TAP OR CLICK TO HEAR AN AUDIO VERSION NARRATED BY FRANK KING
As I spend these final days of 2016 lying on my side in a wound care regime, various musings on year’s ends and beginnings strike me. Specifically, I’m inspired by the idea of momentum. No, I won’t bore you with a technical definition of momentum as it touches the impetus gained by a moving object. I’d rather explore the figurative, spiritual dimension of momentum as it touches our launch into 2017.
If you’ll forgive me yet another sports illustration, I dare say most of you have witnessed this sort of momentum on the playing field. Watch any football, soccer, basketball, or ice hockey game and you will see and feel tangible shifts in the momentum of the game from one team to another. The winning team is most often the one that seizes and builds success from this momentum.
But how does this translate to our spiritual life and personal walk with Christ? In this context, the Bible doesn’t limit the definition of momentum to just one aspect. It speaks of the momentum of the grace of God empowering our lives in Christ in Paul’s words to Timothy: “My dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). Momentum is also defined as a product of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. From “walking in the spirit” to “Peter being full of the Spirit” and proclaiming the Gospel, this is spiritual momentum in action. We also read of the spiritual momentum brought upon our lives by the precious “favor of the Lord.” Peter insisted upon this dimension of momentum when he said, “but grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So, how do we generate spiritual momentum as we move into the new year?
First, you must recognize that there are spiritual obstacles that seek to counteract your forward momentum, causing inertia. Max Depree, former CEO of the Fortune 500 company Herman Miller, Inc., anchor of the Fuller Seminary Board of Trustees for 40 years, and author of classic books on leadership, was asked what was the most difficult thing that he personally had to work on. This was Max’s response: ‘It’s the interception of entropy.’”
Entropy is a principle of thermodynamics that deals with available energy in the created universe. The loose layman’s definition is simple: everything left to itself has a tendency to deteriorate. It’s also called depreciation. The moment you drive your new car off the lot you lose thousands of dollars because entropy is a factor. Entropy is the enemy of momentum, to be sure. An even greater truth is that entropy is a great enemy of the human spirit.
Just as physical things left without attention and renewed energy will certainly deteriorate, so it is in human life. When you become apathetic or complacent; when you settle for the path of least resistance, it is then that entropy sets in. Dreams die. Hopes fade. Then a terrible thing happens: you learn to live with mediocrity. It’s not a great life, but you teach yourself to tolerate it. Mark it down: if you put any important area of your life on auto pilot – the care of your soul being the greatest – you risk entropy that is both subtle and destructive.
As we near the end of 2016, you may already find yourself there. Any project we embark upon will certainly face opposition, and it may be tempting to take the easy way out. It’s not unlike Nehemiah who was tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He faced ridicule, greed, enemies without and enemies of false brethren within. But here is an insight to his victory, found in Nehemiah 4:10: “The strength of the laborers is failing, and there is so much rubbish (clutter) that we are not able to build the wall.” One of the most common and insidious obstacles to momentum is clutter. Here we see Nehemiah and his crew coming at a monumental task with great vision, fresh willingness and resolve, and true unity of purpose… but all was almost derailed by the build-up of past debris. The clutter threatened to stall their momentum and allow entropy and enemies to gain the upper hand. But Nehemiah identified and counteracted the threat, allowing the momentum of building the wall to continue.
I can easily relate to this story. Whether in my office, my closet, or my garage, it’s amazing how easily things become cluttered. I remember when we were building our house, I resolved that everything would be organized and put away in such a way as to allow the garage to be a place for parking our cars rather than a cluttered storage area. It was only after this had occurred that we felt we had truly moved in. You and I constantly fight against the “stuff” that seeks to encroach upon and clutter our space. The same battle takes place in our souls, where our surrender may carry far more damaging consequences. The clutter of regret, worries, financial problems, physical health, failed attempts of the past, can all build up and steal our momentum.
Defeating entropy and gaining spiritual momentum is going to require our focused involvement and our informed response. I love the poem “The Winds of Fate” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (I need to set it to memory):
But to every mind there openeth,
A way, and way, and away,
A high soul climbs the highway,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth,
A high way and a low,
And every mind decideth,
The way his soul shall go.
One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
'Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.
Like the winds of the sea
Are the waves of time,
As we journey along through life,
'Tis the set of the soul,
That determines the goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
Brilliantly true: “’Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales, that tells us the way to go.” How do I set my sails to catch the wind of the Spirit, and so gain and experience continuing momentum in my Christian life? The answer: Don’t just look for a formula, but look deeper.
This is the flaw in making New Year’s resolutions. We believe the formula of reflection on the past and contemplation of future commitments will change our lives for the better in 2017. While change is rooted in something deeper, I don’t think New Year’s resolutions are just a pointless cultural expectation foisted upon us every year. It’s the essential nature of human beings to desire a change for the man in the mirror. To dream of a better version of yourself is a good thing. Unless you've given up hope, become cynical, or are on the verge of quitting the human race altogether, it seems to me that most of us are wired this way. I believe it's part of being made in the image and likeness of God. We all desire growth and change for the better.
