I know. You don’t normally hear that from a pastor. So, let me explain. This is the time of year we consider making some serious changes in our life or setting lofty goals. Like, run a marathon. Give up red meat. Lose half our weight. Give up our cell phone when we are not in the office. Etc. But we all know how these things usually go.
You don’t need me to tell you about a News and World Report study stating that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. Well, I guess I just did. But you likely already know this, as you have tried and ended up dumping them by Martin Luther King Day. Been there, done and done that myself. That is why I say, “Give up!” Or, more specifically, as one writer puts it, “Stop trying and instead begin training.” So what is the difference? Years ago, a friend talked me into signing up for the “Tough Mudder.” It was (until COVID hit) an annual competitive event. It involved running about 12 miles cross country with obstacles every half mile or so, including having to wade and climb through chest-deep mud. Hence the name. What if I did nothing and just showed up and tried to compete in the Tough Mudder? As a middle-aged guy, I likely would have had a coronary. But instead, with help from the friend, a former Marine, I created a training program to prepare me. I trained almost daily. And trained hard. Now don’t get me wrong, the event was still brutal, but I made it through and have the T-shirt to prove it. And that is the difference. We need to stop trying (going from 0-60) and begin training…taking small doable steps on an almost daily basis.
I know what you are probably thinking. “Wait! You are a pastor, not a fitness trainer or a life coach! What does this have to do with God, following Jesus, etc.?” So here it is. Some of the principles that prepare us to run marathons or compete in the “Tough Mudder” also apply to our life with God. For example, most Jesus followers want to have more patience. Be kinder. More considerate. Less judgmental and more compassionate. But what we find is if we simply try to do these things, we end up falling on our metaphorical face. No matter how hard I try to control myself when my teenage daughter leaves her dirty dishes all over the house, I end up exploding with anger. So what do we do then? Jesus says in John 15:4, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” And so, how does this fit into the “Trying vs. Training” conversation? Jesus is saying that for us to “bear fruit,” which includes becoming more Jesus, we need to keep an intimate connection or relationship with Him. This is the training component. And by doing this, we are able to do what we couldn’t do on our own.
So, what does this look like then when it comes to the Christian life? Or, how do we “train” as Christians? As students of our master Jesus, we “practice” the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, studying the Scriptures, silence, solitude, worship, etc. Those activities that Christians for generations have discovered connect us with God. Or maybe better said, those ancient practices create space in our lives so we can experience God’s presence more fully. And then, by God’s power rather than our own, we can be patient with our messy teen, or have more compassion for our lonely elderly neighbor, and so on. So, we don’t just try to run a marathon; we train for it. We don’t just try to be a better Jesus follower; we train for it. So, yes…as we look to 2021, give up trying. Instead, begin training and watch our goals become reality, rather than buried in our New Year resolution grave.