It’s New Year’s Eve and I have no intention of making any resolutions. Not that I am opposed to the idea, but maybe it just seems too artificial. Or too hopeless.
Or maybe it is because I feel that I have learned that it is dangerous to equate the accomplishment of goals with success. It goes back to a core belief about God’s primary purpose in my life. Borrowing from the old real estate maxim (that the three most important things to look for in a house are location, location and location), I have come to believe that the three most important things God is seeking to produce in us are character, character and character. In my view, this is essentially the same as learning how to love.
There is a remarkable passage in the Bible that, so far as I know, is the only place where the Bible defines what love is. There are plenty of places that we are commanded to love God, love our neighbors as ourselves, love our enemies and love one another – but only 1 Corinthians 13 spells out, in detail, what that must look like in practice. It is exceptionally valuable in that regard, because it anchors our understanding of true love in decisions and will and actions, rather than in feelings of affection. It holds up a standard – and a mirror – that shows clearly how we are measuring up.
I can read the words of the Apostle Paul, beginning with verse 4, and use them to examine myself: Am I patient? Am I kind? Am I envious, boastful or conceited? Do I act improperly? Am I selfish, easily provoked, keeping a record of wrongs? Do I find joy in unrighteousness – or do I rejoice in the truth? If I am honest in answering these probing questions, I will get a pretty good idea of what kind of progress I am making in fulfilling God’s plan for my life.
This definition of love (and the self-test provided here in verses 4-7) is indeed remarkable, but what stands out to me even more is what precedes it, in verses 1-3. Here, Paul presents some traits that have the look of a pretty impressive Christian résumé.
Please list your qualifications and accomplishments:
- I speak in other languages, human and angelic.
- I have the gift of prophecy.
- I understand all spiritual mysteries.
- I have all the correct theological knowledge.
- I have all faith, to the degree that I can move mountains.
- I have donated all my goods to feed the poor.
- I am willing to suffer hardship, even sacrificing myself, for my faith.
If I were to set some of these as goals, resolutions, for the coming year – and then actually accomplished them – I might be pretty pleased with myself and, in fact, might expect that God would be pretty pleased as well. These are good things, are they not? Worthy goals? And yet, Paul emphatically states, if I possess all of these, but have not learned how to love, I am a noisy blowhard. I gain nothing. I amount to nothing. I am nothing.
There’s nothing wrong with goals and plans; it would be hard to get through the day or remain gainfully employed without them. Make your resolutions lofty and challenging, but if they do not come to pass, bear in mind that God is forever at work in our lives, even when we do not make it directly from point A to point B. We may get sidetracked by our own weaknesses, by the ill will of others, or by forces well beyond our control. Nevertheless, God is faithful, and can (and will!) use every circumstance to bring light, to build character, to mold us into the loving women and men he created us to be.
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Related passages from the Scriptures:
If I speak human or angelic languages
but do not have love,
I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy
and understand all mysteries
and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith
so that I can move mountains
but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor,
and if I give my body in order to boast
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not envy,
is not boastful, is not conceited,
does not act improperly,
is not selfish, is not provoked,
and does not keep a record of wrongs.
Love finds no joy in unrighteousness
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7
But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does.
You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
I receive this insight with humility and submission. In a culture that is so driven by outward results I have always thought God is equally impressed. He cares for the result of the heart. Thank you papa
Thanks, Patrick. We must learn to see with the eyes of the spirit more than the eyes of our flesh or our culture. To the world, the crucifixion of Jesus appeared to be weakness and failure, but we know that it was, in fact, God’s greatest victory, whereby he defeated the enemy of our souls and freed us from sin and death.
Thanks for sharing this, Keith! Great perspective, and I really love the thought process that “the shortest distance between two points – is not God’s plan” takes me down. It’s easy to think God is results driven, and He is, but the results He’s after are in us, not in our accomplishments. So taking us straight to our goals or planned achievements, would rarely provide opportunities for us to grow in trust, and love, and, as you said, character. It’s always convicting when I think about the ways Jesus would almost cut down actions that seemed innately good, because the heart behind them wasn’t right. Alright, now I’m rambling… thanks again for sharing, I’ll carry this with me as I begin 2019!
Thanks, Craig. Good to hear from you! I appreciate your feedback and further thoughts. (Not at all what I would call rambling!) Jesus indeed went straight to each person’s heart and the true motives behind every action.
One of my favorite authors, Watchman Nee, taught that we never learn anything new about God except through adversity. I think that applies here, as does the reminder in the letter to the Hebrews that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful, but later on produces … righteousness and peace.” Plans do not always work out to our liking, but, thankfully, God does not place our “liking” (and comfort) at the top of His priorities! If we do not squirm out of His grip and run away, He will, over time, transform us more and more into the image of His Son. 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29.