As the “old” year fades into the rearview mirror and a whole new year approaches, it’s time to think about “resolutions’! The practice of making resolutions is actually quite old. The Babylonians celebrated their new year in the spring but with it came with a new resolve to return borrowed items and pay any nagging debts owed to others. The Romans began each calendar year with promises made to Janus, the god of beginnings (hence, our word January). When the Jews observed Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), it came with sorrow over sin and seeking forgiveness as well as an extension of forgiveness to others – a chance to start afresh!
When we make resolutions we are following a pattern in history as the ancients saw the new year as a prime opportunity to newly resolve. For many of us, the idea of making resolutions is actually impractical because it’s something we’ve tried, only to lapse into the same old patterns again. There’s a bit of resignation that change in life is harder to bring about and so we throw our hands up thinking, “What’s the point?” Yet, there’s something that nags at us when we think about remaining the same kind of person that we have been and continue to be. If a person is thinking clearly they realize that growing in certain areas is simply what people do and to remain the same is to get stuck in vices, those habits of the heart that do not lead to doing well in life. Simply put, only living things grow.
So where do we start in making spiritual resolutions that stick and actually have some “gravity” in our lives? Here are a few suggestions…
Be prayerfully reflective. One doesn’t need to carry out Jonathan Edwards’s 70 resolutions with ferocity (although reading them and allowing the Spirit to grip your heart would be a fun experiment). Probably what we wrestle with is not so much describing the eternal life that Jesus said He came to bring. Our problems begin when it comes to our intention to carry it out. The place then to start would be to prayerfully ask the Lord what kind of regimen (a specific plan of action) He would like for you to take on. Often when we get to resolutions they are knee jerk reactions without much thought or prayer. While we might initially have the desire to change is our desire rooted in prayerful dependence on the Lord? Is this something He wants or something that we nervously think we should do because it would make you look good in front of others or make you a “nice, good Christian”? Are we willing to pay some “price” in terms of the rigor involved and the sacrifice of convenience?
Take baby steps toward something bigger. Along with being prayerfully reflective, our good intentions often hit snags because what we are attempting is unrealistic. We often try to do too much in too little a time. I know someone who jumped into reading Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses based on a time a referenced him. I thought… whoa, just jump into the deep end! But that’s not most everyone else. Most people need to get “warmed up a bit” to new practices and even developing character. Think about it like this… if you want to become a cheerful giver you would not start by giving away 20% of your income if you are not in the habit of giving as a spiritual practice. Begin with a small step in the right direction which for some is to simply give something. Let that sink into your heart and how it connects with the gospel. Take counsel with yourself and explore why it’s so hard for you to give. Keep practicing that basic regimen until it’s time to step it up a notch until you can gie 20% away joyfully. Real growth takes time!
Keep the time table shorter. Think about resolutions in terms of quarters rather than the whole year. Maybe you can break down a larger goal into smaller bite sized chunks that are much easier to digest and can keep the motivation level up. For instance, if you want to read through the Bible in a year use Jeffrey Perkins’ A M’Cheyne Devotional which breaks up the famous Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s reading into four quarters by providing not only Scripture to read but a daily devotional.
Who can you do this with? My wife just ran her first 5K in Chicago (I was totally proud of her)! It’s a goal she wanted to accomplish so she fully intended to do it and the motivation was there. But what she needed was someone to run alongside of her to encourage her (and sometimes push her) along the way. When you resolve to enter into a new regimen THINK COMMUNITY! Biblically, this idea of running alongside each other is prevalent because the Christian faith is not just “me and Jesus.” Think about the fact that the process of sanctification always finds a greater fullness when it’s done together with God’s people. Find another person who can jump into the same thing with you, not just for accountability but for encouragement along the way.
Depend on the Holy Spirit. All personal change is rooted in God, the Holy Spirit, changing the desires and affections of your heart. Jesus becomes more real to you in many ways and because of this, while change seems hard, it’s readily embraced. While the discussion of the Holy Spirit can be lengthy and surrounded by questions and mystery, it’s clear that whatever growth is happening in your life is because you consent to and partner with His work in you. While you might not understand fully who He is, put yourself under His care, His empowerment, and sustaining grace to move forward.
Much more could be said about resolutions for the new year but here’s one last thought. Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ wrote that it’s much more effective in sanctification to pay attention to one vice over the course of a year. He suggests we take a axe to the root of that one vice and by doing so by the end of our life we would end up much closer to Christ. I think there’s something to à Kempis’ words. Better to pay attention to one thing for an extended time (maybe not a year) rather than trying to make all sorts of applications based on all the Christian content we are exposed to daily while very little of it actually ends up sticking.
So rather than approaching them negatively or cynically, I would suggest that resolutions are personal markers that allow us to formally present ourselves to God for the upcoming year. Here’s to God’s people thinking, acting, and feeling more like our Savior in 2016!