On making resolutions that count for something…

On making resolutions that count for something…

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Many people have mixed feelings about making New Year’s Resolutions. Do you or don’t you?  One problem with making such Resolutions is that we find that they have little lasting impact and can be a source of guilt when we consider our failure to keep them! Nevertheless, as a practice, making resolutions has a good Christian pedigree.

The best example is Jonathan Edwards, the famous New England revival preacher of 300 years ago. He wrote 70 resolutions during the period 1722-1723 which express his resolve to live, not for himself, but for God and His glory. He prefaces the Resolutions with these words:

Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his frame to enable me to keep the Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake I must remember to read over these Resolutions once a week. (a helpful modern version may be found here http://www.ccob.org/women/docs/resolutionsjonedwards.pdf )

Three quick general thoughts:

  • Resolutions are not just about human effort

Clearly, resolving to do something matters, and human effort is necessary for this to happen. But Edward reminds himself that resolve in itself is not enough. Without divine help, we humans cannot change for the better.

  • Resolutions are only as good as their alignment with God’s design for humanity

It is only in-so-far as we encapsulate God’s will for human beings – to love him best and love our neighbours as ourselves – that we will also find his help to fulfil this resolve.

  • Resolutions are not a one-off wish lists

We do well to follow Edwards’ practice of reading over the resolutions once per week to keep ourselves accountable to them (to “examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt the love of God….”, No 25), examining himself every night, and at the end of every week, month and year.

We can summarise Edward’s 70 resolutions in three main categories:

  • The Christian life is to be lived for the glory of God. Hence Edward’s resolved: “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God‘s glory” (No 1). “Resolved, never to do any manner of thing whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God ….” (No 4). “Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it…..” (No 23)
  • The Christian life is to be lived for the advantage of other human beings. He resolves never to lose one moment of time, but to live it profitably, with all of his might (No 5 & 6). “Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age” (No 52); “Resolved to endeavour to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments” (No 55). Well summarised in this resolution to speak only whatever is “agreeable to the highest Christian honour … and the lowest humility” (No 31). “Resolved, never to do anything but duty; and then according to Eph 6:6-8, do it willingly and cheerfully as unto the Lord, and not to man; “knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord” (No 62).
  • The Christian life is to be lived in self-denial and preparation for eternity. This is what John Owen called “mortification” (“putting to death the works of the flesh”, see Romans 8:13). For Edwards: “Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom” (No 10); Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die” (No 17); “Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking” (No 20); “Resolved…never in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions (No 56).

There is much more to be said about Jonathan Edwards’ 70 resolutions which speak volumes about his God-focused self-discipline.

But, for now, let me give a few hints for formulating your 2016 resolutions:

  1. Formulate a resolution which encapsulates John Newton’s famous resolve to “humble the sinner, exalt the saviour, and promote holiness”.
  2. Commit it to writing and allow this to act as a pledge you make to yourself and to God.
  3. Formulate an action plan (perhaps by listing Dave Allen’s “next actions” from Getting Things Done). Plan the next action which leads to furthering the resolve will help keep you focussed on it beyond January and enable you to track progress.
  4. Reread your resolution regularly throughout the year (daily, weekly or monthly). Again, this helps ensure that the resolution abides beyond the initial resolve.

Here Jonathan Edwards is so helpful. Remember that the goal of making resolutions is in order for us to focus, not on the bettering of this life, but on preparing for heaven and anticipating the happiness which is to be found there. Hence I end with what is perhaps the best known resolution:

Resolved, to endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of. (No 22).

So, what am I resolving in 2016?

In some respects my resolution is both mighty, and modest: “Resolved, to fight the world, the flesh and the devil, by the power of the Spirit and to the glory of God”.  This is a mighty goal because all Christians are engaged in this war – internally; in the world; and against the principalities and powers of this dark age, until Christ returns (Hence Eph 6:12). But, more modestly, I plan to write a book on this subject, with every hope that it will be a part of my personal discipline and devotion throughout the writing period, in the hope that my writing will overflow from my personal growth. And now I have told you, I really have to do it!

Happy New Year!

(A short article on Jonathan Edwards which I wrote for Churchman may be found here http://archive.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_117_4_Vibert.pdf

Valentine’s Day is not about Lovers but God

On this Valentine’s Day I want to ask the question:  what is true love?

 1 Corinthians 13 is a great place to start.  This might be many people’s favourite but it is much misunderstood:-

 1)     1 Cor 13 is not about romantic love

 I think I can say with confidence that the Apostle Paul did not dictate 1 Corinthians 13 in order that thousands of years later the vicar might have a text on which to preach at a wedding day.

2)     1 Cor 13 is not about Jesus

 It is sometimes said that 1 Corinthians is a “portrait for which Jesus sat”.

Of course, of all people in the world, Jesus was know to fulfil the qualities of v4-7:  He was patient, kind, not envious, humble, respectful, not self-oriented, angry, forgiving, truthful: He alone ALWAYS protects, trusts hope and perseveres.

 But I think I can also say with some confidence that Paul did not primarily have Jesus in mind when he wrote 1 Cor 13.

 Rather

 3)     1 Cor 13 is about the Corinthians

V1-3

This is a church which has caused the Apostle quite a bit of heartache.   Vv 1-3 is addressed to competitive Christians who parade their knowledge, gifts and great acts of faith… which is having a hugely divisive effect on the congregation… Of course it is not so much that tongues, prophecy, interpretation, knowledge, faith, sacrifice, martyrdom are not gifts to be prized.  Rather they had come to perceive these things as being the most excellent of gifts.  And they had paraded them in a way that denigrated those with “lesser” gifts.

