Longing for the Divine

Brittle Wineskins and Ropes of Sand

It’s that time of year when we reflect on the previous year and look ahead to the new. A popular custom is setting New Year’s resolutions. Many of us will resolve to quit a bad habit, lose weight, work out, or eat healthier—though we usually fail to meet such goals. To be sure, self-discipline is good for the body, but how about overcoming the pattern of failure by setting a goal to become a new you this year? We are told that “bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8, NKJV). That’s a resolution worth making.

I understand that most New Year’s resolutions fail because permanently changing the ways we think and feel is very difficult. We promise ourselves that we will be different than we were the year before, but our resolutions rarely pan out as we plan, and by the end of the year, they are often long forgotten.

Change is difficult. We may start strong, but after a while, our resolutions become like ropes of sand. We find ourselves weak, unable to give flesh to the promises we’ve made. Memories of prior failures and broken promises further weaken our confidence in our ability to change. Living in the shadow of broken promises, we may believe that we will never be good enough to change, but when God’s grace breaks through, making us receptive, new possibilities become possible. 

Jesus offers words that I think address our failed attempts at change. He says that if one puts new wine into old wineskins, “the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Luke 5:37–38, NKJV). 

Jesus is referring to a common practice of His day. In ancient times, the art of winemaking involved using small skins as vessels. These wineskins stretched, and one already stretched could burst under the pressure of new wine expanding. I think that while we wish to receive new wine, we tend to use only old skins that are dry and brittle. Struggling to believe in change, we carry the pain of broken promises and maintain faulty ideas. We become so accustomed to our old, inflexible wineskins that we cannot achieve something new and innovative. It’s like we’re pouring new wine into old wineskins and expecting a good outcome.

We are meant to grow and change. It is good to be receptive to change—to have new life breathed into our dying visions or to create new ones. Life is not just about getting by; we should purposely live our best lives. A common difficulty, however, is that our promises have little staying power. Merely making resolutions doesn’t make change happen. Insisting on change while retaining our same old ways of thinking will cause us to miss the new. Jesus’s approach, by contrast, is to use fresh wineskins. He focuses on the skins—the containers—in which the wine is stored. It’s easy to err by using the same old withered wineskin. Often, the old ways seem easier, and we fail to try the new.

There is a way, however, to make our lives fulfilling—a way through which the promises and resolutions we make become flesh. As Philippians tells us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”  (4:13, NKJV). We can’t generate good behavior and change by ourselves. We need support. God enables us by transforming and changing the way we function as vessels. It’s a whole new way of thinking and accomplishing goals. We draw strength from outside ourselves, through the example of Jesus, who never broke His promises or commitments—whose word was His bond. To know Jesus and to become more like Him is the only consuming passion worth having. Think about how it could change us.

Can we make ourselves available to God in ways that will revolutionize our lives? Doing so requires focus. It’s hard to live in a world full of distractions, but we can decide to look steadily to Jesus, even when we are failing. “Our eyes are to be fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV). We are free to direct our gaze, but to achieve change, we must fix our eyes on Jesus.

We must stop focusing on broken promises, past inadequacies, and the many problems in our world, instead seeking inspiration from our focus on Jesus. Growing in the likeness of Jesus or becoming more Christlike is often considered legalistic and equated with the old teachings on works, but we know all too well that one can hold correct religious opinions and beliefs and yet remain carnal. Effort is often considered nonessential for Christians because they are saved once they believe in Jesus. The result of these ideas is a truncated Christianity that does not look much like Jesus. I don’t seek a comfortable theology, however, but to be more like Jesus, who was always secure and never intimidated, who knew how to love and when to be firm, and who always met His commitments.

So, how can I be more like that? My central goal in the coming year is to become more like Jesus. That’s the one thing I want to obsess about, the one thing I want to see through, even if only through baby steps. I want to experience the best wine in a new wineskin. The gospel of Luke adds a cryptic final statement to Jesus’s words: “And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39, NKJV). 

Jesus’s teaching is not a new doctrine but the revelation of what has been true from the very beginning—His promises and truths preserved for us that will be realized in due time. We should not criticize old wine because it never loses its value or becomes outdated. Both wisdom and innovation are found in the tried-and-true ways, as mature wine contains a living truth flowing from the ancient past, providing new and precious insight (Matthew 15:32). 

We thus can see in the old a new beauty. We see it in the Ancient of Days, in the good way portrayed by the ancient paths. Jesus is not a new religion; He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

Yet, only fresh wineskins can hold the wine God offers. It can be surprising to discover something new and awesome coming from our wineskins that indicates the beauty of having been with Jesus. Seeing how the disciples changed into learned and courageous men, for example, amazed people. As recounted in the book of Acts, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, ESV).

That’s what I want to be like this coming year. That’s my New Year’s resolution!

Craig Ashton Jr.

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