New Years is a time for resolution, for trying to achieve change. “Out with old, in with the new!” And yet – the failure to achieve New Year’s resolutions becomes frustrating; we sit there with Paul saying “I do not do what I want to do; what I do not want to do, that I do!” By God’s mercy, Scripture speaks to both of these very human realities – both the longing for goodness, and grace in the face of our inevitable falling short.
The bible presents a two-sided vision of humanity which C.S. Lewis termed “glory” and “shame.” Scripture on the one hand presents us a high vision of what humans beings can do: we are called to be “holy as I am holy,” to “fight the good fight” against sin, “taking up the whole armor of God” so we may “stand against the evil one.” There is an element of Scripture that upholds a vision of humanity which can become like God in terms of sinlessness. Of course, that capacity is tied to our redemption in Christ and incomplete until we experience the bodily resurrection Paul describes in I Corinthians 15. But, Scripture shows us, Christians have the capacity to live without sin.
And yet, Scripture also shows us another side of the biblical view of humanity. David implies that we are sheep, for “the Lord is my shepherd.” Isaiah reminds that “all we like sheep have gone astray, each one to his own way.” The picture of perfect humanity only lasts three chapters in Genesis, and that pattern of humanity is continued throughout the biographical portions of the Old Testament: the men of God only stay holy for a time. David, the “man after God’s own heart,” went astray with Bathsheba. Abraham’s faith did not prevent him from pursuing a different solution to Sarah’s infertility with Hagar. Moses wrath cost him entrance to the Promised Land. Gideon, after delivering the rescue of God, erected idols and led Israel to sin. The New Testament continues this vision: Peter denies Christ, Paul and John Mark are divided by conflict for years, the newly baptized Simon Magus tries to buy the Holy Spirit. But the New Testament also makes clear God’s grace towards us as sinners. Jesus calls his disciples to live holy lives, yet he is kind and compassionate when we fall short of the command. His holiness did not lead to condemnation of the prostitutes or the prideful; instead, the gospel tells us, Jesus heard the rich young ruler’s response and “looked at him with love.”
The biblical vision is one high demands: perfect righteousness towards God and man. As such, it fits with other religious texts worldwide which call for humans to choose selflessness. Yet we cannot forget the other side: the bible also recognizes human weakness and stupidity; God is not surprised when we sin. He recognizes that like sheep, we rarely know our own good. This double-vision is what C.S. Lewis describes in The Magicians Nephew. Cab driver Frank is to be the first King of Narnia, and at the conclusion of the story he and Aslan have a critical conversation about the title “Son of Adam.” Being a “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve” is enough “glory to lift” the lowest peasant’s head – because this son or daughter bears the divine image, has the capacity for rational thought, is a free agent, and is redeemed by Christ. Being a “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve” is also enough “shame” to “bend the head of the proudest emperor” – because Adam and Eve chose to leave it all, and as their heirs we continually give away that which would bring us true joy and happiness in exchange for sinful pleasures which fade.
This then is what it means to be human: made in God’s image, with all the amazing rights and capacities that relationship entails. But we are also sheep who wander and stray; apart from the Good Shepherd, we would walk right over a cliff to our doom.
Here is the amazing part – God knows. He knows our weakness and our failings, and we can never sin beyond his willingness to forgive. He is not surprised when we fail to keep our resolutions or when we sin; all he requires is repentance and He restores us.
So go into 2018 not “firmly resolving” to lift yourself up by your bootstraps and *oof* make change happen; begin the year determining to be a good creature in God’s world and draw nearer to him through his unchanging grace. For this too is what it means to be human.