Thursday, December 31, 2015

Make the Most of Breaking Your New Year's Resolutions

Talking about how to stick with New Year's resolutions seems to be almost as big a tradition now as making resolutions in the first place. Just compare the number of blog posts and Facebook updates where people simply talk about their resolutions in a satirical way, indicating they fully expect their discipline and dedication to collapse, but they're going to keep making the resolutions anyway. We acknowledge that we need to start new habits, but we have come to expect failure at keeping them.

Instead of being resigned to failure, or giving up the resolution tradition altogether, we should make use of our broken resolutions. The older I get, the more I discover that failing in a task has as much to teach me as success - sometimes more. People who examine why they failed and keep on trying again are often the most extraordinarily successful people. As a society, we commonly praise those we admire for their successes, but once you start to look into the whole story of their lives, you find there were far more failures than successes. The successes just get the attention. But they didn't come without pressing on through the failures.

Here are just three ways to benefit from broken resolutions.

Don't Be Prideful About Achieving Perfection

Too many people set "all or nothing" goals. They aim for a target for the year, and then get discouraged when they lose traction and fall short of their goal. This often leads to giving up entirely. But if you've improved over last year, keeping to the goal more than you did before, that's often a victory even if it falls short of your expectations. Saving 5% of your income isn't as exciting as saving 10%, but it's a whole lot better than 0%. Losing 8 pounds or exercising only every other week is still improving your health even if you were aiming for twice that. If you take encouragement from your progress, and then challenge yourself to do even better next year, you gain much more than if you just give up because you can't hit perfection.

People who think in terms of making the most of what they've managed to do are more likely to keep trying, because they are valuing every little effort. People who insist on being perfect tend to quit permanently as soon as they've fallen behind on their schedule or routine, ending up with nothing. Often the problem is pride: so many people depend for self-confidence on looking successful and "together" that they won't accept anything less. Last month I shared the lesson an admiral drew from Navy SEAL training: a regular challenge designed to force trainees to deal with failure caused those who couldn't accept being less than perfect to quit the program. Only people willing to keep trying in spite of "failure" became Navy SEALs. Those who wanted to be perfect didn't. How's that for success? 

We need to get over ourselves and our insecurity and just do the job, even if it isn't pretty. Falling short of our own expectations but still getting results is far better than pretending to be perfect.

Be Willing to Build on Failures and Wait on Success

If what you are trying to do is important, it will probably be difficult. Don't confuse failing to reach your goal at the moment with having wasted your efforts. In fact, the more valuable your goal, the more you will probably stumble and fail in getting there. There are very few things in life that don't require some experimentation, trying different methods before finding the one that works. Thomas Edison put it perfectly: “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Don't give up on an important goal just because you feel like it's taking too long or you aren't seeing forward progress. Figure out what went wrong last time and how you can improve on it. That's forward progress.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed
is always to try just one more time.” -Thomas Edison

At the same time, don't underestimate the profit to your soul even when you don't reach your goal. Working hard at something is never wasted, because it always accomplishes inner work in your mind, heart, and soul. This is probably one reason the Scriptures encourage hard work: "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty." (Proverbs 14:23); "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." (Lam. 3:27). The number of inventions and discoveries that have been accidentally uncovered while someone was trying and failing to do something else is quite impressive. Even so, the work in the inner man is more valuable. “Who you become while you are waiting is as important as what you are waiting for.” (Nicky Gumbel of the Alpha Course). Your soul is going to last forever; most of your resolutions will pass away with this earth. Make the most of the discipline, whether you hit the goal or not.

"Three failures denote uncommon strength. A weakling has not enough grit to fail thrice." - Minna Thomas Antrim

Be Willing to Let God Show You a Different and Better Goal

There are also times where the reason you aren't making progress is simply that you have the wrong goal. One of the precious ways that God shows His love and faithfulness to us is that He shepherds and directs us toward what we need, even when we expect or want something different. Our development is not random; God has a master design that He intends to follow through. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Phil. 1:6). After all the sins and misguided zealotry of his former life, Paul could say of his new, radically different life in Christ: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:10). God had a plan Paul could not have imagined, but it was so glorious that he considered his previous achievements to be rubbish. (Phil. 3:4-8).
Your God and Savior loves you enough to keep you from making too much progress in the wrong direction. The only way to be alert to this is to be humble enough to let the Scriptures shape your priorities and your understanding of your identity, and take to heart the feedback and observations of other people you can trust.  It is true that often when we realize the necessity of a change of course, it may be a while before we find any joy in doing it. If you have had your heart set on being a musician, it is rough going to find out that God created you to be a lawyer. But it is far worse to try to find your satisfaction in being a musician if the Lord created you to find your joy and fulfillment in being a lawyer. The promise of God's blessing for those who submit to His way is a constant theme in Scripture: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise. Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:20-21).

In other words, accept the discipline of having your way directed by the Lord’s will rather than by your own desires and expectations, and you will be blessed. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you[.]” (1 Peter 5:6). It is a good and precious thing to be shaped by the mighty hand of God.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What Drives You? Does Christianity Capture Your Head But Not Your Heart?

