How to Do the New Year Right
Let me start off this new year with a question that may make you a little uncomfortable. It’s certainly not a question to be asked among polite company. It may even stir up a little bit of indignation in you (whether that’s a righteous indignation or not depends on you). Here goes: Are you a cheater? Actually, hold off on answering that for just a minute. Let’s start a bit broader in our scope. What is a “cheater”? How would we define that? Perhaps most simply, a cheater is a person who does not abide by the rules. If you want to get somewhat more technical we could define it like this: A cheater is someone who seeks to advance his (or her) own interests without regard for expected behavioral norms whether personal, social, religious, or legal, and often does so at the expense of those around him.
Now, on the one hand, we tend to have an intuitive dislike of those people we identify as cheaters. A few years ago the news broke thanks to a whistleblower of a cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public School System. It seems some teachers and administrators were actively changing the grades of failing students on standardized tests to make the district look like it was doing a whole lot better than it really was. The anger and righteous indignation blew up like a quick thunderstorm. How dare they value the reputation of their schools over the actual quality of the education their students were receiving! If they didn’t want to actually teach students, they should have chosen another profession! They should all be fired! On and on the denunciations rolled. When the New England Patriots (who, by the way, are the passionate favorite football team of my brother-in-law) were accused of cheating by using improperly inflated footballs in their playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens a couple of years ago, the so-called Deflate-gate scandal was the talk of the nation for weeks, even to the point of people calling for an official congressional investigation into the matter. Quarterback Tom Brady eventually had to sit out the first four games of this season (which hasn’t seemed to impact their ability to win, much to the chagrin of the crowd who loves to hate them). There was a similar national reaction to the steroid controversy in baseball a few years ago. Even in something as simple as playing a board game with a friend, if we suspect our opponent is cheating, we are quick to jump to a similarly righteous indignation. It’s not right to cheat and we know it.
On the other hand, though, our definition of a cheater is awfully, uncomfortably broad. I mean, think of all the ways someone…we…might seek to advance our own interests without regard for expected behavioral norms. Yikes! It could be that we fudged our kids’ ages that one time so we could get a better rate on a ticket to go somewhere. Perhaps you helped yourself to the senior discount a bit too early. Maybe you wanted to put more people in one hotel room than were technically allowed. It could have been that yours or your player’s foot wasn’t really on the base or had in fact crossed the out-of-bounds line and the ref missed it. Perhaps you decided that your need to get where you were going in a certain amount of time was more important than abiding by the posted speed limits on the roads you were taking to get there. Did you write down all of what Uncle Sam defines as your taxable income? Maybe you weighed the costs and decided that getting a good grade was worth using that extra bit of “help” that was at your disposal (whether wittingly or not). It could be a lot of different things. But whatever it was, in that moment at least, you and I were cheaters.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” we might want to protest. “I’m not a cheater. I was just…” You can fill in the blank there with whatever excuse you’d like to give. I was just running late. Money was just tight and their rules were arbitrary anyway. No one was going to find out. The government wastes my money and otherwise uses it for immoral ends anyway. I was just getting a little extra help…it wasn’t cheating-cheating. We find whatever justification we can for two simple reasons: 1. We intuitively know that cheating isn’t right; and 2. We cheated.
But why do we cheat? Well, the answer to that question is wrapped up in our definition. We were committed in that moment to pursuing our own interests without regard for whatever were the expected behavioral standards in that particular situation. For instance, when you play Monopoly, the expected behavioral standard is that you will pay everything to the bank that you owe and won’t take any extra for yourself. When you write an essay for school, the expected behavioral standard is that you will do all the required reading and that everything you write will either be original to you or else an appropriately cited outside source. When we don’t live up to those expected behavioral norms (which might more simply be called “the rules”), the reason is that we want to get whatever is the designated win in that particular situation more than we want to abide by the rules.
Come on, though, you know as well as I do that, cliché or not, cheaters never win. You might win the game, but you’ll lose the relationship. You might be setting land speed records, but should you get caught you’ll lose your license and become a burden to others. Or think bigger. Barry Bonds could have gone down as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. But his use of steroids has—fairly or not—put a huge asterisk on his most notable achievements. Even if nobody catches you, you still have to bear the internal stigma of knowing you didn’t really earn that victory. If you really want to win the game—whatever the game happens to be—you’ve got to keep the rules. If you want to win the game, you’ve got to keep the rules.
Now, when the game is something fairly trivial—say, a game of Trivial Pursuit—this is important because it’s a matter of character, but the consequences aren’t likely to be terribly significant. When the game is life, though, the stakes become much, much higher. The kick with life, though, is that sometimes we feel like we don’t even know the rules. I mean, how are you supposed to win at life without cheating when you don’t know where the lines are? Well, as it turns out, we have help. Lots of help, in fact. While the Scriptures are far more than merely a set of rules for life, within this grand story of God’s efforts to reveal Himself to us and bring us back into a relationship with Him, we can and do find a great deal of wisdom for how to play the game of life according to the rules. And if you want to win the game, you’ve got to keep the rules.
Still, though, trying to look at the Scriptures in terms of getting wisdom for how to play the game of life well can feel a bit like drinking from a firehose. And yet, this is the time of year when folks are the most primed to make positive changes to their lives. So what I want to offer you for the rest of our time together this morning are some good rules for doing life right; for playing the game well without cheating. In fact, I want to offer you five rules that, if you will commit to keeping for the next year, I can guarantee that you will find yourself in a better place than you are right now (even if the place you are in now is a pretty good one). What’s more, these rules are not offered as hard and fast commands for us to keep. That never feels very good, even when it comes from God. Rather, these are offered as wisdom from a father to his child. The father is King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, and we can go ahead and put ourselves in the place of the child. You can find all of this in Proverbs 4.
Chapter 4 starts out like this: “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching.” What follows then is a litany of…you guessed it…fatherly advice. It basically boils down to: Seek out wisdom and stay away from what is evil. Near the end of the chapter, though, starting in v. 20, Solomon offers a closing series of commands aimed at being the real takeaways from the dialogue. He has a deep concern here that his children not miss what he has to say because he’s offering them words that will lead to life if they are lived well. Listen to this now starting at v. 20: “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.”
Solomon is calling us to a full sensory engagement with what he is about to say. Did you catch that? Be attentive. Incline your ear. Let them not escape your sight. Keep them within your heart. Every part of us needs to be committed to keeping this set of rules if we want to experience the life available for those who find them; if we want to experience the healing they will bring. That’s a pretty significant promise, by the way. It’s not simply that Solomon’s words will bring life. They will bring healing. They will repair what’s broken and restore what has been lost. Find me another set of rules that will accomplish such a feat. I doubt very seriously that you will. This is a set of rules worth committing our whole lives. Indeed, if you want to win the game, you’ve got to keep the rules.
Okay, so what exactly are the rules? Let’s look at each of these in turn. Well start with the first in v. 24: “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” I actually like the NIV here even better than the ESV. It reads like this: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” That’s big stuff, right? Above and before everything else you do and with all the vigilance you can muster, guard what has access to your heart. The reason being: Everything you do comes out of your heart.
Now, of course, he’s not speaking of the heart literally—this is a type of figurative literature, after all—but rather, he’s seeing it like all of us do and in fact people have always done: The center of our being; the seat of our emotions; the starting point of our will. It’s the spring from which the rest of our life flows. In making this observation, Solomon has a pretty reputable figure seconding him: Jesus. Listen to what Jesus said to His disciples one day after the Pharisees had been challenging Him for apparently not keeping the Old Testament dietary laws starting in Mark 7:14: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. . . .Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from the outside [that is, food] cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Are you with me here? It’s what comes out of our metaphorical heart that determines the direction and quality of our life. There’s nothing we do—no stray thought or furtive glance or passing desire—that doesn’t have its root in this center of who we are. It is the spring of our life. Now, apart from Christ it is a poisoned spring because of sin. Once we have invited Him in to make us clean, though, our work is not done. If we add poison back into the spring in the form of mental, emotional, or relational garbage, what can we rationally expect to come out of it? We’ve got to guard our hearts.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we completely shut ourselves off from all the junk in the world around us. It doesn’t mean we stop watching television or going to see movies or reading non-Christian books or magazines. Instead, it means that we take a more vested and intentional interest in what we allow to shape our worldview. It is possible to be aware of the things in our culture that have little or no redeeming value in spite of their giant cultural impact without giving them access to our hearts. For instance, instead of consuming media like Game of Thrones or Westworld or 50 Shades of Grey that expose viewers unnecessarily to what amounts to heart-damaging pornography, we can read plot summaries or reviews from trusted (Christian) sources. That will allow us to be aware of these cultural phenomena without letting the visual poison do any harm to our hearts. Whatever it is you need to guard your heart from, take the necessary steps to do it. The rest of your life depends on it. Rule number one, then, is simple: Guard your heart.
