"New Year's Prayer-solutions"
A new year, a new decade...For many people, the beginning of January serves as a trigger to re-evaluate what's happening in their lives and set some fresh targets, otherwise known as "New Year's resolutions". Unfortunately our track record with these is, in many cases, deplorable. So the idea of 'resolutions' lends itself to humour.
Late night TV show host David Letterman (who this year in particular may be making some fresh resolutions in the area of appropriate relationships) back in December 1999, 10 years ago and just before Y2K, offered these "Top Ten Dumb Guy New Year's Resolutions":
Eat more paint.
Remove glass from TV screen, crawl through into "Baywatch."
Start buying lottery tickets at a luckier store.
Check on Eggos buried in backyard; see if "waffle tree" has grown yet.
I's gonna build me a spaceship!
Lose every pound of weight.
Remember to brush teeth with bristly end of toothbrush.
Don't eat medicine just because it looks like candy.
Oh who am I kidding, if it looks like candy -- it's candy.
Learn what the h--- "resolution" means. [and the grand finale]
Sometime in 2000, start looking into this whole Y2K-bug thing.
Or if you're not dumb or not a guy, and have been unsuccessful keeping your resolutions in the past, perhaps these so-called 'Attainable' resolutions from the cybersalt.org website might appeal to you.
This year, I resolve to...
- Gain weight - At least 30 pounds.
- Stop exercising - Waste of time.
- Read less - Makes you think.
- Watch more TV - I've been missing some good stuff.
- Procrastinate more - Starting tomorrow.
- Take a vacation to someplace important: like, to see the largest ball of twine.
- Don't have eight children at once.
- Personal goal: bring back disco.
- Spend my summer vacation in Cyberspace.
- Get further in debt.
- Avoid transmission of inter-species diseases.
- Stay off the International Space Station.
- Spread out priorities beyond my ability to keep track of them.
- Wait around for opportunity.
- Never make New Year's resolutions again. (!)
Sadly though, failing in a New Year's resolution is no laughing matter. It can be very disappointing. Too often people fail at such resolutions because (a) what we're aiming for is not what God wants for us - we're chasing an idol or perverse priority; or we fail because (b) we're trying to achieve the goal in our own strength, independently, without God's help.
Here's where Paul's counsel to the church at Colosse is so valuable. The apostle offers the 'big picture' of what SHOULD be most important to us - much of which may already in fact be ours through trusting in Christ and receiving His grace. Also, in Paul's prayer for the church, he suggests worthy goals - the right goals, God-honouring ones - toward which we as Jesus' disciples 'on the way' can be making progress with God's empowerment and support.
HOLDING ON TO A HEAVENLY HERITAGE
So many lists of resolutions originate in an atmosphere of discontentment - "I don't like THIS therefore I'm going to try to do THAT." By contrast, Paul's letter originates in an atmosphere of thankfulness, of gratitude, even though he's writing from prison. Not whining or wanting, but grateful. V3, "We always thank God...when we pray for you..." And v12, "Giving thanks to the Father" - he implies that should be our fundamental attitude, not dissatisfaction with our current state. Remarkable - Paul counts himself richly blessed, even though he's under house arrest, probably chained to a Roman guard 24/7. His top resolution was NOT 'find some way to escape, by any means possible'! Paul was conscious of the spiritual blessings that come to every believer. V12, the Father "has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." See, his mindset is in a credit not deficit position; he's thankful for a heavenly heritage.
This passage identifies several aspects of this inheritance. V13, God "has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves..." Like a team of stormtroopers or a SWAT squad, the Lord has rescued us from the power or authority or control of evil that was holding us captive, and transferred us into the care and protection Christ affords - Christ who conquered Satan at the cross and whose victory was broadcast at the empty tomb. You were hostages held captive by the terrorist/tempter - but thanks to Christ you've been freed!
V14, "in whom we have redemption": so we've been rescued, we've also been redeemed if we have trusted in Jesus. Bought back; the word means release on payment of a ransom for a slave or debtor. If you're redeemed, you're under new ownership, no longer the Devil's slave to do as he pleases. In Christ, we have a sense of belonging to God, Jesus' own sisters and brothers.
