The longer I held on, the deeper into the water I went. I came out of my skis as green lake water pressed through every orifice of my body. By the sheer force of my will (and a 150 horsepower Mercury outboard motor), I was drowning myself. As my trunks scooped up the lakebed, I recalled my Cub Scout survival training and I let go of the rope. It was in that sacred moment I learned the lesson of letting go.
As we begin a New Year with hopes and dreams about a better future, we have a decision to make about last year.
If you are like me, you did not meet all of your goals. As I look back on the last twelve month, I am thankful for progress in a few areas of my life, but I am also disappointed. There are some relationships I wish were better. There are opportunities I missed. There are goals I did not achieve. I’m still a little pudgy. And in some ways, as much as I hate it, I even lost ground.
Not only did I miss a few of my personal goals, but I did not meet the expectations of many of the people around me. Few have come out and said so, but it is likely that my words, actions, or some combination of the two disappointed not just a small group people. Whether I acted too quickly or too slowly, whether I spoke when I should have been quiet or was quiet when I should have spoken up, or whether I made a good decision or a bad one, my actions and words have brought a measure of disappointment to the people around me.
It is actually a part of our nature that we not only fail ourselves and others, but that we “all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Human standards aside, we are bent to miss the mark with God. This is more serious than simply missing our sales goals. This is personal sin against a holy God. I sinned against God last year in more ways than I can count. Falling short of God’s glory is not a new experience for any of us.
So with imperfection baked in to our nature and with some level of failure inevitable, what are we to do with what we did not do last year? Let me suggest a theology of letting go.
To be clear, letting go is not permission to mask our failures with binge drinking, overeating, or some other form of self-medicated escapism. It is not encouragement to walk away from covenant relationships with our spouse, children, or church family. And letting go is not ignoring the consequences of our choices, whether sinful or just stupid.
Letting go is not a coping skill. It is a theological decision to trust that the Good News of Jesus is good enough.
Biblical theology is not quarantined to the seminary classroom or the pastor’s study. It is the lens given to all of us through which we can see a future that is not determined either by the success or shame of our past. It allows us to build a life on something more than wives’ tales, folklore, or advice from the morning television gurus.
For example, the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians that he forgot everything that was behind him (Philippians 3:13). This was not a case of self-justifying amnesia. It was, instead, a decision to let go of his past so that he could take hold of Christ. This single-minded devotion to Jesus in chapter 3 was based on a Christ-centered theology found in the kenosis (self-emptying) hymn of chapter 2.
Paul’s most prized religious credentials paled in light of Jesus’ glory, and his most egregious sins were buried by Jesus’ grace.
The apostle Paul wrote this letter from a prison in which he expected to die, so he was not so optimistic about his prospects for his best year ever. He did not depend on a good attitude and strong organizational skills to give him a better life. Instead, he let go of his past, forgetting what was behind him, not by turning over a new leaf to try a little harder, but by trusting that Christ’s work on the cross was sufficient to redeem him from every sin and setback of his past and to reconcile him to God forever.
Jesus stood in as our substitute to die for us and for our sins so that by God’s grace we could “know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
That means we can let go of our past to pursue Christ with fresh faith and Holy Spirit power.
We can be sure that although we fail, Christ never does. And while we cannot change our past, we can let go of it to pursue the One who secures our future.
A theology of letting go reminds us that we do not have to drown in our own failures. Holding on tighter cannot change our past, but God has accepted the sacrifice of His Son as a sufficient covering for our sin. So when we return to God and surrender to the Lordship of Christ, there is no sin, no failure, and no missed opportunity of last year that condemns us. If God trusts Jesus with our brokenness, so can we. If Jesus sets us free from sin, death, and the grave, then we are free indeed. And if God cleanses us from all unrighteousness, then we can let it go too.