I’ve never been a New Year’s resolutions guy. I do, however, like goals. I usually set a few goals for myself each year of things I’d like to accomplish by the end of the year.
Sometimes I accomplish my goals, and… sometimes I don’t. One year, I set out to run 1000 miles! And by the end of that year, I had run about 730 miles.
A few years later, I set out to run 1000 miles again – and to drink 0 Cokes (if you know me, you know I love to drink Coke). That year, I accomplished my running goal! In fact, I ran over 1100 miles that year! But… I drank over 700 Cokes(!)
One year, I set a goal to read the entire Bible in a year, which up to that point, I had never done before. I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover numerous times in my life, but it always takes me about 2-3 years to do it. But that year, I did it! I read the whole Bible in one year, and it was awesome! I’m currently reading through the Bible again now, and this time I’m on-pace to finish in May, which will have been about 18 months from the time I started until the time I finish.
I’ve never been a big New Year’s resolutions guy, and so don’t worry: this is not a post about New Year’s resolutions. This is not going to be a “new year, new you!” message. This is a message about Walking with the Spirit in 2023.
Romans 7:14-8:4 sets the stage for this message, and there is another verse I’ll reference frequently in this post. It’s Galatians 5:24-25, which says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its evil passions and desires. And since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” or, “let us walk with the Spirit.”
New Year’s Day reminds us that we can have fresh starts in life. New Year’s Day reminds us that we can reset some unhealthy practices and rhythms in our lives. New Year’s Day is a reminder that we don’t have to keep the habits of the past, and that if we can break free from them, we can be very hopeful about the future.
Romans 7:14-24, to me, reads like a Christian approaching the New Year:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. Oh, what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?Romans 7:14-24
Do you ever feel like this? Do you ever feel like “I know the good I ought to do, but I cannot carry it out…”
“In my inner being, I delight in God’s law (I truly do!); but I also experience another law at work within me – the law of sin and death, and it is waging war against the law in my mind, making me a slave to sin.”
Some say the Bible is ancient… antiquated… irrelevant… out-of-touch… But the Bible is the most relevant and relatable Book in all of human history!
Just a quick aside here for you on the trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible: Did you know that one of the tests of the authenticity and trustworthiness for an ancient text is called “the embarrassment test”? (And, no, this isn’t the setup for a joke – this is for real)
Basically, the embarrassment test says that if an historical document includes descriptions of the author’s failures and shortcomings – things that could be considered “an embarrassment” to the author, then that can be an indicator to scholars that the contents are of that text are generally more accurate and trustworthy.
For instance, the histories of Julius Caesar only describe his victories and his virtues. They describe real historical events that took place, but they paint Caesar as a flawless figure in them. And so, many historians read his histories with distrust.
According to his histories, Julius Caesar won every battle he fought, he did so with complete virtue, and he had the unanimous support of all his people in everything he did. All of these things are false, by the way, as can be easily verified by cross-referencing other historical documents from the same time period.
The Bible, on the other hand, is full of “embarrassing” episodes that the authors could have easily left out if they wanted everyone in the Bible to look like super-heroes. But instead, in God’s sovereignty, He inspired the authors of the Bible to describe the people of the Bible as they really were, with all their flaws and shortcomings.
Now Jesus Himself lived a perfect and sinless life. But the history surrounding Him in the Bible is filled with “embarrassments” that anyone who was trying to start a new religious movement would’ve chosen to leave out of their story: Jesus was belittled and opposed by the religious leaders of His day; He was betrayed and denied by His own followers; His closest followers were constantly sticking their feet in their mouths and making dumb and selfish choices!
If you were creating a new religion, and trying to grow in popularity and gain a bunch of followers, you wouldn’t include anything in your book that your readers might interpret as being either weak or embarrassing!
But Jesus wasn’t trying to create a new religion. Jesus’ intent was to reconcile humanity to God, and to show humanity what God is really like.
Jesus shows us that God loves people like you and me! He loves people – with all of their flaws, and all of their weaknesses, and all of their shortcomings. God wants to reconcile humankind to Himself, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and then He wants to make His home in their lives by filling them with His Holy Spirit!
The Bible is THE most relevant Book in human history! It’s characters are totally relatable, because they were real. God is not afraid to be transparent about the lives of the people in the Bible. They were real people, who lived real lives, and faced real problems. Just like you and me.
