What's Tony Thinking

Resolutions And/ Or Grace?


It’s that time of the year, isn’t it, for resolutions?

Like others, I’ve put on a few (more than a few) unwanted pounds while enjoying the holidays. And I have a few other habits that verge in the direction of addictive and need attention. Not to mention the logjams that happen in relationships, and justice and peace in the world. So am I making “resolutions”? Not quite.

New Year’s resolutions tend to be all about will-power, self-control and trying harder. They aren’t useless, but they do seem to involve some amount of beating up on yourself as their starting point and motivational lift-off.

As such, they start from a negative place. As in, “you’re a terrible person, you must do/ be better.” They begin, that is, in self-aggression, even sometimes in self-flagellation, more metaphorical than literal. Although I guess “self-harm” is a kind of modern flagellation and mortifying of the flesh. And most of us do have a marvelous capacity for undermining ourselves and doing those things that trigger a bout of self-shaming.

Resolutions depend on grit and will-power and, well, resolve — which usually runs out, if not by the second week of January, then certainly by February.

I always notice an influx at the gym in January. I get it. I’m stretching my work-outs too.

But having been down that road, I try to lean into grace when leaning toward the light. That means I ask for help. From God and other people as I make some course corrections, whether in my intake of calories and alcohol or in my behaviors toward other people and my way of being in the world. I see sin not just as plural (sins), stuff I enumerate on a list, but as a power and condition (therefore, singular), Sin/ Death. Not correction but deliverance is the needed thing.

And I think of grace not just as God’s mercy and the forgiveness of my sins (though it definitely is that), but as power, even power that works in us that we don’t fully understand it, something more than our own efforts.

Here’s a surprise: “God helps those who helps themselves,” is not to be found anywhere in the Bible. What is found there is this: “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5: 6).

In her little book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor makes a distinction that may be helpful here.

“God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend.” (Though it is that.) “Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends to human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it, in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life.” Go to a an AA meeting, and some churches, to see this in action.

In theological-speak, that’s the difference between redeeming grace and sanctifying grace. If the former is a big breakthrough, the latter is the hold the Holy Spirit takes on us, the way grace keeps showing up and unfolding as we turn to and rely upon God, however imperfectly.

So instead of starting from a point of “You’re a bum, clean up your act,” i.e. self-aggression, grace starts from “you — yes, you — are infinitely precious and incredibly beloved. So much so that Christ died for you and has been raised for you, to destroy Sin/ Death/ Fear and deliver you and me into a new reality.

“May you remember,” writes Nadia Bolz Weber, “that there is no resolution that, if kept, will make you more worthy of love.”

But do watch what God can do as you trust the Holy One even a little, and sometimes even when you don’t. I depend on the faith that God and grace are at work in my life and in the world, and its many hard and desperate and hopeless situations, even when we are not “on it,” even aware of it.

I love the way Paul puts it in these words, wonderfully fit for a New Year, in his letter to the Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20)

If resolutions are your thing, by all means, go for it. But ask for help. You may be surprised.

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