BY MATT JOHNSON
Ah, the New Year. It’s the stuff of resolutions. To be better. Do better. Live more healthful. And yet, year after year, we never quite change as much as we hope. Entropy is still a scientific fact.
For my part, I’ve never quite been one for New Year resolutions. I admire those who make the lists. I’ll take it on good faith they’re looking to improve the world in some small way.
I run the risk of cynicism here, but when these lists include some sort of "service to the Lord", I feel a little pukey. By "service to the Lord" I mean stuff like going on a short-term mission. Sticking to a Bible reading plan. Volunteering more at the church, or devoting more time in prayer. Cynicism aside, these things are great. We all ought to be doing more of them. But then I ask myself: "When is God most pleased with a Christian? And how on earth this 'serving the Lord' mindset can’t not produce guilt in believers." Because really, how good of a servant of God have you been lately? Really?
When it comes to resolutions, knock yourself out. Stop eating refined sugar. Drink more water than alcohol. Save more money. You’ll be happier for it. But in things spiritual, I wonder if maybe we could turn the whole resolutions thing on its head. So here it is.
How about we stop trying to serve the Lord. I think we’d be better off for it. Now, before you grab your pitchfork, allow me a moment to explain what I mean.
In recent years, I’ve been haunted by Martin Luther’s phrase, “God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does”. I haven’t always been able to put a finger on why, but recently, I’ve felt like this idea is coming more alive. God himself does not need me to be or do anything for him. He’s already pleased with me on account of what Jesus has already done. And Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection all count as my own. The questions is, now that I don’t have to do anything, what do I want to do?
God doesn’t derive any benefit from my moral living, or my Christian service. The question to me then is, how is it that I’m serving the Lord? Well, the answer I’ve begun to appreciate is I don’t serve the Lord! At least in a direct sense. Instead, I’m called to serve my neighbor!
And this is where Luther’s quote comes full circle for me. I recently read Steven Hein’s The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? and found this quote to be really helpful:
“We cannot serve our Lord Jesus directly for two rather unflattering reasons. The first, is that we do not have anything that He needs. The second— equally unflattering— is that whatever we have that is worth anything, He gave us. Faith generates love. God would have us channel our fear, love, and trust in Him (things that are just part and parcel with being a new creation in Christ) distributing as stewards the blessings that God has entrusted to us. He binds our deeds to our neighbor and thereby gives us some significant things to do in this life. At the same time, He schools us in the gentle art of loving— something that we shall be doing for an eternity. And then He makes this arrangement: serving the neighbor in faith is reckoned as service rendered to Him, even when that service is rendered to those one might consider the least of His brothers."
He has done it all in and through Christ for you already! Now you’re free to live for the good of your neighbor.
Now I’ve got a new set of problems. I need to get forgiven. Because the truth is, I’m way better at binge watching Netflix and eating chips than I am at loving others. That means I need to forgiveness all the time. The good news is God’s forgiveness never runs dry.
I’ll only speak for myself here. I need to be forgiven for the ways I’ve failed to love my neighbor every single day. Hell, I’m not any good at doing the dishes on a regular basis much less reaching out to the guy on the other side of my fence.
But I find that as I get into a routine of corporate confession of sin every Sunday, I know my Father offers complete forgiveness on account of Christ. The result is, my heart is warmed in a way that moves me towards others. It’s slow, and I don’t always budge. But it’s the way God gets things done, and I’m resolved to it.
So for 2016, maybe you should stop trying so hard to serve the Lord. He already has everything he needs. Now you’re free! The question now is, how can you serve your neighbor with the love you’ve received from God?
Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Many moons ago Matt forwent a proper education and traveled the country playing drums in 90 Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument and other bands you've never heard of. He likes long walks on the beach, puppies, and has questionable taste in music.