And reading Romans 7, it’s obvious that Paul was a real person. Yes, he was chosen by Jesus to spread the Gospel throughout the Greco-Roman world! Yes, he wrote 2/3rds of the Books in the New Testament – but look at how he describes his life in Romans 7! Paul was a real, flawed, finite person, just trying his best to follow Jesus through all of the temptations and weaknesses and unhealthy tendencies in his life – just like you and me.
Paul wasn’t a superhero. Paul didn’t have access to special powers that aren’t available to the rest of us. He lived a life – just like you and I do – with ups and downs, highs and lows, failures and triumphs, virtues and flaws. And even through all of that, God loved him, Jesus used him, and the Spirit of God filled him and led him – just like He will for you and me.
Galatians 5:24-25 says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its evil passions and desires. And since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” or, “let us walk with the Spirit.”
Let’s read the rest of today’s passage from Romans 7:24-8:4…
Oh, what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering for us. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.Romans 7:24-8:4
In light of Walking in the Spirit in 2023, I want to spend the next few minutes guiding you in thinking through a few things about your own lives today.
What’s unhealthy in your life right now? You know yourself better than anyone else. What is one thing, or what are 2-3 things in your life right now, that are unhealthy? If you were at a doctor’s appointment, the doctor might ask you, “Where does it hurt?”
Be honest with yourself and the Lord: what’s unhealthy in your life right now? Is it a relationship? Is it your finances? Is it your daily rhythms or your weekly habits? What’s your own diagnosis of your personal health this morning?
For instance, for me, I know I drink way too much Coke. I also know I stay up on my phone way too late at night. I further know that my blood sugar and my sleeping habits would both improve if I could practice greater self-discipline in these two areas.
My mind immediately goes to physical things. If I asked you to tell me one thing about your life you could improve to be more healthy, I bet most of you would also tell me something physical: eat better, sleep better, lose a little weight, workout more consistently… And those are all great things!
But like Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:8, “Physical training is of some use, but spiritual training is for eternity…”
Let me push you to think beyond just your physical health for a moment… What is one thing about your relational life that could improve this year? What is one aspect of your financial health? One aspect of your mental health? What is one aspect of your spiritual health you could improve this year?
You are not just a body. You are a person, with thoughts, hopes, fears, plans, anxieties, regrets, dreams… Life is so much more than just what your five senses can interpret. Recognize today that you are a spiritual being as well as a physical one, and that you can take steps to make the spiritual part of your existence healthy and thriving, just like you would the physical side of things.
Jesus said in Mark 12:30 that you should “love the Lord your God with all your heart AND with all your soul AND with all your mind AND with all your strength.” In this verse, Jesus describes four domains of personal being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. For our purposes today, I’ve listed out five domains of personal health: Relational, Financial, Physical, Mental, and Spiritual.
I want you to think and pray through these five domains of personal health, and ask God to help you diagnose any areas of poor health in your life. As you think through the current status of your life – Relationally, Financially, Physically, Mentally, and Spiritually – where are you experiencing any symptoms of poor health? Where does it hurt? This is will be your own personal diagnosis of any problem areas that may exist in your life as we go into this New Year.
Next, you’ll want to take these things before the Lord in prayer, and ask for His help. Be honest with God about the areas of poor health you recognize in your own life, and ask Him for His prescription. What would He have you do or change or replace in your life so that you could start to see greater health in 2023 in the areas of relationships, finances, physical, mental, or spiritual health?
What’s one step you could take in each of these arenas of your life to love the Lord your God more in 2023 than you did in 2022?
Now, as you think and pray and work through this exercise, there may be two issues that you may have with this process – and I want to try to address those for you today. First, what if I can’t really diagnose any areas of poor health in my life?
Then I would say, don’t do this exercise alone. Find someone in your life whose wisdom you trust, and – I know this is hard, but – give them permission to speak the truth in love to you.
Someone who knows you, someone who loves you, someone who you trust wants only the best for you – but whom you’re not going to allow yourself to be offended by it if they tell you some hard truths.
Think about it like this: who loves you more than anyone else in this whole world? Who just came to your mind? Was it a grandmother? Your mom or dad? An aunt, or a cousin? Maybe a lifelong friend? Was it a Sunday school teacher you had growing up, or a coach or teacher or mentor you had along the way?
If you are having trouble identifying the blind spots in your own life, it’s likely that this person – who loves you, and cares for you, and wants the best for your life – it’s likely they know your blindspots. So invite them in, refuse to be offended by what they might say, and ask them to help you see any areas of unhealth in your life that may need some attention.
