I was still nursing my first cup of coffee when my twelve-year-old barged into our kitchen with far too much enthusiasm and a very loud announcement:
“Mom, I’ve decided on my New Year’s Resolution!”
This should be interesting, I thought. He can’t even remember to brush his teeth. Still, not wanting to rain on his pre-pubescent parade, I dug deep for a smidgen of adult maturity, wiped the smirk off my face, and asked, “That’s great! What is it?”
He smiled, so very pleased with himself. “I’ve decided I’m going to talk less.”
Aaaaaaannd then he spent the next hour telling me all about it. God help me, all attempts at restraining my eye rolls failed about 15 minutes in.
Twelve-year-old boys aren’t the only ones who struggle to keep their promises. Regardless of good intentions, too often I set a goal for myself that takes far too long to achieve, if I achieve it at all. I have no problem seeing areas in need of self-improvement, identifying aspects of my character that need attention, or growth edges in my relationships that need smoothing. But there are two significant problems with my best attempts at personal renovation:
ONE, I often underestimate the work required. Turns out, self-improvement projects are time-consuming and expensive, in every sense of the word.
And TWO, despite my best efforts, some projects feel hopeless. There are aspects of my character and behavior that I’ve been tackling tirelessly for decades. I’m embarrassed to admit there are days when those flaws show little evidence of growth. My quick tongue, unforgiving spirit, negative thought spirals, and critical self-talk for starters. Anyone else?
Why am I such a difficult student? Why do I continue to struggle with the same sins and character flaws, year after year? Why do these weaknesses and shortcomings continue to plague me, despite the time and effort I’ve invested in trying to overcome them? Although I know I’ve grown and I am convinced I am not the same impulsive, immature youth I once was, some days all I can see is how much further I’ve yet to go. It feels like running a marathon and discovering, after several hours of sweaty effort, I’m still in the first mile.
Although I am not the woman I once was, I am not yet the woman I want to be. And some days I feel completely exhausted from trying so hard with so few results. This is why I love, love, love Paul’s encouragement in his letter to the Philippian church:
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 1:3-6 NIV
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion. Or, as Eugene Peterson translated in his Message version: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”
A flourishing finish. I like that. It feels like heaven.
Here’s the good news for you and me, the hard-working, self-improving sort who lay awake at night, tossing and turning over our failures, only to wake up and work our fingers to the bone trying to “do better” and “be better”, only to discover we still fall so short of the mark:
The person responsible for self-improvement isn’t you. Or me. We already know we don’t have what it takes. So here are a few reminders to cling to when you’re weary of trying so hard:
- You are in process. From the day of your birth until the day of your death, you are in process. You will never be able to check the box of human perfection, even if you sign up for every self-help course, attend every church service, and regularly see your therapist. The work of becoming (or, in church lingo, sanctification) is never done until you’re done.
- Owning your faults feels like freedom. There’s an uncommon strength in the simple act of taking responsibility for failure. Rather than hiding, covering up, or blame-shifting, saying “It’s my fault. I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?” leads to incredible freedom. Owning our failures not only does wonders for our relationships, but it’s like a high-end car wash for the heart. It feels fresh and clean, like a second chance.
- You can’t self-help yourself to wholeness. I’m all for counseling, mentoring, reading books, and practicing new skills. But I must remember that although my efforts toward growth and maturity matter, God alone is the master gardener.
- God is the finisher. We cannot carry ourselves across the finish line. None of our hard work and bootstrapping can propel us over the chasm between us and holiness. But there is good news! God can. And God will. As Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30 NIV). He did the work, so you and I can finally rest.
God the Father, the One who made you and claimed you, is the Master Builder overseeing the total renovation of your heart, mind, and soul. And what He started, He will finish, to a flourishing end.
I was right. That does feel like heaven.