“You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Ever heard that before? I’d be shocked if you haven’t. I know I heard it from family, teachers, coaches, and friends throughout my childhood. This phrase has been a well-intended encouragement to American youth for the last few decades.
As I have worked with undergraduate students over the past three years, I have not been all that surprised when I encounter a young adult who not only believes they can do anything (sometimes despite all evidence to the contrary), but almost seems to feel that the world is obligated to ensure that they succeed. What has surprised me, given the persistence of the “you can do anything you put your mind to” myth, is how resistant people are to the possibility of real holiness in this life.
People seem to believe that we are capable, simply by deciding with our minds that we want to do something, of being able to do it. And people repeatedly affirm this, despite a lack of equally passionate insistence that “putting your mind to” means more than a sincere desire to do something, but determined and persistent effort.
But you know what I hear even more frequently than, “You can do anything you put your mind to?”
I have heard this repeatedly in virtually every context you can think of: private conversation, analysis from reporters/pundits on television, preachers in sermons, and from my students. You know, the ones who have been told their entire lives that they can do anything that they put their minds to.
Indeed, the impossibility of perfection is so deeply embedded in us, that even when I read Wesley on Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, with students they almost always conclude that Wesley’s definition did not mean freedom from sin, or a perfect ability to avoid sin entirely. Instead, they redefine Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection as a kind of love that has very strong intent and sincerity, but where abstaining from concrete sins is somehow irrelevant or not completely connected. And this despite the fact that Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection absolutely includes sinless perfection. Indeed, Wesley’s most succinct definition of Christian perfection is “love excluding sin.” And yet, time and time again people read these words and conclude that he must have meant something else. Because, well, you know, nobody’s perfect.
What’s going on here? How can Wesley be so certain that people can be completely freed not only from the guilt of sin (forgiveness), but also from the power of sin (holiness)? Or, how can we be so sure today both that you can do anything that you put your mind to and that nobody is perfect?
One of the reasons I think so many people are instinctively resistant to the possibility of complete freedom from sin is that they were offered a superficial and unrealistic vision for so long: “you can do anything you put your mind to.” That isn’t true, and discovering that can be very painful, particularly when the people who love you the most keep telling you it is. “Nobody’s perfect” can become a very comfortable alternative, a soothing relief from unrealistic expectations. But there is a more significant problem.
“You can do anything you put your mind to” does not take seriously the problem of sin and our inability to save ourselves. A key conviction of historical Christian orthodoxy is that we are not enough. We cannot ever be the source of our own salvation. Putting your mind to being a better person, from the Christian perspective will fail every time. It is pure works righteousness.
At some level, I think we all get this, which is why “nobody’s perfect” has such compelling explanatory power in our collective conversation. In fact, by ourselves we can’t even be truly good, much less perfect.
But Christianity is not about what we are able to accomplish. It is about what Jesus has already done and what that makes possible for us. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus not only offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God the Father, we are also offered healing and wholeness. The atonement is most often connected with justification or pardon, but it is also related to sanctification or our ability to be made holy.
1 Peter 2:24 provides one such example from Scripture: “He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed.”
Because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, we can “live in righteousness” and have “nothing to do with sin.” Through the work of Christ, healing is offered to us. Or, as Charles Wesley so elegantly put it in “O for a Thousand Tongues,” “He breaks the power of canceled sin.”
So, you can’t do anything that you put your mind to. But, by God’s grace through faith, we can be freed from sin, entirely. The good news, the gospel, is that our past sins are canceled and that the power that those sins have over us is broken. We can hope for this because it isn’t a work that we do by putting our minds to it. It is something that God does in us as we have faith in the promises of God and cooperate with the work that God wants to do in our lives.
May the Lord increase our faith in what Jesus wants to do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, even to the point of loving God so completely, so perfectly, that sin itself is excluded from our lives.