This is exactly what we do with doctors. If we feel sick, or if something hurts, we go to the doctor. And the doctor says, “I see an issue here with your blood work. You need to change this about your life in order to feel better and be healthy.”
We’re not offended when the doctor says that. We trust them to make a diagnosis and to prescribe a plan of action to improve our health. And if we don’t trust them, we get a second opinion, right? Either way, when our bodies are sick or injured, we invite the input of people we trust to help us get healthy.
The very same can be true for your relationships. The same can be true for your finances. For your mental health. And for your spiritual health. This is what counselors and financial advisors and chaplains and pastors are all here for.
The second issue that some people may have with this process might sound something like this: Maybe you would say, “I know what’s unhealthy in my life – I don’t need anybody to tell me that! But I don’t know what to do! I’ve already tried everything I can think of…” What do I do if I can’t think of any prescriptions to improve some unhealthy aspect of my life? (And let me say, this is exactly where Paul was in Romans 7!)
Let me encourage you to think about it in this way: what would you advise your best friend to do?
Imagine with me: think of the person you love the most in all of your life. It could be your spouse, your Mom or Dad, your son or daughter, your grandchild, your best friend. Okay, now imagine that person just called you up on the phone, and asked if you had a minute to talk.
You say yes, you set down what you’re doing, you settle into a comfortable chair. And as you do, your loved one begins to tell you all about a situation they are facing… or a decision that has them stuck… or a problem person in their life that they don’t know what to do with… or an aspect of their character they want to change, but don’t know where to begin…
And what they share with you on the phone is the exact situation / person / habit / problem / dilemma that you are currently facing!
Now – remember: you love this person dearly. You want the very best for them. So – what would you tell them? What would you want for them? What would you advise them to do? Where would you tell them to begin? What action steps would you encourage them to take?
What would you tell someone else – someone you dearly love, a person for whom you desire the very best in their life – if they came to you with the same problem, question, dilemma, or difficulty you are now facing?
Or to say this another way, maybe like Paul in Romans 7: What would you tell you, if you came to you with this question, and you loved you, and you wanted what was best for you?
Sometimes thinking about our struggle or our issue – as if the person we loved most in life was facing it – thinking about our issue externally in this way can help us to see options and think of solutions that did not occur to us before.
Sometimes the immanence of our issue stifles our creativity. The stress of our struggle paralyzes our problem-solving capabilities. The constancy of our dilemma neutralizes our imagination.
But – if we could lift our heads above the surface of the tumult long enough to think objectively about the possibilities – as if our dearest loved one was facing the very same thing and was asking for our advice – then all of a sudden, we can begin to have new insights for possible solutions!
Beloved of God, the only thing standing between you and the increased virtue you desire for your life is practice. The only thing standing between you and the improved roles you play in your life, or the improved spiritual activities you desire for your life, or the increased financial discipline or relational health you desire for your life, is practice.
What does practice make? Does practice make perfect? No. And this is one of my favorite life quotes: “Practice makes progress.” Practice makes progress.
Practice does not make perfect; it makes progress. And most New Year’s resolutions fail because they rely on perfection as the standard, right?
We declare, “Starting today, this unhealthy thing that I’ve done daily forever – I’m never doing that again!” Or, “Starting today, I’m going to do this brand-new thing, everyday, without fail, for the rest of my life.”
We expect immediate perfection for ourselves, and then our first slip-up, our first failure, or the first time we fail to do the new daily activity we wanted – our first mistake – it all falls apart, and our resolutions are dead and forgotten by January 5.
So, I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions today. I’m talking about walking with the Spirit:
Galatians 5:24-25 – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its evil passions and desires. And since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” or, “let us walk with the Spirit.”
Don’t be discouraged by imperfection. Practice makes progress. Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward. We try a new skill or practice imperfectly in order to learn how to do it better and better each time we do it.
And we will only grow if we try. And quite often in life, trying means failing – and that’s not a problem – it just means you get to try it again using the lessons you learned from the time you failed. And the fact that you are trying at all means you are already on a journey towards growth and improvement with the help of the Spirit of God living within you.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from Eugene Peterson. He was writing about how poorly he loved others and how constantly he felt like a failure in loving people like Christ, and this is what he wrote:
“There is nothing I am less good at than love. And yet I decide, every day, to attempt what I do very clumsily – daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.”
What is one area of your life where you are experiencing poor health – relationally, financially, physically, mentally, or spiritually? And what is one practice the Lord may lead you to try – even with only limited success – to begin to see greater health in that area of your life in 2023?