The big question we’re asking throughout, then, is How? How do we gain momentum and see change and spiritual growth in our lives? There’s one approach that you must reject, and that is the moralistic approach. The one that says we can become better people by keeping rules and simply striving to be good. Scott Saul reminds us that moralism calls for change from the outside-in, through cosmetic, behavior-focused sin management. He points out the critical difference: “Change comes not from striving in our own strength to be like Jesus, but by developing a habit of being and communicating with him. Grace produces change from the inside-out, through heart renewal and transformed motivations. Change happens only as our motivations and desires change when we are led by the Spirit, our ‘God-desiring’ nature over and against the flesh, our ‘sin-and-law-desiring’ nature. For example, to destroy a pornography habit, then, the desire for pornography must be replaced by another, deeper desire. The heart must come to desire purity over objectification, covenant love over consuming lust.” Overcoming this or any sin, then, follows this universal principle: behavior is always driven by whatever we desire most. For behavior to change, desire must be transformed first. It’s inside-out, not outside-in.
So, how does lasting character change happen? How does the fruit of the Spirit grow in us? In the same article, Scott Saul gives us three important thoughts:
First, we must reject the belief that a self-improvement plan or ‘resolution’ can produce lasting change. If we don’t like something about ourselves, what do we usually do? We adopt some sort of a plan to address the problem. This is what fuels the ever-growing popularity of self-help books. We look to such sources to help us design a program of behavior modification rather than seeking heart renewal and inside-out transformation.
Second, we must belong to Jesus. Paul tells us “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). One of the first components of lasting change is that we must belong to Jesus. For character to grow, it must be preceded by a desire for Jesus and a love for Jesus that supplants all other loves and usurps all potential rivals. Mark it down: the closer we get to Jesus, the further sin gets from us.
Third, we must be with Jesus. This is what living and walking in the Spirit is all about. The Holy Spirit is the one who shows and repeatedly reminds us – chiefly through ordinary means such as scripture reading, prayer, fellowship, gathering for worship both privately and publicly – that Jesus is the greatest treasure of all. One element that will keep us stuck is the amount of effort we spend on trying to be like Jesus relative to the investment we make in simply being with Him. Right here is the beauty, power, and importance of the various spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship. These are not rules or a self-improvement regimen to get higher on the ladder and finally be more like Jesus. No, they are God’s grace gifts to help us to be able to be with Him. That’s where discipleship happens.
Mark’s Gospel relates that “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to Him those He wanted, and they came to Him. He appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:13-15). Please notice the order: first and foremost, they were to be with Him. It was out of this that they found their marching orders to preach the Gospel. Finally, this became the source of their spiritual authority, with Him.
So, here I've come all this way – until nearly the end of 2016 – and have failed to give you the Magic Formula, or the 40-Day Program, or the Five Ways to Get You Closer to Jesus. Again, allow me to quote from Scott Saul: “Everyone seems to have a program. A Presbyterian may tell you that the key is to learn sound theology. A Baptist may tell you to say the sinner’s prayer. A Pentecostal may say speak in tongues. A Prosperity person will say give your money to the preacher. A Bible person may tell you to read your Bible every day. A Pious person may say throw out your TV and stereo. A Social Justice person may tell you to minister among the poor.” None of these things are inherently wrong, and some may be the very thing you need. But you’ll only know if you are living closely with Jesus. Living in the Spirit means practicing whatever moves you closer to Jesus, repeating recent successes by doing those things that point you in the right direction and bring you closer to Jesus. That, my friend, is where the momentum that we need and seek comes from.
While there may be no simple, sure-fire program for gaining momentum in 2017, here's what we have to work with:
FIRST, we have the prayer the Father will answer: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 13:11). This is the Spirit’s momentum-building work in us. Go ahead, ask!
SECOND, there is the practical obedience in momentum that comes from taking one step at a time. The psalmist tells us “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delights in his way” (Psalm 37:23). A sister who recently re-dedicated her heart fully to following the Lord told me, “The Holy Spirit is pressing me to just get back to basics. Obedience. I was wanting feelings, and not feeling ‘it,’ but as I’m obeying the simple things, I am feeling it!” It is this truth of “First Steps” that inspired me to have Pastor Marty Carnegie write a guest blog to go along with this idea. Please read these two blogs in conjunction.
THIRD, there is the confidence of being armed with 365 promises of fresh mercies for each day. The writer of Lamentations shines light on this truth: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease. Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘the Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hold in Him!’” (Lamentations 3:22-24). Paul Tripp wrote: “One of the stunning realities of the Christian life is that in a world where everything is in some state of decay, God’s mercies never grow old. They never run out. They are never ill timed. They never dry up. They never grow weak. They never get weary. They never fail to meet the need. They never disappoint. They never, ever fail, because they really are new every morning. Custom fitted for the challenges, disappointments, sufferings, temptations, and struggles with sin within and without are the mercies of the Lord.”
Knowing all these truths we can look at the year 2017 and say, “Bring it on!” Not with some attitude of cockiness or self-reliance, but with the quiet confidence in a God and Savior who dwells in our hearts to grant us the spiritual momentum we need. The beat goes on!
1. “Intercepting Entropy”: John Ortberg, Preaching Today, July 2008
2. “On New Years Resolutions: Is Change Possible?”: Scott Saul, 12-25-16