So what’s rule number two? Listen to what Solomon had to say now in v. 24: “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.” Have you ever said anything you shouldn’t have said? Has anything ever slipped out you didn’t want to slip out and then you had to deal with the aftermath? Our words are a powerful tool. They are perhaps the single most powerful tool we have for shaping and impacting the world around us. Our words possess the power of life and death. They can uplift or lay low. They can transform the whole of a person’s life for good or evil. Jesus’ brother James wrote in his letter that “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” If we could master our tongues, we would be the masters of our entire lives. If we want to do life well, then, we need to get our tongues under control. We need to put away all lying and gossip and slander. We need to stop being critical of others. We need to train ourselves to respond to every situation around us with words that are gentle and kind. Our words should give life whenever they flow off our tongues. This isn’t always or even ever easy, but if we would do life well, if we would win the game, becoming the masters of our words is really important. Thus, rule number two is this: Choose your words well.
Before you speak, think. Consider the impact of what you’re about to say on the people who are going to hear it. Will it bring them life or death? Will it encourage them or tear them down? And don’t stop with the actual words themselves, take into account here the way they will be communicated. This is something we have to tell our boys all the time: How you say something matters as much as what you are saying. Kind words delivered hurtfully are really hurtful words. A rebuke spoken in love, however, can be a balm to the soul even if it stings a little bit at the outset. If you want to win the game, you’ve got to keep the rules, and choosing your words well is a good rule to live by.
Having our hearts well-guarded and choosing our words well, though, don’t do us much good if we drift off the path of life and head off into dangerous territory. Because of this, rule number three draws our attention to the path we are taking to get from here to there. Listen to v. 25: “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” Have you ever seen horses in a parade? Sure you have. More than likely, what did those horses have on their eyes? Blinders. Why? Because as those horses walk down the street, if they didn’t have those blinders and saw something out of the corner of their eye that startled them, they might go into a flight-or-fight mode and try to make a run for it. That could be dangerous both for the horses and the people who might be in between them and the route they’ve chosen to get to what they think is safety. Now, the blinders don’t take away any potential dangers along the route, but it prevents the horses from being distracted by them and getting off course. Of course, if a horse wore blinders all the time, it could easily miss out on a real danger and get seriously hurt. Blinders are safe during the parade, though, because the horses have learned to trust the person guiding them. They trust that their riders or drivers will keep them safe and deliver them from harm’s way if such a thing becomes necessary.
Are you with me? As we are journeying on the path of life there are lots and lots of things happening on the periphery that compete for our attention. Most of these are not obvious dangers either. The great majority are things designed to entice us off the course of life laid out for us by Jesus. They are intended to distract us from the things that matter most. And what’s the best way to get someone to veer off a path they are walking when they are convinced that path is a good one? With challenges and threats and dangers? No way. Those are much more likely to get us to double down in our dedication to our original aim. No, the better way is to offer alternative paths that seem better. When Pinocchio didn’t listen to Gepetto’s instructions to go to school, it wasn’t because someone threatened him if he went. It was because he was overwhelmed by a host of apparently more attractive options. If we do not discipline ourselves to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the path of Christ—all the while trusting that our guide will make sure we are not beset by anything we can’t see because of this—we will inevitably be drawn to the wayside of life. And while things may at first seem fine down there, eventually—as Pinocchio soon discovered—we will realize the mess we are facing. With all of this in mind, here’s rule number three: Keep your eyes forward.
