(Note: this is an updated version of an essay first posted in 2019)
How are New Year's resolutions going? After less than 90 days, are they already broken and forgotten? Probably so. How about your Lenten resolutions? We're just a month in to Lent, so there may be a better chance these are still fresh on your mind...but if you're like me, you've already stopped and re-started them a few times already.
As a rule, we're terrible at resolutions, new habits, and self-improvement. This is true, I think, because the way we go about them is to focus on ourselves and our own efforts. We think we can muster the strength, dedication, etc. to improve ourselves from within instead of relying on the sanctifying grace of God working in us. Most of the time, this attitude results in failure, disappointment, and discouragement.
Though it is not the traditional reading for this weekend, let's look at part of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17.1-8:
After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. He was transfigured in front of them, and his face shone like the sun; his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here. I will set up three shelters here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him! ” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown and were terrified.
Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus alone.
In this passage, as Peter is overwhelmed by the glory of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah he does what many of us do at one time or another in our Christian lives--he gets busy doing good things for God. At least, Peter thinks he's doing something good. The problem is, however, that Peter is ultimately focusing on himself and what he can do for God.
Peter gets it completely backwards. We don't do anything for God. Ever. He does everything for us. Our good works aren't for God's benefit; they are for the benefit of other people. Our faith isn't a work; it is simply accepting what Christ has done for us. Even our worship, if understood properly, is primarily about God acting for us--God speaks words of absolution and forgiveness, God hears and answers our prayers, God brings us the Gospel to transform our hearts, God gives us grace through the sacraments. The only thing offer in return is our praise, and that isn't actually doing anything beyond thanking our Father for what he has already done in, through, and for us.
In our walk of faith, any time we focus on us, we're wrong. We need to keep the last verse of the Transfiguration account burned in our brains. "When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus alone." In Christ alone is our hope for a satisfying life and a blessed death. Yes, we struggle against the Old Adam in us, which is against our sinfulness, but we struggle with our eyes placed firmly on Christ, not ourselves.
If your Lenten disciplines are falling by the wayside, chin up. Remember that Christ alone is our motivation, our strength, and our goal.
Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash