Changing any bad habit is hard. In part one we asked how does one make meaningful change and make it stick? In part 2, we look at what’s really happening under the hood that works against our best intentions.
Seeing myself with God’s eyes
As I grow older I realize how blind I am to many of my own faults and weaknesses. Generally they are pretty obvious to others, especially to those that know us best. Still, we know as believers that no one knows us better than God. David expresses this belief in Psalm 139:23-24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
To me this prayer used to mean “I think I am doing pretty well, Lord…am I missing anything?” Now, knowing myself as I do, and growing closer to Him, this prayer means – “Lord, I know there are many ways in me that are offensive to you, and I lack the power to change them. What do I do?”
The Potential for Pride in Plans and Resolutions
The process of improving ourselves is fraught with missteps. The seemingly most obvious thing to do when it come to changing ourselves is to face it head on and give it a go, whatever it is. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right?
Guess what – that’s wrong. It is a dead end with a brick wall, and I have the mortar imprints in my face to prove it. You may find this shocking, but it turns out that overall, human effort to change ourselves has a high failure rate.
Proverbs 19:21 says “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” And of course, James reminds us to be mindful that our lives are in the hands of the Lord:
[Jas 4:13-16 NLT] 13 Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” 14 How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. 15 What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” 16 Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.
While I do understand that no one knows what the future holds except the Lord, what confuses me is how to translate that truth into action in my life. What does obedience to God look like in relation to planning and resolving for self improvement? What do I stop doing? What do I start doing? How does surrender really work?
When we identify the things (habits, besetting sins, problems) in our lives that become prime targets for self improving resolutions, we may react in one of 2 ways: either with a swell of self confidence in our own ability to overcome the struggle, or to back away in abdication – unready or unwilling to face that familiar opponent that has defeated us many times in the past. Yet neither trying harder nor quitting are what God means by surrender.
Whether by our own effort or by our abdication, we go wrong when we exclude God from the conversation about the challenges we face. I used to exclude God from these “should I change” conversations for a couple of reasons: I didn’t believe it mattered all that much to Him, and if I did ask Him, and He answered, what if I didn’t like His answer? I certainly didn’t want to come face to face with God wanting me to do something I did not want to do. It was a type of rebellion so subtle, I almost couldn’t see it hiding behind my regular church attendance and ability to speak fluent Christian.
The sort of struggles that usually rise to the top of our list of resolutions are the very ones that we need God’s help to overcome. These are also the ones that we tend to want to negotiate the terms of surrender, when in truth they are non-negotiable.
As James says, when we stand alone in our pride and proclaim a resolution, “I will …” it boasts of power and control that we think we have, but in reality belongs to God. I believe God wants us to be healthy, to stop smoking, to get out of debt, and so on. He will allow you to struggle and fail until you learn you have 2 choices: 1) replace your stronghold with one more compelling, such as cleaning up your diet for fear of life threatening consequences or 2) surrendering your will to the Lord and learning to choose Him instead of the more expedient but self seeking and self sabotaging choice. The first choice is a shift to serve a new master. The second choice is the path to freedom from being mastered by anything other than Him.
It honors God when we realize and believe “Only with God’s help, I will get fit, stop smoking, or get out of debt.” What I discovered in my own life was that the experience of walking with God in overcoming these struggles is of far greater value than the victory itself. I didn’t know when I started, but my power to overcome the eating habits that owned me was in growing to prefer Christ. I became increasingly protective of my relationship with Him. The discovery is not unlike a person whose unfaithfulness teaches him to treasure his marriage. Nothing was worth undermining the growing intimacy I felt with Christ. Nothing was as satisfying. When I prayed for help with my food struggles, that was not the answer I expected – but it was exactly what I needed. I never expected to become so protective over my relationship with Christ that it gave me power to say no to things I knew would invite defeat back into my life.
What can you can do, practically speaking, to surrender yourself to God for His help? We will pick up right here in part 3.