaps the problem is that even if we’re Christian, we still want to be our own savior. We prefer a gospel of hard work—or, self-transformation sprinkled with a little Christ—to a gospel of grace where we contribute nothing to our salvation except our brokenness.
So where does this leave us? Should we forget self-improvement and never make a New Year’s resolution again?
Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. After all, it’s worth me trying to develop a better Bible-reading habit! But efforts that rest in God’s freely given love to me in Jesus—rather than my own zeal for achievement—will focus less on the thrill of doing things well and more on the actual goal: greater intimacy with the one who already accepts me completely.
I’ll keep trying to become the person God wants me to be, working out my salvation with fear and trembling, remembering that it is God who works in me to will and act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13). As he is the one who achieves lasting change in people’s lives, I’ll raise an eyebrow whenever I’m tempted to congratulate myself on my hard work.
So, I should probably pull out my Bible app again—and steel myself for that tick.
Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia, and the author of Achievement Addiction. Find her on Twitter @justinetoh and LinkedIn. For more information about Achievement Addiction, go to www.reconsidering.com.au.