With the new year upon us, it’s time once again to dust off the old dream journal, re-visit the 10-year plan, and put pen to paper as we map out our greatest aspirations for 2023. This year is going to be different. This is the year everything comes together for us. The new year always seems to arrive brimful with opportunities. A clean slate. A chance to start anew. This is the time for muscular endeavors, conquering new frontiers, and striving to summit new peaks—the siren song of perfection beckons, drawing us nearer and nearer the top. “Onward and upward!” is the battle cry of the human heart. So we dig in our heels, slam down our pick-axes and continue our journey up the mountain. The ascent is hypnotic. The battle is in our blood. And you and I will soon stand atop that peak, beacons of human potential, head and shoulders above the rest!
Goals are good. Goals are noble. Goals are even godly. Solomon tells us in Proverbs 21:5 that “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” Jesus even had something to say about this. Speaking about the cost of discipleship, he says this in Luke 14:28: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” There is a very real sense in which God calls us to steward our time well, and goal-setting can be a crucial part of that.
The problem isn’t with goals in and of themselves. As always, the problem lies in the human heart, which seeks to use human accomplishment as a means of self-justification. As we gaze into the endless potential of 2023, a myriad of possibilities unfolds before us. And it is our strength, our stamina, our blood and sweat and tears that will get us there. WE must strive. WE must succeed. And WE must reach deep into the recesses of our own souls to make it happen. What this New Year really needs, then, is more of US!
Of course, we’d never articulate it like this. We’d never say it out loud. And most of the time, we can convince ourselves that this isn’t the case. But the unfettered zeal with which we pursue our dreams, the physical and spiritual sweat we invest in checking boxes, the guilt we feel when we fail, and the way our sense of self-worth fluctuates based on our own performance indicates that we believe a lot is at stake. What we do becomes indistinguishable from who we are, and our very identities are at risk. All of this reveals an unsettling truth: How easily goals become gods.
The problem isn’t with goals in and of themselves. As always, the problem lies in the human heart, which seeks to use human accomplishment as a means of self-justification.
The other problem with single-mindedly pursuing our own dreams is that our neighbors become collateral damage, and we inevitably leave their broken dreams in our wake. There’s little room for the concerns of others in such a self-centered scheme. When our dreams are threatened, we slip into self-preservation mode, which means the needs of others take a backseat to our own. The Apostle Paul’s instructions begin to ring hollow (Phil 2:3b-4): “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
My point is this: Maybe, just maybe, our goal for 2023 should not be to live more but to die more. To die to ourselves. To die to our own self-justifying attempts at profit and gain. To die to our selfish efforts at greatness masked in “can do” piety. Maybe downward rather than upward should be the direction of our growth, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. Maybe, rather than heeding the upward-calling siren song of the mountain peak, we–like Ulysses–must lash ourselves to the mast, plug our ears, and die a little. You see, it actually takes more strength NOT to heed that song. It takes more strength to die to ourselves than to live for ourselves. This is the upside-down way of Jesus, the heart of the foolishness of the Cross. Jesus put it this way in John 12:24-25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Plant life shows us how this works. From our perspective, all of the growth in a plant appears to be upward. We only see what’s above the ground; the stalk, the trunk, the vines, branches, and fruit, all thrusting skyward. But the reality is that there is a whole unseen underground system necessary to support this growth. It’s actually in the deep crevasses and soiled blackness below the earth that life begins. Roots, the life-giving foundation of all plant life, grow downward deeper and deeper to support the stalk. Not all growth is upward. Roots are the most underrated part of any ecosystem.
And isn’t that a more noble goal? A more worthy New Year’s resolution? On January 1st, that shiny new treadmill might look like the solution to all of your problems, the key to the good life. But on January 2nd, you’ll quickly realize it’s not, because it doesn’t stop. It’s endless. Insatiable. And at some point, that endless treadmill will beat you. Your muscles will atrophy. And that mountain peak will fade into the clouds.
So maybe in 2023, we don’t need more but less of ourselves. And maybe the end of all self-reliance is the best place we could possibly be because it drops us at the doorstep of another. As has been said before: at the end of our rope, we find the door to God’s office. And in God’s office, we find an advocate who accomplished all of his goals fully and completely, living the perfect life we could not, dying the death we deserved, and rising again to new life, all so that we might have peace with God through faith alone.
As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6:14, “we are no longer under law but under grace,” which means we are free to pursue our dreams. We are free to love our neighbors. We are free to make plans, set goals, and even set our sights high because our worth is not bound up in our success or failure but in the success of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Jesus’ cry from the Cross, “It is finished,” applies to you and all of your new year’s resolutions too.
So let’s all raise a glass and toast: To the end of ourselves and to the One who daily raises us to new life!
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