Also in v14, in Christ we have "the forgiveness of sins". That's remission of the penalty, they're gone as if they'd never been committed; a real moral release and renewal, a restored moral identity, a clean slate. No more guilt or shame or regret on account of past failures! Now God sees us clothed in the righteousness and holiness and blamelessness of His Son.
In v5 Paul refers to "the hope that is stored up for you in heaven...." Some blessings we enjoy now, others are 'laid away' for us - that's the idea behind the verb for 'stored up' - a heavenly lay-away. 1Peter 1:4 talks about "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-- kept in heaven for you..." With the advent of the credit card, the option of 'lay away' is not used so much anymore in shopping; but, for instance, at the Home Party, when I wanted to buy something and the vendor didn't take credit card, I asked them to put it to one side while I ran across the street to get some cash from the bank machine. Similarly, God has laid-away awesome delights in heaven for us for a short time until we come into full possession of them.
We hope for that which we do not yet see. In the meantime, that hope gives rise to other blessings: vv4-5, "because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints-- the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven..." What does Paul say springs from hope? Faith in Jesus, and love for all the saints - other Christians. V8 also talks of "your love in the Spirit." Faith, hope, and love occur together in other passages in Scripture, particularly 1Corinthans 13:13 - "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Those are things that remain, that last, that really matter in life and beyond; these are priceless riches that are ours in Christ, and that no-one can take away.
In v6 Paul talks about the day the Colossians heard the gospel 'and understood God's grace in all its truth'. We can meditate on that little phrase, seek to understand God's grace in all its depth and reality - how good He's been to us! and start to appreciate how much we have for which to be thankful.
Perhaps we forget how wonderful it is to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued from sin. If so, take a look at the misery of those who try to deal with their guilt by drowning it in alcohol or substance abuse. People even turn to eating in an attempt to block their guilty feelings. Marlon Brando the actor was once young, trim, and handsome. Millions of women dreamed about him. But later in life he grew to weigh over 400 pounds; what was his explanation? He told someone, "I'm sorry for all the harm I've done and for all the troubles I've brought to others in my life. I've never been a good parent or a good husband. I've been too busy with my own life to have time for others. Now I'm a guilty old man who's ashamed of the kind of life I've led. There's nothing left for me except eating."
Praise God for freedom from the bondage and burden of such guilt - that rescue and redemption we were talking about. How much better is knowing God's love and acceptance, and the hope of our heavenly heritage!
PURSUING A PRAYER-WORTHY PROFILE
New Year's resolutions often include some aspect of physical change because people are unhappy or at least self-conscious about their appearance. But the most important things about us are not external - not what you see on the outside, but internal, where God looks - at the heart. Here in Colossians 1 we see in Paul's prayer-list for the church a focus on inner qualities that are more important to the Lord, and in long-term relationships with other people, than surface features. These inner characteristics do result though in outward action.
What are these inner features of our new profile in Christ? V9, "For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to [ONE] fill you with the knowledge of his will through [TWO] all spiritual wisdom and understanding." What are we to be filled with? Knowing God's will. What God wants, His purpose and plan for us, and much bigger than just us - what He wills for the world around us. Note this is echoed at the end of v10, "growing in the knowledge of God". That's broader than just knowing God's will: it embraces knowing God as a triune Person, along with His priorities.
Other New Testament passages highlight the importance of knowing God and His will. Romans 12(2), "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will." Don't let the world squeeze you into its mould; don't study the world's pattern, but study what God's will is. Also 1Peter 4(2), "...[a Christian] does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God." And 1Jn 2(17), "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." Notice both Peter and John contrast God's will with worldly desires / human desires. Pursuing what God wants lifts us above the level of being driven by raw animal appetites and instincts - He helps us say 'no' to the bait so we can say 'yes' to what's best.
