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At the risk of derailing someone's hard fought New Year's vows, let me suggest that some of us stop trying to become good Christians, or whatever noble thing we're striving to be.

I grant that the New Testament is replete with admonitions to "strive" and "make every effort" to be faithful followers of Jesus. One of Paul's favorite expressions along these lines is a dressing metaphor: "put on the new self" (Col. 3:10), "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14), and "put on the whole armor of God" (Eph. 6:11), to quote a few of the places where he uses this stock phrase. He often ties this metaphor to the virtues: We are to put on "the breastplate of righteousness" (Eph. 6:14), "to put on … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience" (Col. 3:12), and above all we are to "put on love" (Col. 3:14).

What Paul doesn't address is how exactly one "puts on" these virtues. The answer is more mysterious than we are apt to think.

During an evening prayer service on New Year's Day, a friend described his spiritual journey the previous year. He lamented that his plans to become more regular and disciplined in prayer and Bible study had come to naught. And yet, he said, he found he grew spiritually more than ever.

This is precisely how the spiritual life has worked for me. The more I strive to be a "good Christian"—more prayerful, patient, giving, sacrificial, whatever—the more I find myself anxious, irritated, guilty, resentful, and self-righteous. When I simply accept that I'm a sinner, really, I find that I pray more, am more patient, more giving, more humble, and more loving.

This is the paradoxical reality that has been exploited effectively by Alcoholic's Anonymous for decades. The more an alcoholic strives to control her drinking, the more she is given to drink. The moment she admits she has no control over alcohol, that's when she can gain some freedom—as long as she continues to identify herself accordingly: "Hi, I'm Anne, and I'm an alcoholic."

We are regularly tempted—at least I am tempted thus—to control our sinful longings and to strive to become what we are not: holy. Yes, I understand that in Christ we can indeed call ourselves holy. Some talk about this in terms of imputation—we are now treated by God as if we are righteous. Others emphasize the hope: we are promised by a faithful God that in the end Christ will transform us. However we think of it theologically, it remains a paradox that many don't make any progress in the spiritual life until they understand themselves by their failure: "Hi, I'm Mark, and I'm a sinner."

Jesus put it this way: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

In practical terms, that means giving up any effort to make oneself into something (which correlates nicely with the fact that it is God who has already done everything necessary to make something of us—more on that another time). This means, in turn, that we may want to consider abandoning resolutions to become better in one way or another.

This is understandably a frightening thought for some: "I can barely live a decent life when I try so hard. If I give up striving, won't I just melt into a puddle of immorality?" Or, "If I don't set new goals every so often, won't I stagnate?"

That is always a possibility, of course. We human beings have a way of turning profound truths into justifications for all manner of behavior. But then we have people like Jesus telling us that the way to the kingdom of heaven—the fully realized life in God—runs through the crossroads of spiritual poverty.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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