See if this feels familiar: you know what kind of person you want to be, and why you believe in it. But as you take stock of the past week, you are uncomfortably aware that many of the things you have actually done don't line up with who you want to be or what you believe is right. And let's not even mention the past year. Mostly little things, perhaps (so you tell yourself), but a person's reputation and the effect you have on other people is made up of little things. Someone once observed: "Nothing ever changes us except the things we do every day." We know intuitively that when our actions keep differing from our beliefs, something is not right.
This is one of those problems that is common to every man and woman. Even Paul the Apostle expressed how exasperating and discouraging it can be: "For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." (Romans 7:18-19). Let me compare two powerful answers to this dilemma.
A Solid Worldview May Not Be Enough

One way that Christians have helped each other confront this problem is emphasizing a conscious worldview that considers how Christianity relates to everything we do, and what that means about how we should act. A worldview is something everyone has even without thinking about it; we all have basic beliefs about reality and what life is about that drive our decisions and our priorities even when we don't think about why we're doing them (here's a more thorough definition). Your worldview generally determines how you will respond to new information or choices. For instance, if you believe at a fundamental level that a meaningful life can only be achieved by making enough money to be able to influence politics and social change, then even when you aren't thinking through those assumptions, you will typically make decisions that prioritize earning money and advancing your influence and power. Sometimes you may not even connect those decisions with the ultimate goal of influencing government and society; but because you had settled in your mind early on the idea that this is what makes for a successful life, it's second nature for you to see any option that increases your money and power as the naturally desirable choice. Those goals have become synonymous in your mind with "value" or "good." Your worldview has shaped the choices you make even when you aren't thinking about why you make them.
Emphasizing a Christian worldview (or biblical worldview) typically means challenging people to examine their underlying beliefs and assumptions about what is good and what life is about, and then training Christians to be conscious about centering their priorities on the things that God has taught us to value. It means lining your beliefs and priorities up with what Scripture reveals about God's priorities and how He wants us to act, and it also means recognizing that God's purpose for your life encompasses everything you ever do. A genuine Christian should be taking the lead from God's word in every area, not simply areas that seem "religious." Worldview is a comprehensive answer to all the questions of life, not a set of rules that apply only in certain circles or subjects. The goal is to make sure that a Christian will recognize decisions and patterns of behavior that are inconsistent with God's character and His commandments, so that we can avoid those actions and choose ones that honor God.

Are You Ruled By Worldview or Desire?

There is a lot of value to worldview theory and teaching. I listed some great examples of how to teach and study a biblical worldview at the end of this post. But even knowing the right thing to do is often not enough. So you should get to know one of the most helpful and insightful critics of worldview approaches: James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College. Smith has observed that what drives our decisions is more often desire than worldview. He has illustrated that even when people hold firmly to a biblical worldview, they often act against that worldview because of their desires.

This is extremely valuable, because it reveals that changing what you believe about life isn't enough to clean up your behavior. You also have to transform and reform what you love. The best place to dig deeper into this is Smith's fascinating new book, "You Are What You Love." Another of Smith's insights is that even Christians with a biblical worldview may have cultural practices and habits that essentially fuel and serve their contrary desires. We may not simply be acting against what we believe; our habits may also be feeding and nurturing even more powerful resistance to doing what is good. Christian bookseller extraordinaire Byron Borger summarizes Smith's reasoning:

"Christian formation that only teaches data -- Bible truths or worldviewish principles or theological doctrine, no matter how right or profound or astute --  but doesn't really shape our deepest desires, loves, priorities and such isn't going to be truly transformative. And in fact, our Christian worship practices may be "thin" and less influential, while our secular cultural liturgies may be "thicker" and truly impact how we see and feel about the world." (Borger, BookNotes column (scroll down a page)). In other words, we may be practicing a way of life that actually promotes and feeds our worship of things other than God.

You may have heard similar thoughts before, but part of the goldmine in Smith's work is his labor to identify and uncover these "cultural liturgies" and to help us discover patterns of genuine worship that need to be woven into our lives. The concept may sound simple, but the heavy lifting is in the application. Borger commends Smith's books for "deep and wise visions of spiritual imagination and how worship, among other things, effects our human flourishing and the tone of our discipleship." And Borger's crowning point is that Smith's work, so far embodied in two large and widely-acclaimed volumes, is distilled down in this upcoming book You Are What You Love so that Christians who don't have the time to read an academic textbook can glean all the best parts. (As a bonus, Borger's BookNotes column is one you should save for regular reading if you care about feeding your mind - he really knows his Christian authors and books.)

So sharpen your worldview so that you can recognize if your choices are out of step with the character and wisdom of God, but dig deep into James Smith and similar authors who help shape your heart so that you will not only know the good you ought to do, but you will have the desire to do it too.

Worldview Training:
Worldview Academy and PDF of Concepts in Curriculum on Christian Worldview
(Re)Thinking Worldview: An Interview with Mark Bertrand
The Colson Center for Christian Worldview and Christian Worldview Journal
Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?