And yet, simply keeping our eyes forward isn’t enough in and of itself. We still have to make wise choices along the way or we will plod our way right into a mess we should have otherwise easily avoided. Thus we have rule number four: Think about your choices. Solomon puts it like this in v. 25: “Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.” What this doesn’t mean is that we should let ourselves get bogged down in an endless line of analysis and by this avoid making decisions altogether (or at least important ones). What it does mean is that we should consider our choices carefully before plowing ahead thoughtlessly. The Scriptures give us a lot of good guidance, but there are situations in our lives that are not directly addressed in the Scriptures and which require careful consideration in order to forge ahead down the path that is most honoring to God. Think: In making this choice am I honoring God, or am I pursuing my own interests regardless of the rules and who might be hurt by my breaking them? Is this choice intended to advance the interests of others or myself? If we are going to play the game of life well, we’ve got to think about our choices. That’s a rule that will not fail us and if we want to win the game, we’ve got to keep the rules.
The last rule here seems like it should be a no brainer, but unfortunately it is a reminder that is all-too-often necessary if we are going to win the game of life. Check out how Solomon ends the chapter in v. 25: “Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” While, again, this seems like it should be able to go without saying, it is a good summary of the rest. In every single situation we face, this should be part of the foundation for how we approach it. The fifth and final rule here can be stated simply: Do what’s right. No matter what shape our circumstances take, we can always ask ourselves this question: What is the right thing to do? Once we have identified what that is, we do it. It’s always right to guard our hearts. It’s always right to choose our words well. It’s always right to keep our eyes forward. It’s always right to think about our choices. No matter what we are facing, if we are going to play the game of life well, we must do what’s right, understanding that what is right is always defined by God’s character. That means we’ve got to get His character right which itself means staying grounded in the Scriptures through regular exposure and keeping a wide open channel of communication through prayer. Doing this will help us keep the rules well which will lead to us winning the game. If we want to win the game, we’ve got to keep the rules.
This morning is the start of something entirely new. God’s mercies are new every morning. Yesterday is in the past. The potential for what may be is limitless. The game starts today. If you want to win, though, you’ve got to play by the rules. We are often taught that the rules of life are to look out for ourselves, use others to get what we want, and pursue pleasure wherever we may find it, but as it turns out, those are all ways to cheat. The rules that will lead us to the victory we are seeking are simple: Guard your heart, choose your words well, keep your eyes forward, think about your choices, and do what’s right. If we want to win the game, we’ve got to keep the rules. If you will commit to living by this set of rules—perhaps for the very first time—you will win not just the game of this year, but of your entire lives. It won’t be easy. We are generally accustomed to the kind of rules the world proclaims will get us the win we want. It will take discipline and missing out on apparently good things so that we might experience what is better: life. But when we win by keeping the rules, the victory will be all the more delicious to enjoy. If you want to win the game, you’ve got to keep the rules. Let’s get playing.
Let’s get playing, because if we are in Christ, we are playing for the team whose victory has already been assured. We are playing not to achieve the victory, but to celebrate the victory Jesus has already won on our behalf. Remember what Paul said to the church in Corinth? Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting? The power of this world has lost and has no chance to win. In Christ, we have the win we want. We can receive if we are willing to let Him be the Lord of our lives. He is worthy of such a position, because of what He did to make that victory possible for us to enjoy. And what did He do? He died in our place. He let His body be broken so that ours doesn’t have to be and He let His blood be spilled to the last drop in order to sign and seal a new covenant of life between us and the Father. Once we have received His work on our behalf, we play by the rules in order to demonstrate our gratitude for what He has done for us. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, we are doing one of the most important things we do in our regular life cycles in order to celebrate that victory and recommit ourselves to living it out. This morning, then, as we close out our time together by symbolically eating and drinking of the blood and body of Christ, we are celebrating our victory—won without cheating!—in a powerful way. This morning we can let this mark the beginning of a new game; a game we will win as we live according to this new and improved set of rules. As you eat and drink—and we will all do it together this morning—offer a prayer of thanks and dedication: Thanks for what God did to make the victory possible; and dedication to living the lifestyle of victory the rules allow. If you’re not a part of this victory yet or aren’t sure you are, hold back until you have gotten that settled—something I’d be delighted to help you do—but otherwise, eat and drink with gladness for the Lord has come and the victory is yours. Deacons, come on forward as I pray.