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Intentional, not Good Intentions

I drove into town yesterday, just four days into the new year, and the roadside was littered with new years resolutions thrown aside like so much trash. We start each year with such good intentions--perhaps the road I was driving on was paved with them.

Jesus is looking for disciples, not revelers. Discipleship requires us to understand the difference between good intentions and intentionality. The Lord was quite clear: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16: 24-25). This kind of following is more than a one-time decision; it is no mere “accepting the free gift.” It is the conscious choice to lose our lives in him.

Intentional is the day-to-day outworking of our surrender, the surrender that brings an eternal quality of life even now. Rather than bubbly resolutions or grim religious rules, perhaps we could embrace in three foundational aspects of life in the Spirit.

1). Redeeming Time:
We live inside of time, but we hardly consider its passage. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised. “What? Where did the year go?” The Psalmist prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Each day would like to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an idol. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any relationship flourish only on the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) The King James translation employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.”

2). The Presence of the Holy Spirit:
Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation did not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit every day, because we need incarnation every day. The Spirit gives life, but the legacy of flesh is corruption. “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) It’s not that our flesh is evil, but rather that flesh is always subject to corruption. Imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day--remains firm and inviting. But imagine you left that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. It’s the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect,” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God conceive in us the life-giving plan our God. True change comes to those who seek the presence of the Holy Spirit each day.

3). A Response to Grace: Intentionality calls us to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were also steps for Paul to take as well: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace, yet we must add our strength to what the Master is doing. It’s how we commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best effort to God’s kindness.

The celebrations have already died down. School, work, family and the daily press of life will erode our good intentions as surely as the spring rains. But there is good news: the intentionality of discipleship can set us on a road paved with the daily grace of God.