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At least in one respect, the turning of the calendar page from one year to the next is not as positive an experience as we would like it to be. For one thing, it gives us the emotional equivalent of acid reflux as we pause to look back on the past year with all its thrills and joys or disappointments and regrets. We tend to feel the impact of the negative more than the happiness of the positive. For many, it’s as if we have a scale before us with the bad invariably outweighing the good. With such a sour taste lingering in our mouths, it is no wonder that so many of us look forward to finally crossing over the watershed of what has been to what we hope will be.

The conspicuous proof that this is so is the cultural phenomena of making New Year’s resolutions. These promises that we make to ourselves for the New Year suggest an acute awareness of our inadequacies which were only too obvious to us in our failures of the previous year. We think to ourselves, “Life was not what it should have been and I have not done what I should have done. To correct this, I will just make a plan. like losing weight, being kinder to our neighbors, fixing what is wrong with my house, ironing out my relationship issues, or just being a better man, woman or Christian. I will do better.”

But then we do not do better. In fact, we hardly get out of the gate in our trying. According to U.S. News and World Report (“Why 80 Percent of New Year’s Resolutions Fail”, Joseph Luciani, 12/29/2015), 80% of our resolutions are routinely foiled by the second week of February. So much for human resolve! And what we do manage to get done does not result in what we had hoped for. It is not what we planned. It is not what we wanted. And when the end of the year eventually rolls around, we do it all over again, making New Year resolutions that we will once again not keep as matter of habit and tradition… like singing Christmas Carols, only a lot less fun and significantly less meaningful.

The secret is not in our will power. Will power cannot save us, change us, or carry us very far into the good intentions we have. In fact, we have already fumbled the ball of commitment in the moment we make the statement, “I will…!” I will? Will I? I may want to do this or that, but those good intentions are not strong enough to become the reality I wish for myself. Why? Because my problem is my will. I forget (or choose to ignore) my tendency for laziness, my natural bend to serve my selfish desires, and the corruption buried deeply within my soul, buried so deep that I do not realize that it is there.

And I will continue to suffer at the hands of my fallen and weak will until something fundamentally is altered within me. It is not my perspective, although my perspective is shaped by it. It is not the way that I think, although it is easy to think that it is. As unfathomable as it may seem, it is far deeper than either of these things. It is my heart. It is my soul. It is the true essence of my being that must be changed. And it must be radically transformed so that what flows from it may produce the changes in my thinking and conduct that ultimately produce the fruits that are worth possessing in the days to come. Without a change of heart, a change of mind is weak and pointless, and only sets one up for failure.

This is why the implication of following Jesus is much more than a mindset. It is a surrender. It is not our committing ourselves to Him that will carry us into spiritual victory and eternal harvests, but a submitting ourselves to Him that places us in the position of reaping spiritual life.

“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it…. Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Luke 9:24, John 3:3, 6 ESV). Lose my life to save it? Be born again? Be born of the spirit?

I fear that much of our Christianity today is cut from the same cloth as our New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to do good. We decide to abstain from evil. But we always fail. We set our will to be what we are supposed to be as if we can do it on our own and that it is all up to us. But then we are surprised and depressed by the fact that we cannot. Worse, in our shame of failing yet again, we deny our sin and hide our true selves from God and from others for fear of the pain of rejection.

But, my friend, this is not God’s plan. It is not His will that you, in your own finite strength walk the walk that Jesus did, Who was just like us yet without sin (see Hebrews 4:15). It is indeed God’s will that you break free from your sin and no longer walk in its power. “He (Jesus) appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning…. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:5-6a, 8-9 ESV).

This means that when you and I are born of God, a supernatural event has taken place that changes the inclination of our hearts from that of sinning (serving self) towards serving God. As children of God (adopted into His family through faith in Jesus Christ), we are bequeathed a new nature that is shedding worldly and fleshly habits just as surely a caterpillar sheds its chrysalis when it finally breaks free into its new life as a butterfly!

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come…. I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 12:1-2 ESV).

Real change in 2019 is possible, but it will take more than your resolve. Real life is attainable, but it takes more than a commitment. Real joy is yours… if you surrender your life to Jesus, trusting Him as Lord and Savior. And that means a daily surrender that you may sometimes stumble with, but will teach you the power of grace as you draw from Him the love and courage that will make a new you reality. Happy New Year!

Copyright ©  Thom Mollohan

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As Christmas makes its final approach on the runway of our calendars, it may be that we are dangerously close to being swallowed up by the angst and stress of trying to coordinate holiday traditions or by the crushing pressure of trying to appease the tyranny of Christmas lists of our children or other family members. If you find yourself being hurried and harried by trying to make sure that it is “the best Christmas ever”, don’t allow the bullying of unrealistic expectations be a thief that steals from you the opportunity to draw from heaven the joy of God.

