Presented at Woodland Christian Church on January 1, 2019.
Thank you for letting me speak at this New Year’s Day lunch. The topic I want to cover is New Year’s resolutions. In particular I’d like to answer these questions:
- What does the Bible say about resolutions?
- Why make resolutions at the start of the year?
- What makes a good resolution?
- What does it take to keep resolutions?
What Does the Bible Say?
The dictionary defines “resolution” as “a firm decision to do or not do something.” When I hear this, these words from James come to mind:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.James 4:13-16
As with much of scripture, this passage must be interpreted in the spirit and not the letter. The idea that we can serve God without making any future plans can be reduced to absurdity in no time. Indeed, even Jesus asked rhetorically, what builder would set out on a building project without considering the financial cost? (Luke 14:28). What James is condemning is the idea that we are in control.
I believe that Jesus condemned oaths in the sermon on the mount for the same reason. Oaths are not inherently wrong, but how can we ever know we will certainly fulfill them? God can swear by himself, and he indeed he did when he made his promise to Abraham (Heb. 6:13), but as for the rest of us: who are we kidding when we swear to God or swear on a Bible? This is vain boasting that will never impress the one who knows more than anyone else how prone we are to failure.
While scripture might not condemn resolutions, does it support them in any way? I think the answer is yes, so long as we view resolutions as the product of biblical self-reflection and self-examination. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, implored Israel to “search out and examine our ways” (Lam. 3:40). His context was the repentance of Israel but the spirit of this command is carried over in the New Testament when Paul instructs us to “test all things and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Any honest examination should yield plenty of areas in which we should resolve to improve.
To summarize this section: Yes, you can make resolutions and you should make resolutions, whether or not you call them that. But keep your flesh in check and be humble as you make them. This is going to have practical implications for the resolutions we ought to make and the strategy we develop for keeping them.
Why the New Year?
Having established that resolutions have a legitimate place in our lives, let’s now ask the question: why at the start of the new year? Certainly we’re not required to make resolutions at the New Year, but there are two reasons why the New Year might be a strategic time to apply oneself toward a goal:
- Achieving goals effectively requires structure in one’s life. Calendars provide that kind of structure and therefore aligning the start of one’s journey with the start of the calendar year resonates deep within us.
- The Christmas season, which is normally associated with resting, is finished and we are ready to re-focus on high-productivity tasks. The Christmas decorations come down and we return to our normal lives.
On the other hand, my wife noted that tying resolutions to the new year can cause some of us to procrastinate on goals that we ought to be pursuing now. This is a great point and ties into a larger point I want to make about New Year’s resolutions: they are not a spiritual battle plan. If you are sinning habitually, the new year isn’t going to rescue you. You need to start praying, fighting, and reaching out for help today.
What Makes A Good Resolution?
According to surveys, the two most common New Year’s resolutions are getting healthy and spending money more wisely. At first glance, we might consider such resolutions as worldly, since the world is so preoccupied with looks and money, but this is an attitude that relinquishes good parts of the creation to the world. God created our bodies and he created the resources we have to sustain those bodies. God did not just create us as spiritual beings but also as physical beings and the physical form God has given us he refers to as a temple. Therefore, by all means, resolve to improve your health and your spending habits if it will bring glory to God.
This falls into a larger theme of whether God really cares about the mundane or seemingly non-spiritual aspects of our lives. Again, from God’s perspective, nothing he has given us to do is mundane or non-spiritual. We are not like the Gnostics who incorrectly pitted spirit and body against one another in an effort to achieve piety. This is an area that the church can improve upon. Do you look down on others for their prayers that seem insignificant or unspiritual? I have two examples I want to share along these lines:
- At Cedarville University my Bible professor told a story about a Bible study that he and his wife, the Cragoes, both in their fifties, had attended. Since they chose not to have children they did what a lot of childless couples do and owned pets for companionship. One of Mrs. Cragoe’s long-time pets had recently passed away and this saddened her enough that she requested prayer for it at the Bible study. But when the leader began praying for the requests he had received, hers was not included. Without intending to be rude, he simply did not deem it worthy of prayer.
- At the Baptist church I attended in Pennsylvania as a teenager, I heard the story of a young woman in her twenties who had been attending the the church’s prayer group. This woman was severely overweight and, in a moment of vulnerability, told the prayer group the exact amount of weight that her doctor had told her that she needed to lose. Although the group did pray for her, the general reaction was embarrassment at best and rolling of the eyes at worst. The request itself was regarded as insignificant at best and vain at worst.
So, if your resolution is seemingly mundane or earthly, who cares besides you and maybe yourself closest family and friends? Well, God cares. Hebrews calls Jesus a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses—all of them, no matter how seemingly insignificant or vain. Therefore, as the verse in Hebrews continues, let us proceed boldly to the throne of grace and ask for help. Likewise, when someone comes boldly before us with a request or need about a “non-spiritual” matter, let us respect them and listen to them just as God listens to them.
Therefore, the answer to, “What makes a good resolution?” is simply this: does it matter to you and does it matter to God?
What Does It Take?
In a nutshell, keeping one’s resolutions takes discipline. Much like our health and spending habits, few of us would say we have no issues with discipline. To be a human in this fallen and cursed world is to struggle with discipline, whether caused by distractions, inefficiency, or outright laziness. If you fall into the latter category, then I recommend you read through Proverbs and heed its many warnings and admonitions toward the lazy, the most famous being:
Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider its ways and be wise.Proverbs 6:6
For those of us who feel distracted or inefficient or busy, however, we relate more to what Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane:
The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.Matthew 26:40
To that end, here are three practical suggestions for keeping your resolutions:
- Be realistic. If your most intensive exercise for the past ten years is walking to and from your car each day during your commute, its absurd to think you’re going to run a marathon. If you have only read one book in the past year then its unlikely you’re going to have the resolve to read one a week.
- Have a plan. In the chaos of your everyday life, you desperately need the order that we discussed earlier. That might mean scheduling specific times every day to work toward some goal and dividing larger goals into smaller goals that create a regular sense of achievement.
- Get accountability. Find other people with similar goals and work together. We’ve all heard Proverbs 27:17 (“iron sharpens iron”), but let me also remind you of Ecclesiastes 4:12, which says that a cord of three strands is not easily broken.
Lastly, know that you will fail and you will fail often. Maybe you’ve given up on New Year’s resolutions because you have such a dismal track record. Instead of dwelling on failure, thank God for your desire to grow at all and ask that he take that desire and the opportunity to fulfill that desire to new heights. At the very least, be reminded that you are not God. Because it is only God who always accomplishes that he resolved to do. As the psalmist writes:
Our God is in Heaven, he does whatever he pleases.Psalm 115:3
Thank God that it pleased him to accomplish exactly what was necessary for us to become adopted as his sons and daughters.
Space did not permit to cover the topic of the most common Christian resolution: read through the Bible in a year or some similar Bible reading plan. My opinion is that such plans should be used rarely, as its unrealistic to truly study the Bible (which is what God commands of us) when reading approximately three chapters every single day. Personally I think that reading through smaller portions of scripture each day, taking notes, and meditating on the big idea of the passage is more valuable for spiritual growth.