New Year’s Resolutions are pretty predictable endeavors: 1 part hopeful imagination mixed with 2 parts “pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps” usually equals failure by February. At best, New Year’s Resolutions become a punch line. At worst, they become another reason to wallow in guilt and lose hope that our lives can ever really change.
The Spiritual Practice of Resolving
But these resolutions can be more than just failed self-help exercises: they can be channels through which God transforms our lives to reflect the new creation He is bringing into the world. The simple act of making a resolution requires some basic gospel attitudes. For one, to make a resolution is to confess that you haven’t liked where you’ve been. To have a resolution is to say, “I want to get better at that,” and the very act of saying you want to get better reflects a conviction that there was some lack in that area previously. Second, you’re repenting (“turning around”) and taking steps forward into a new kind of life. Repentance is the process of leaving behind one thing and turning towards another. It's fundamentally a change – of heart, and of practice – that can become very specific in a resolution.
Confessing and repenting are the entryway into the family of Jesus, and they are our ongoing spiritual food along the length of the journey. We never need to stop confessing, and we never need to stop repenting. New Year’s resolutions are a great yearly reminder to make these practices tangible in our lives.
A Tool for Discernment
But what to resolve? There’s no shortage of things we want to change! Many people use New Year’s Resolutions as an opportunity to intentionally grow in their relationship with God. The “Advent Cross,” which we use at Advent to describe different areas of our church’s ministry and every Christian’s life, can be a helpful tool for discerning where you feel drawn to grow.
Worship and formation describe the way the gospel transforms our relationship with God. In worship, we’re drawn into God’s larger story of the re-creation of the world. In formation, we see our lives being changed as our stories intertwine with God’s.
Community and mission describe the way the gospel transforms our relationships with others. In community, we realize that we have brothers and sisters who are also part of the family of Jesus, and – like any family – we need to support one another (and let ourselves be supported by them!). In mission, we seek to be a channel of blessing to those who are not experiencing God's re-creating love, either because they are resisting the love of God or are crushed by the brokenness of the world (poverty, poor health, etc.).
The Advent Cross can be a great tool for discerning where God may want to work in your life. Which area jumps out at you? Some potential resolutions for each area might include the following.
Attend Sunday service more regularly
Have a consistent, personal daily time of worship
Intentionally listen to worship music on your commute
Memorize some prayers from Sunday morning worship to use throughout the week
Find a “spiritual friend” who will encourage you in your journey with Jesus
Read some solid Christian literature on a topic you’re interested in
Commit to seeking a particular virtue (kindness, humility, self-control, etc.)
Read through the Bible in a year (or at least get started!)
Invite people from the church or your small group over for a fun dinner
Send notes of encouragement to those who have impacted your faith journey
Join a small group or attend a Men’s & Women’s Gathering if you haven’t yet
Invite others into areas of your life you’ve kept hidden for a long time
Make a connection with a next-door neighbor you haven’t met yet
Free up the finances to give generously to the church and ministries devoted to God’s mission
Serve the marginalized in an ongoing, regular capacity
Have some hard conversations with friends about your concern for their spiritual lives
There are, of course, a million things you can resolve that impact your spiritual life. Since we are whole people whose spirits, bodies, and minds are all inter-connected, exercise and healthy eating can dramatically impact our spiritual health as well as our physical health. God’s re-creation is touching everything: nothing in the world, and no part of us, will be left out! Therefore, everything is spiritual, and every resolution is too.
Not What, But How
But the most important thing is not that you resolve, or even what you resolve: it’s how you resolve. The most important part of that “Advent cross” we put above – and the most crucial part of our life with Christ – isn’t the wings of the cross. It’s the middle. It’s the hub of the Christian life. It’s the message that our salvation doesn’t come in what we do or accomplish, but in what He has done and is working out in us. It’s the gospel.
Resolving without the gospel means we’re reliant on our own strength and efforts to accomplish our goal. And unless it’s a pretty small goal, we’re probably going to fail.
Resolving within the gospel means we have the resources of the Holy Spirit – God’s presence with us on earth – to support us in the task.
Resolving without the gospel means that when we fail, we fail. End of story. Done. Until we have the energy to get going again, at least.
Resolving within the gospel means that our failure is a tool God uses in our restoration. Our failure isn't the end - it's just the beginning. As we fail, we can confess that we’re weak, repent to get back on track, and start again knowing that God hasn’t given up on us.
Resolving without the gospel means that whatever progress we make here, it has an expiration date: one day we’ll die, and our achievements will die with us.
Resolving within the gospel means that what we do in this life echoes in eternity. As Saint Paul said in 1 Tim. 4:8, “…godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life, and the life to come.” In the re-creation of all things, all our efforts here will be wrapped up into the wondrous renewal of God, and none of it will be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
Resolving without the gospel means that, ultimately, our destiny is in our own hands. We are our own Gods and Goddesses, our own Lords and Masters, who rise and fall by the sweat of our brow.
Resolving within the gospel frees us to live in the knowledge that we do not hold on to our lives nearly as tightly as we are held. Christ, as perfect man and God, lived the life we could never live. As we are united to him, we are united to his life. When we look at life through this gospel lens, all our successful “resolutions” are simply a participation in his perfect resolve. And all our failures are reminders that it’s not our resolve that ultimately matters, but his.
Philippians 2:12-13 says it well: “Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This year, “work out” your resolutions with everything you’ve got, while always remembering that it is God who is at “work in you:” with more resolve than we can ever muster!
Happy New Year, Advent!
P.S. For those of you who are curious, my New Year's Resolutions are:
(1) Worship: Praying the Daily Office (an Anglican "daily devotional") each day
(2) Mission: Getting through 3 CD's of my Rosetta Stone Spanish Language Program
(3) Exercise: Run. Often.
(4) Family: Serving my wife when the baby gets up in the middle of the night without complaining (Lord, have mercy...I'm gonna need it).