Each year when New Year’s Day rolls around and people pass around their resolutions for the year ahead, I am reminded to make a declaration of my own - I resolve not to make a New Year’s resolution.
It is not just stubbornness or non-conformity that prompts me to make such a statement (although I do possess a good measure of each), but past experience of how God works.
In fact, a few years ago I had no hesitancy about making resolutions, for New Year’s Day or any other reason. I promised I would not attend either of two certain colleges, both of which are the two colleges I attended and graduated from. I, quite frankly, stated I would not consider dating a short man, but every guy I have been even remotely interested in has fit that description. And I informed everyone that I would not continue living in my current state of residence, where I have remained living ever since I first spoke those words. Those are just a few examples.
What I have learned is that it is better to leave freedom to respond in obedience to God, even when He asks crazy, undreamed of, so-not-me stuff. When I fasten myself to self-made resolutions, I set myself up for three needless struggles. First, it tempts me to believe that I can take control of my life: that accomplishments, abilities, and perhaps even my own morality and righteousness lie in my hands to determine. Next, that breeds frustration when I inevitably fail to measure up to that self-imposed responsibility. Finally, it ends with a carnal view, where perception of spiritual significance is lost and replaced with the cynical measurement of how things play into self-centered expectations.
An experiment Benjamin Franklin conducted brought about results following that pattern. In what he described as his “bold and arduous project for arriving at Moral Perfection," he developed a scheme whereby he could keep track of his vices and eventually weed out bad habits. He kept a calendar with one week to focus on each of the 13 good virtues he wanted to practice. Each time he failed at the good behavior, he gave himself a black mark. Over time he became discouraged at how many black marks filled his notes, saying he found himself to be "fuller of faults than he had imagined.” Nevertheless, he determined that there were more clean spaces than black marks, and therefore his good behavior outweighed his bad. He believed the reward for his principled way of living paid off in the enjoyment of extra blessings such as health, prosperity, and popularity. Sadly, he traded the joys of eternity with Christ for those blessings.
Now, I would not say that all resolutions or good efforts are counterproductive, detrimental, or wasted. I am not saying we should not try to make resolutions to bring more discipline or quality to life. And there is no justification for casting out clearly defined directions from God such as self-control in sexual matters, respect for parents, generosity to the poor, or telling the truth. All of those constitute acting in obedience to God.
My premise would be to say that our first resolution should be obedience to God, and all that does not directly conform to that purpose should be carefully examined, lest it result in causing us to run into a conflict between God’s plans and those we have formed on our own. Truth is, God will ask things of us which we would not ask of ourselves. When we have a version of what is right for ourselves that differs from God’s, that causes a problem. For the Christian, it is a huge and unnecessary problem.
Jesus taught this in the Sermon on the Mount, when He said:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made” [Ecclesiastes 5]. But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No;” anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)
So, all we are required to do is answer “Yes” or “No” to what God asks of us. We cannot control even the hairs on our head. OK, maybe we have discovered how to turn them from white to black or any other color, but we still do not have a cure for baldness; we have treatments but not cures. The point of what Jesus taught is that the matters in which we feel we control, even in realms most personal to us, are really too much for us and our resolutions. Reality will bring that home no matter how we fight to keep the delusion. Furthermore, anything we place value on or attribute power to, other than God, is just something owned by Him.
Let me be clear. I love to see a new year ahead. I love its promise, the hope it offers, all “fresh with no mistakes in yet,” as L.M. Montgomery might say. But good resolutions will not make the New Year a good one to look back on. Good resolutions will be broken, and with them we will be compelled to recognize and confess our brokenness as we stand before God. What will make the year ahead a good year is obedience to God.
Toward that end, there are three resolutions you can safely make, because they will be necessary if you follow after God and not your own inclinations:
Expect the unexpected.
Plan to do things you never intended.
Let go of self-made resolutions in order to do God’s will.
Other resolutions may be broken and left behind, but when God’s plans have been accomplished that will mean little, for we will recognize and rejoice at how much higher are His thoughts than our thoughts, even higher than are the heavens above the earth (Isaiah 55:9).