So,

V4-7 is also about the Corinthians, for:

–         They are quite clearly not patient, their love is short-lived, they are not kind … Paul believes that when such things are absent in a congregation, however great their other virtues, then things are sadly lacking.

–         There should be no place for competitive, pride etc among God’s people.

V8-12

–         Paul seeks to show them the excellent way of LOVE: The Corinthian view of excellence is incomplete and passing

–         Their gifts, their sacrifices, their wisdom will fade … love won’t

But what exactly does this mean?  What does it mean to say that love will never fade and that love is the most excellent way?

Is love a force which cannot be conquered (as some of our pop songs seem to suggest)?  If we are going to join Cheryl Cole and “Fight for this love” – what exactly is the love for which we fight and what does it look like?

V13

Paul’s conclusion of this chapter is significant, I think.

Faith hope and love remain, love is the greatest.

Why?  Because faith and hope die out in heaven? No.  Rather, because in loving this way we most reflect God.

The key to interpreting this chapter, it seems to me is see why, in Paul’s mind, the greatest out of faith, hope and love is LOVE…

In other words, the secret of true love is: God!

In reaching this conclusion I have been very much helpful over the years by the 18th Century New England revival preacher Jonathan Edwards.  For Jonathan Edwards, true religion, true worship and true love are very much focussed on God.  Let me illustrate this is in the life and works of this great man.

Religious Affections – In this book Edwards described true love as affection.  In modern parlance we tend to use “affection” to mean “Like, a bit” … but for the Puritans the “affections” were the root of our desires, wants and motivations.

‘The religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference: God, in His word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, “fervent in spirit,” and our hearts vigorously engaged in religion…’ (p.27).

Charity and its Fruits – Love as “Light and heat”

‘A truly practical or saving faith, is light and heat together, or rather light and love, while that which is only a speculative faith, is only light without heat; and, in that it wants spiritual heat or divine love, is in vain, and good for nothing.  A speculative faith consists only in the assent of the understanding; but in a saving faith which is only of the former kind, is no better than the faith of devils for they have faith so far as it can exist without love, believing while they tremble’ (p.13).

By heat he means warmth.  By light he means truth and intensity.

Relationship with Sarah

Jonathan Edward’s life long study in the love of God was grounded in his “uncommon union” to his wife Sarah.  He wasn’t an easy man, something of a work-aholic, although he did find time to father 11 children…!

When the George Whitfield visited their Northampton home in 1740 he wrote:

“A sweeter couple I have not yet seen… she talked feelingly and solidly about the things of God, and seemed to be such a help meet for he Husband that she caused me to pray God, that he would be pleased to send me a Daughter of Abraham to be my wife”

Another visitor to their home commented that it opened up

“the world in which love lifts the whole animal endowment to an ethical level” (George Gordon)

Edwards was quite clear in his writings to say that True Virtue is not to be found in the love of love, or the sentimental sensations of love.  But rather love for love to be true it flows to and from God.

Love is the root of a relationship with God

Love is the fruit of a relationship with God

Or

All true love is grounded in God

All true love has God as its goal

Do you want to know true love?

Do you want to show true love?

God as the Ground of Love – Know true love

 1 John 4:16: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

Put your absolute confidence, security and trust in no one other that God!

You won’t learn to love truly and fully without focussing your life on God

God as the Goal of Love – Show true love

 All love should have as its highest goal, the love of God

Let me illustrate this from the well known, albeit controversial Ephesians 5:21ff passage –

The Daily Mail (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250464/Curate-outrages-congregation-telling-women-silent-submit-husbands.html)was outraged this week that the Curate of St Nicolas Church Sevenoaks suggested in a sermon that wives should submit to their husbands.  Of course I don’t know the full details of the content of this sermon, but Paul does say in Ephesians 5 that husbands should love their wives with same sacrificial love which Christ loved the Church – in total self-giving.  Wives should submit to their husbands, in sacrificial self giving.

 

Of course this is a tall order, not least in our egalitarian day and age.  However, Paul expects both the husband and wife to see the Lord as the highest object of your affection, not your imperfect spouse.  If you make God the highest object of your delight then loving and serving your less-than-perfect spouse will be possible.

The illustration which I find helpful is from golf.  When lining up to putt the ball, one way of avoiding “choking on the ball”, (which is hitting the ball short of the hole) is to focus on a spot 3-4” beyond the hole and making that your target.   When aiming for that, the ball will drop in the hole.

In a similar way, if we make God our greatest love then loving our less-than-perfect spouse becomes possible.

Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matt 22:37-39)

As popular culture rightly recognises: love is often lacking when it is most needed.  Experiencing true love is our life quest, but is elusive to so many people…

However 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that true love will only be found when our lives are focused on the one true who is LOVE … for sure, it seems to me, this will do much to enliven Romantics on this Valentines Day, but more, it should and could transform our families, our churches, our friendships and, ultimately the world. 

May God work this God-centred love deep in our hearts so He may be the deep source of our love and the object of our highest affections.  (more on Jonathan Edward’s and Love in this Churchman journal article http://churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_117_4_Vibert.pdf)

Let’s make Valentine’s day a day which is all about God!