There is a danger, even in the church, for us to not understand joy and to not know how to experience it. What we too often settle for is a kind of contentment that is founded upon circumstances in our world which, at best, is fragile and subject to an instant’s nullification at any moment if and when trouble comes or tragedy strikes. A pseudo-joy such as this is dangerous because it anesthetizes us against the hunger for God which moves us to receive His grace and be transformed by His Spirit. 

But joy – true joy – is of God and He delights in our experiencing it and cherishes its aim which is for us to know Him and know His eternal love for us. And there are a number of “mechanisms” in which our appetite for it can be taught to recognize it and, ultimately, to savor it. One of these mechanisms is the relief that comes from the healing of persistent pain (physically or emotionally) which invariably results in joy. For example, a person afflicted by physical pain for any length of time can become consumed with the need for relief. Hence, one’s propensity to turn to things that mask pain or distract one from it. It is easy to see how despair from not receiving healing can be allowed to trigger a person’s settling for counterfeit experiences, learning only too late that such alternatives only breed new hurts and sorrows. But when that person experiences for the first time that the weight of pain has been lifted – and lifted for good – he or she experiences a surge of joy.

Another way in which we become acquainted with joy is through the reversal of misfortune or failure. There are perhaps a few exceptions to this, but generally we are all somehow and at sometime touched by failure. Failing to achieve a sought after goal, whatever that goal might be, depending on how we have labored and sacrificed for it, can be so disheartening that some people do not recover from the experience. After dreaming with all one’s heart, striving with all one’s strength, and sacrificing all one has, the dark night of soul that comes from failing to win what seems utterly important and even necessary can turn into glorious day when such failure flip-flops unexpectedly into success, especially a success that surpasses what he or she had hoped for.

Yet another is the return or finding of something that seemed hopelessly lost. Jesus illustrated this kind of joy in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, in the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost (Prodigal) Son. In each instance, the restoration of what had been lost resulted in a joy that bubbled over into celebration!

One that is hard to explain, yet is extremely profound for the one it blesses, is the recognition of the sublime which is why art and music can be so powerful in affecting our emotions. This is the kind of joy that I believe C.S. Lewis refers to in his auto-biography, Surprised by Joy, which describes his journey from atheistic skepticism to his eventual experience of faith in Jesus Christ. In it, he relates how such rare yet vital emergences of joy ultimately helped him to recognize the authenticity of Jesus as true Lord and Savior.

Finally, receiving what the heart desires most is cause and catalyst for experiencing joy. There is innately programmed into each of us a hunger for more than anything that this world can supply. We are so confounded by it, yet so ignorant of what it is we truly crave (namely, authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ), that we try to plug the hole in our souls with all sorts of things that promise fulfillment, yet cannot deliver the goods.

Indeed, happiness in the wrong things can be spiritually lethal and seal our eternal destruction because it lulls us to complacency in regard to our spiritual need for Christ and His atonement for us. This kind of “joy” is not the joy that God has in mind for you. When Jesus spoke with His disciples in the Gospel of John, the occasion being the eve of His crucifixion, He promised them, that after a season of grief, their sorrow would turn to joy (John 16:20). The joy He promised them was otherworldly and supernatural for it in no way finds either its source or its end in this temporal life, but flows from His eternal Being. This joy has enormous power to make a difference to you and me in this life and serves us like an anchor when we face trouble, sorrow, or pain in the here and now.

And here is the point: Jesus satisfies perfectly every condition for joy that you and I have. He brings us relief of the pain we feel in our souls by accepting and comforting us with His precious presence; His grace serves as a balm for every hurt of our hearts. He achieves for us the reversal of our failure by succeeding in our stead both as a sinless man and perfect sacrifice for us on the cross; through faith in Him, we have victory. Because He came and died for us on the cross, we, the lost sheep, coins and sons, are reunited with our heavenly Father, Who does not turn us away as we deserve; He takes us out of our lost condition and places us where we belong as children of God. In Jesus, we see that which is truly sublime, perfect and pure in every way; “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15 ESV). And when we receive Christ truly as both Savior and Lord, we finally receive what our hearts have truly desired; we obtain that for which we have hungered and thirsted even when we did not know what it was we needed.

This Christmas, open your heart to God and receive Him as Lord and Savior. In doing so, you’ve opened the door to true joy, “… and no one will take your joy from you” (from John 16:22b ESV).

Copyright © Thom Mollohan

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