That second part of Col 1:9 mentioned "all spiritual wisdom and understanding". How are you going to get that? Well, Paul also wrote to the Corinthians how the Spirit was revealing God's 'secret wisdom'; the Spirit searches 'even the deep things of God', and the apostles were speaking those spiritual truths (1Cor 2:6-16). So an excellent place to start learning 'all spiritual wisdom and understanding' is with the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles in the New Testament. This underscores the importance of our devotional disciplines - daily Bible reading and prayer, weekly relishing God in worship, maybe a Bible study small group, listening to spiritual songs. Also (with respect to not conforming to the world's pattern) check our TV habits, video rentals and downloads: what are we filling our thought-life with? Is 'all spiritual wisdom and understanding' really tops on our agenda, OR catching that episode we missed? Psalm 1(2) says the person is blessed whose "delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night." Understanding better God's will, and who He is, matures and blesses us.
These INNER pursuits have OUTER results, an outflow. V10 says, "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord..." Other passages in the New Testament urge believers to "live a life worthy of the calling you have received"; to "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; "to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." (Eph 4:1; Php 1:27; 1Th 2:12) Are you living for yourself, or are you living in a fashion that reflects how worthy is the sacrifice by which you were redeemed?
V10 says Paul prays that we "may please [the Lord] in every way." Knowing what He wants - His will - is a big step towards pleasing Him in every way. Writing to Timothy, Paul uses a military metaphor: "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs-- he wants to please his commanding officer." (2Ti 2:4) An army unit is united and ordered and focused by the mission - what the leader wants, the next step in achieving the objective. And the author of the book of Hebrews identifies at least a couple of things that please God when they write, "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." (Heb 13:16) Serving Christ is not about pleasing yourself, but pleasing the Lord - that's very counter-cultural, and healthy.
Paul continues in v10, "bearing fruit in every good work..." He cautioned the Thessalonians not to be idle or busy-bodies, but to lead a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their hands (1Thess 4:11). Christians should do good works - we're not saved by them, but they're an outflow of God's goodness and creativity at work within us. I was reading about a United Church in Ottawa that began a laundry as a help to poor people in the area; it's become a place where immigrants develop language skills and there's also job training for the unemployed. Something positive in the community.
V11 talks about "being strengthened with all power according to His glorious might..." You may feel small, but you have the power and strength of Almighty God at work in you! In 1:29 Paul notes, "To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me." It's not easy - it's a 'struggle' - but we have God's energy working in us, literally 'empowered with all power'.
Finally, v11 ends, "so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully..." Modern translators seem quick to separate joy from endurance and patience; but to use the Bible in Basic English translation, "so that you may undergo all troubles with joy..." Often it's the joy Christians exhibit even when going through troubles that's the biggest witness to those who know them.
So, to summarize, the profile Paul's praying for the church to develop has both inner and outer aspects: knowing God and His will, developing in spiritual understanding; but also living life worthily, pleasing God, bearing fruit in good works, strengthened to endure troubles with patience and joy. Now, that's a description that we can aspire to - better than any earthly New Year's resolution list!
FIND OUT WHO YOU ARE IN HIM
One redemptive project Christians have been involved with is Teen Challenge. These centres specialize in drug and alcohol rehabilitation for men and women. In 2008 a new women-only Teen Challenge centre opened in Aurora, north of Toronto; originally with facilities for 14 women, now they're expanding to accommodate 37 women. Their second graduate, Fiona McDonald, experienced the rescue from the dominion of darkness that Paul talks about. She recalls, "I was hopeless; I was full of hate. I was a hurt person and I was hurting other people. I was smoking crack. I was hooked on heroine. I was completely lost, and didn't see any way out."
With the Lord's help through the program at the centre, women have their lives renewed; the curriculum addresses issues such as self-worth, family relationships, and conflict resolution. The centre's director says, "We feed them, clothe them, educate them, counsel them, facilitate family relationship building. We take care of all that so they can focus on healing while they are here and learning to walk with the Lord and lean on Him." It's an environment where they are embraced and loved, in contrast to their former life where it was, "Who can I use and who's using me?"
Fiona sums up in a way what Paul's getting at about discovering your Heavenly heritage and growing in the knowledge of God. She says, "For anybody that is in the midst of their addiction, Jesus is the one who ultimately saves.But it's hard to find that in the middle of that addiction. So this is a safe place to snuggle up to Jesus and find out who you really are in Him." Let's pray.