Perhaps you’ve heard about the fellow who wrote out all of his New Year’s resolutions. On Jan. 1, 2008, he wrote: “I will try to be a better husband to Marge.” In 2009: “I resolve not to leave Marge this year.” In 2010: “I will try for a reconciliation with Marge.” This year: “I will try to be a better husband to Sally.”
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way that we intend. Sometimes it’s our own fault that they don’t. We make mistakes. Sometimes we make very bad mistakes. What then?
In 1928, George Kelly Barnes was arrested for smuggling liquor onto a Native American reservation. Instead of learning from that first, relatively minor mistake, he continued to make bad choices. Bad choices lead to bad consequences. By the time he died in 1954, “Machine Gun” Kelly had become one of America’s most notorious criminals. He spent more than a third of his life in prison.
What should we do when we find ourselves trapped in a downward spiral of bad circumstances, bad decisions and, therefore, more bad circumstances?
Another famous man in such a predicament wrote: “I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”
It may surprise you to know that those words were written by one of the most famous Christian leaders of all time — the Apostle Paul (Romans 7:19-24, The Message version of the Bible).
We don’t often think of that spiritual giant as a resolution-breaker, struggling to live a consistently godly life. But such was the case. Here’s how Paul dealt with the dilemma.
He answered his own desperate question, “Is there no one who can do anything for me?” with “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions, where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different” (Romans 7:25, The Message).
One of the ways that God helps Christian believers to overcome failure is by being on our side, not getting on our back. In the very next verse, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV).
That’s one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible.
Perhaps the reason that it means so much to me is there is so much in my life for which I could rightly be condemned.
One example involves what happened to me during the time that I was at Eastern Maine Medical Center for eight months with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1984-1985. Under the combined pressure of paralysis, air hunger and lack of sleep, I began to break down, emotionally and spiritually. During the final months of my hospitalization, I often treated my nurses and even my family very badly. My words and attitude were shameful. I failed the test.
Recently, as I read through some old hospital notes of that awful ordeal, I felt guilty, disgusted and unworthy — all over again. How could I consider myself a Christian, let alone a Christian minister?
Then I remembered that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I also remembered that “The LORD’S loving kindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, NASB).
I asked my wife, Mary, to put those old hospital notes in the wood stove. I asked God to set me free from their memory. I know that He is willing to remove all of our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
My New Year’s resolution is to accept the clean slate that God gives me every year and every morning.
No matter what your past, I invite you to do what I have done — receive God’s forgiveness in Christ, get back up and go forward in His grace this year.
Note: At 10 a.m. Jan. 9, the Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is scheduled to preach the sermon that he delivered 25 years ago after returning to the pulpit from his ordeal with GBS. You are invited to hear that message in person at the Monson Community Church. If you are unable to attend but would like a free published transcript of the sermon, request it by writing to him at: P.O. Box 262, Monson 04464. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and pastor emeritus at the Monson Community Church. He may be reached at AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.