I’ve been struck by something lately. I often hear someone talk about something they know they shouldn’t be doing, rather sheepishly. Or maybe it’s something they should be doing but aren’t. What’s striking is that often the solution really isn’t that complex. It’s clear which path is right. But somehow we get bogged down, finding it hard to take the next step, even when it’s clear what it is. There’s something troubling about this, not least because there are plenty of things in life that aren’t so easy and require wisdom that’s beyond our grasp. If we can’t appropriately manage our lives when we know what to do, how can we possibly hope to have the maturity to handle situations that are actually confusing? Now as Christians, we acknowledge up front that life is beyond us, that we need God’s wisdom to take even the simplest steps. But our Christianity makes it less excusable, not more, when we can’t follow through on simple goals. If we actually believe that God gives grace to guide us through the darkest, most confusing things in our lives, can’t he give us grace to make simple choices?
But it’s not just in others. I see this same difficulty in my own life. Often it seems like there’s a disconnect. I see the need for change in my own life, trace what is causing the problem, and can even explain what’s wrong to others. But then as I go through my day, I continue to make the same mistakes. There comes a point when it seems silly to talk about it. I’ve certainly seen this in conversation with others, too, where we update each other on how we’re still failing to live as we should, even though we know better. It starts to sound so absurd—a bit embarrassing, really. Clearly this shouldn’t be happening. So what can we do about this?
The short answer is that we simply need to do the right thing.
And no, I don’t think that’s too simple. I know what you’re thinking: how can this be so simple if I haven’t been able to change even when I know I should? Well, perhaps it’s because you’ve fooled yourself into thinking it isn’t simple. Yes, really. That about sums it up as far as I’m concerned. And again, I’m talking specifically about situations where it’s clear what we need to do. But I want to consider some ways of thinking that cripple us and keep us from viewing simple things as simple.
The first thing we need to recognize is that our desire for change isn’t sinking in.
We say that we know something needs to change, but it’s not something that’s sunk into the routine of our existence. To use a practical example, let’s say that you know you need to stop sleeping in before getting up to go to work—you’ve hardly had time to read your Bible. Any time you talk about your spiritual life with friends, this is glaring and you clearly “recognize” it. But when you come home from work in the evening, you aren’t thinking about your spiritual life. That’s why you stay up late, likely messing around on your phone, and then feel utterly exhausted when your alarm rings, so you hit snooze twice, getting up just in time to dress and rush out the door. So when you tell your friends you know you need to change your habits, this is barely true. You aren’t even trying, so any “recognition” you have isn’t worth much. You haven’t allowed your spiritual ideals to intersect with your actual existence.
If you recognize something should be different in your life, this isn’t helpful unless you pinpoint ways it could change.
Now sometimes this is quite straightforward. You know going to bed an hour earlier would make it easier to get up and actually have a decent quiet time. So in this case, there isn’t much point asking for prayer to “be able to spend more time in the Word.” You just need to tell your friends to keep you accountable to getting to bed at a better time—at least on average. And then you take the steps you need to take from there. Maybe you don’t stay out as late at some weekly events. Or maybe you set a time when electronics are turned off. It can be anything. And then do it.
But even when you know something needs to change, it’s easy to think that the real problem lies somewhere else.
Perhaps something deeper, more subtle is going on. Maybe the reason you can’t get up at a good time is because of some mysterious spiritual bondage you haven’t identified yet. Now I want to be careful, because there are times when this is true. If this is the case, ask God to reveal this underlying sin or bondage. But quite often there isn’t some other mysterious issue going on; Satan is just trying to throw you off course. Why would we fail to deal with known issues just because we know there are probably other issues that we haven’t identified? As we grow in the Lord, he will continue to conform us to his image, refining us and revealing weaknesses we hadn’t seen before—this is true. But if we haven’t been faithful in what we know, how do we expect God to show us new things? Let’s beware of a spiritual sounding “I think God needs to show me some things in my life” that’s really just an excuse for laziness today.
To make matters worse, living poorly can start to seem normal. We shouldn’t underestimate just how much this can make very straightforward things seem enormously complicated. When we wake up after a bad day, we instinctively expect the same thing. And sure enough, we usually get what we were expecting. This is where our Christianity needs to enter the picture. If we were counting on our own strength and wisdom to pull us through, we’d truly have a problem. But if we truly repent and rely on God’s grace for a new day, the failures of yesterday should just remind us of how much we need God, instead of causing us to think that today won’t go well.
Sometimes this works in reverse, in a bit of a perverted way. We might go through a time of victory and extra focus. But then we start to slip, perhaps even in a big way. Then we look back to our moment of victory and wonder if maybe we weren’t doing as well then as we thought. “If I really was walking in victory then, how come I’ve managed to fall so far since then?” we might think. I know this line of thinking has kept me down when I was discouraged. And while we should always be growing and moving on to better things, this kind of doubt is entirely unhelpful. I find many times my problem isn’t that I’ve never found the secret to walking a victorious walk, but simply that I worry that I haven’t. This fog of confusion keeps me from getting up and doing the right thing, as I worry that maybe I really don’t know what to do.
Once we recognize that we’ve failed, it’s easy to get stuck trying to decide how badly we’ve failed.
We want to figure out if we’ve gotten off the path just a little bit, or if our failure points to a significant breakdown. But in almost every case, this just isn’t relevant. When we know we should be doing something differently, we don’t need to quantify the extent of our error; this is something only God can fully judge. If we know how we need to improve, then our way is clear. It is entirely possible to be guilty of serious sin and to repent, turn away, and go on to complete victory immediately. If our awareness of sin causes us to feel that we’re doomed to wallow around for a while—maybe as a kind of atoning—then we know this is Satan misdirecting our awareness of guilt. God convicts of sin, not so we go around feeling bad about ourselves, but so we repent and go on to victory and joy by his grace.
Finally, it’s only fair to acknowledge that often we’re in difficult situations that we can’t control. There is a challenge in a relationship or on the job that won’t go away even if we handle ourselves perfectly. I think we easily fail to recognize how different our lives will be, even in the most difficult times, when we make sure our own lives are in order. When we have issues in our lives that aren’t dealt with, this starts to get all tangled up with the tough circumstances we face. When we are facing external stress and failing to control our own behavior, the emotional downturn we face is devastating. Yes, it will still be difficult after we have cleaned up our own lives, but our way won’t be clouded by guilt. Life may still hurt, but we’ll experience God’s comfort, instead of needing to hide in our own confusion.
So whenever you think about your life and the ways it should be different, recognize that the answer is probably simpler than you think. Satan thrives on making our lives seem impossibly complicated, so that we think there’s no way forward when the answer is right in front of our nose. Let’s be aware of this and make sure we are doing what we know to do.