It happens every year. People set a goal. A "resolution" for the new year. Usually, it's something they decide is a positive improvement to their overall health and well-being. I see it all the time at the gym. Men and women, young and old, short, tall, skinny, obese, and everything in between comes in for their free introductory class. There is no demographic that is immune to the annual commitment to self-improvement. They come in to get in shape, learn how to protect themselves in a fight, or just to prove something to themselves, to test their mettle. But, in my experience, one in one hundred who sign up in January make it to March.
There are also numerous studies and endless data to back up my anecdotal experience. People set goals, come up with a plan, and resolve to change their lives for the better and then, they give up and return to their regular routine. Why is that? One, it's because we all want change, but we are addicted to what is certain. Second, change is difficult, often painful, and comes with a price tag that we're not willing to pay. Third, as Hippocrates said, "Before we offer to heal someone, ask if they're willing to give up the things that made them sick."
Are we willing to give up the things that make us sick? Sadly, tragically, in my experience, the answer is most often, "No." We're hard-wired to look for short term solutions to long term problems. That's why resolutions usually only benefit one out of one hundred people I encounter at the gym.
"It's too hard." "It takes too much time." "My significant other says I spend too much time here, and I need to spend more time with them." "I got hurt and found something else to occupy myself with." The excuses and justifications are many, but they're always the same. "The changes I wanted to make were too much for me." "The sacrifice is more than I am willing to give." "It's just... it's too much."
The demands we put on ourselves, and the expectations of other people, eventually become too much for us. There are levels to it, of course. Some people quit after the first class. Some drift away after three months. Others get addicted to the daily discipline of constant self-improvement. But wherever we begin or end, it's always a question for us of "how much is too much."
Our answer can crush expectations or spur us on. But it's always an answer that is expressed in relation to who we were yesterday and who we want to be tomorrow. It's the never-ending grind of goals, resolutions, and decisions that remind us, no matter how much we improve, too much will never be enough. We're always caught in the tension between "Yesterday you were not enough," and, "Tomorrow you still won't be enough, so keep going!"
No matter how much we judge is too much, we're never enough. That's the tragic side of our existence. Enough is never enough. We're never good enough for anybody (or rather, nobody is ever good enough for us). We never master anything, not completely. No matter how much of ourselves we sacrifice to self-improvement, the rewards are never permanently satisfying.
This is why it's so important, more important than life itself, that we Christians not get caught up in self-improvement for the sake of proving something to God.
There's nothing wrong with self-improvement, so long as it's for the sake of loving and serving our neighbors. When self-improvement goes wrong is when we make it a selfish (instead of a selfless) pursuit. We crave the shiny trophy that says to us, "I'm a winner." We use our need to better ourselves as an excuse to polish our haloes so we can stand, shoulders back, chest out, eyes staring straight ahead at our God and Lord as if he's impressed with our efforts to prove we're good enough to be in his presence.
Goals, resolutions, and positive improvement are good, so long as it's for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor. On the other hand, because of Jesus' bloody suffering and death, God has closed the religious gym. We don't have to show up for church determined, this year, finally, to make a change for the better. For the One who says, "I am the same yesterday, today, and forever," what year it is doesn't matter. The eternal "I AM" doesn't judge us in terms of hours, days, and years. In Christ Jesus, through faith, we are always in the "now" of God.
Right now, baptism saves us. Now, we are recipients of his grace and truth. Right now, we need God's Word of Law and Gospel because we are always reenacting the original fall into sin. With our Creator and Redeemer, our need is always the same: we'll never do enough, change enough, or become good enough to get on God's good side. But, we don't have to worry about it.
Jesus said "It is finished," and with those words, all our worry, all our self-judgments, and God's condemnation of sin, were shut up in the brain dead silence of his death. And in the power of his resurrection, we are set free to receive all we need for this body and life from our merciful God. We are also set free to love and serve our neighbor with everything we've been given by God.
Now, in Christ, "It's too much" is a confession of faith, of humble amazement at the Gospel and his gifts, rather than an exasperated expression of defeat.