Repentance and Adjustment

New Year’s resolutions can’t help having a gimmicky feel, but there is real value in a day which reminds us to always be pursuing excellence—and which reminds us that excellence is the product of our choices. New Year’s Day may not spark any new resolutions for you, but the Bible’s call to become more like Christ should.

The first question is always one of identification: What kind of problem is calling for a change? Is it a question of repentance, or of what we might call adjustment?

The Bible teaches us to be ruthless with our sins. It leaves no room for accommodation or half-measures; only repentance. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “From now on sin no more” (John 8:11). In the Sermon on the Mount, he declared, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), warning, “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (5:30).

Of course, our God realizes we will never fully destroy our sin in this life. John declared both the reality of persistent sin and its solution when he wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9). But realism about the inevitability of some sin is not the same as accommodation of it. Just a few verses earlier John wrote, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1:6).

If you are fighting persistent sin, the need is urgent and absolute: Relying on God in prayer, kill it. Every time. There is no room in the Christian walk for giving up, for letting “little” sins slip by because we are tired of fighting. King David let his eyes linger a second too long on his neighbor’s bathing wife, and the moment’s weakness led him into adultery, then murder. Sins in your life are like termites in your foundation—“just let it go for now” is not an option. And no matter how hard the struggle is, we do have our Father’s promise: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Cor 10:13).

But not all improvement is about killing sin. The busy father who realizes he needs to spend more time with his family may or may not need to repent of sinful selfishness or work-idolatry, but, either way, his life needs a very practical re-balancing which will be more a matter of thoughtful adjustment than repentance. The woman who is frustrated because she feels unhealthy and overweight may or may not need to turn away from gluttony or sloth, but she most likely needs a practical revamping of menus and exercise routines.

We make ourselves frantic, then frustrated, when we try to apply the simple, objective framework of repentance to problems that are really calling for adjustment. With repentance, the problem is one of willpower, choosing to do what is needed. But when the question is one of improvement rather than repentance, we need discernment, patience, and flexibility as well. Each instance of repentance offers an immediate, climactic struggle: Will you or won’t you? Adjustment, on the other hand, literally cannot be done all at once. Hence it calls for a different approach.

Flexible Firmness

No useful change can occur without a goal. If we don’t know where we’re going, it will be hard to get there. So useful adjustment requires a big-picture goal: Be more disciplined about having daily devotional time. Spend more time with my wife. Eat dinner as a family more often. Read more books. Eat healthier.

But goals aren’t much good without a specific plan to get there. Consider your situation and what is currently keeping you from your goal. Perhaps you want to have a daily devotional time but your morning is usually too cramped and when you do carve out a few minutes, you find yourself falling asleep. Okay then, perhaps the solution is to DVR your favorite TV show, which comes on at 11:00, so you can get more sleep and still wake up a little earlier to give yourself more time in the morning.

But remember that the plan is not the same as the goal. Plans can and should be tweaked or even totally revised as you go along. Give yourself time to get used to the new routine, but if something isn’t working, change it. It is easy to conflate our plans with our goals and hold to the former with an intensity which only makes sense for the latter. Spending time with your wife is important. Having a date at Denny’s at 6:00 on the first Thursday of every month is… not so important, if you both realize something else will work better.

The key to this sort of change is flexible firmness. Have a clear idea where you want to go, and stick to that compass heading, but don’t obsess about the path that takes you there. There are probably a dozen ways to accomplish the change you want, so just pick one and stick with it as long as it seems the most useful. And don’t hurry. Give yourself time to get used to the new way of doing things and to see how it affects the rest of your life, for better or worse. Don’t try to jerk yourself into a new shape all at once—if you’re moving in the right direction, just let the improvement continue; if not, revise your plan and give it another try.

Let Habits Do Some of the Work

Our willpower works much like a muscle. Days that demand many choices literally wear down our wills, making the next right choice harder. (Though, also like a muscle, practice making the right choice strengthens us for the next challenge.) Since we live a world which piles decisions on us—every email that pops up, every advertisement that flashes by, every notification on our phones—the willpower we need in order to get through the day is a precious commodity. If only there was some way to make decisions without that little willpower-debit for each one…

Conveniently enough, there is. It’s called a habit. By turning a decision into a habit, we set the choice on autopilot, allowing us to do the wise, healthy thing with less effort. My wife and I agreed when we got married that we would never deliberate about whether to go to church on Sunday. Unless illness or weather kept us away, we would be there. Is it always easy? No. But I am quite confident that it has been much easier than if we had to debate every Saturday evening whether we felt up to going to church. We knew it was important, so we turned it into a habit.

Whenever possible, incorporate habituation into your plans to reach your goals. Don’t just say, “I’ll try to read more.” (You probably won’t.) Instead, say, “I’ll set aside thirty minutes after dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays to read.” Then do it until the habit forms. Of course, remember flexible firmness. Maybe something comes up one evening. That’s fine. Maybe you realize Mondays and Saturdays work better. Maybe you realize that twenty minutes before breakfast is easier. So change it. But once you have the choice where you want it, plant it and give it time to set down the roots of habit.

And Pray

But that is all on the human side of things—and we do not operate merely on the human side of things. If our Father is sufficiently interested in your welfare to number the hairs of your head (Matt 10:29-31), it is a safe bet he is also glad to strengthen you for any worthy resolution. Don’t forget to pray for help, even with less “theological” needs. We can ask our Father both for the discernment to see the changes to be made and for the strength to make them.

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