Resolution talk exhausts me. It’s everywhere in the weeks surrounding New Year’s, and with the proliferation of life-hacking websites comes the threat that all this life-skills stuff may be like oars in the canoe without a compass.
“We can help you get where you’re going!”
But how do I decide where to go?
So, wary of how superficial the resolution thing can be, and because we’re fans of good questions here at the blog, I’ve foregone most of the typical New Year’s resolution making in favor of New Year’s question asking. And this year I’m asking two questions:
What’s the difficult truth about me?
What’s the hopeful truth about me?
(If these questions seem narcissistic to you, you’re probably right. But maybe that’s part of the difficult truth about me. [See what I did there?] And I think the truths about us are often the hardest truths for us to see, so I figure starting there will hopefully lead to the discovery of lots of other truths about God and others and the world around me.)
I’m asking these questions because I’m learning that we sometimes run after change as a way of escape. If we can get sexier or happier or more successful, maybe our demons won’t shout so loud. They’re still there, but we hope we’ve put some distance between us and them. And the problem with that kind of change is that you can invest so much in it and really change in so many ways, and yet discover that nothing is different. Your demons are right there with you, in spite of how hard you ran.
Les Miserables is the story of, among other things, a man who is trying to escape himself. Jean Valjean is a criminal who forges a new identity and does everything right, becoming a saint in the eyes of the village he has lifted up through his savvy entrepreneurship and benevolent civic leadership. No one knows about his shady past because he has taken control of his life and accomplished a stunning change. But his past is still back there, haunting him. He will always be an ex-con. And eventually he realizes that, in spite of all the change, things aren’t any different. Victor Hugo (and Hugo’s apt translators) share with us the epiphany he has when considering whether to own his past or to keep it hidden: he could either remain in paradise and become a demon, or descend to hell and become an angel. (You won’t find that line in the movie. Reading #FTW.) To run to where your demons live is to run to hell, but in the process we may be returning to ourselves somehow, and returning to God, too. And in doing so we may become angels. It may be that our trek toward paradise is really an effort of hellish escape.
But we can approach change as a way of return. I remember one of my theology profs teaching us about Augustine’s Confessions, saying there was a theme of exitus et reditus in his spiritual memoir, an arc of departure and return. (Any theological concept uttered in Latin is inherently deep, just like any preaching rendered with an English or Australian accent is inherently more powerful and persuasive. It’s a law of the universe.) We don’t get very far into this life before we decide it would be nice to get away from ourselves somehow. We have an insecurity or a sadness or a craving or an anger that is uncomfortable; it threatens to pollute the other things we want. So we put walls up and put distance between us and ourselves, between us and our hearts. Or we, like Adam and Eve, believe we can do better than our fellowship with God, so we put distance between us and God Who is our Home. We depart. We escape. But after all that changing we merely find ourselves fragmented and homeless.
So I suspect our return begins with seeing the difficult truth about ourselves. We need to see who we’ve hurt. We must understand the depth and damage of our addictions. We have to own up to the ways that we have tried to put distance between us and God. I’m asking for that this year.
But what if, in the same moment when you heard that difficult truth, you also heard the hopeful truth of who you can love, of the depth and promise of God's ability to heal, of His gracious willingness to forgive? What if you heard about the astonishing capacity that opens up within us to be courageous like Jesus, creative as He is creative?
The apostle Paul had a moment where he was confronted with both the difficult and hopeful truth of his life. He had been a zealous Jew, persecuting the church like chemo killing a cancer, believing He was serving God and His kingdom. God blinds him on the road to Damascus and tells him the difficult truth: he hadn't been serving God; he had been persecuting Him. For a man who took great pride in his spiritual pedigree, this must have been devastating. To look back on your sacred sweat and struggle and discover it was totally counterproductive to what you thought you were accomplishing must be a demoralizing experience, to put it lightly.
But he is also shown a hopeful truth. He is given a calling. It’s not lighthearted — God says he will learn that he must suffer in this work. But it is endowed with the greatest significance: he will take the good news of God to the world. All of that zeal was given to him for a reason. The oars in the canoe are good. But now he discovers a hopeful new direction.
They say the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging there is a problem. So bring on the difficult truth. I also think the first step to dreaming is acknowledging there is potential. Deep, divinely-given potential. It runs deeper than our aptitudes, although it includes them. It is more promising than what we can do in our own strength, because it can be empowered by another Strength that rises up inside us when we surrender ourselves to it.
The best way I know to pursue these questions is through prayer. It doesn’t have to be lofty, theologically sophisticated prayer. And that doesn’t mean all the other spiritual disciplines — like meditating on Scripture and transparency with others and serving and sharing meals and walking through the woods — aren’t instrumental in this process, too. But prayer seems to be the discipline that frames all the other disciplines. When you face someone who sees through your smoke screens and self-delusions, and when they look at you with deep love, it is a terrifying, transformative experience. It is a moment of dying and resurrecting. And if prayer is what we say it is, then it is a moment like that.
I don’t want to waste this year. I want to speak to as many people as I can about all this beauty and where it comes from and what we can do with it, from stages and through this blog and late at night across a table from a few kindred souls. I want to be a better son and brother and pastor and friend. But I think what supports all of that is a deeper knowledge of myself.
I suspect the same is true for you. Whatever your work. Whatever your calling. I wonder if you might want to ditch a couple of your resolutions and replace them with a couple of good questions this year.