By David Mathis
New Year’s resolutions can be an important first step, but they are a far cry from real, lasting change.
The ringing in of a new year brings with it the possibility of a fresh start, or at least a fresh reminder to turn the page on some (or many) ways we’d like to grow and mature in the next season of life. But haven’t we all tried this enough times by now to know how futile mere resolves are if not accompanied by more?
Whether it’s eating and exercise, or Bible-reading and prayer, the God-created mechanism we call “habit” is vital for seeing our earnest resolutions through to enjoyable realities. If we really are resolved to see our hopes for 2017 become life-enriching habits, we will do well to keep several basic truths in mind at the outset of a new year.
1. Focus on a Few, Not Many.
Better than big emotional, private resolves about the many things you want to “fix” about your life is dialing in just one or two realistic, and really important, resolves with a concrete plan and specific accountability. The excitement of a new year, and ease with which we can desire change, often leads us to bite off way more than we can chew for a new year.
It’s much better to focus on just a couple new habits — even better, just one. And if you’re going to narrow it to just one (or maybe a couple or three), you might as well make it count. Identify something important that will give your new-habit-forming particular focus, even while this one resolve will reap benefits in other areas of your life. Soul-strengthening “habits of grace” are precisely this. Going deeper in God’s word, prayer, or your local church will produce an invaluable harvest.
Consider a specific focus for the new year, or just the first three months of 2017, or even just January. A year is a long period of time in terms of habit-forming; typically we would do much better to just make one resolve at a time, and do so every few months, than to attempt many things and for so long a period as twelve months.
2. Make It Specific.
Bible intake, prayer, and Christian community likely are too broad in and of themselves. Give it more specific focus like reading the whole Bible this year, or not just reading but daily meditating on a short passage or verse, or even just a word or phrase (in context). Don’t keep it general at “prayer,” but make it more particular: private prayer each morning, or bedtime prayer with your spouse or family, or punctuating your day with “constant prayer,” or some new prayer initiative as a community group or church.
Perhaps as the old year is coming to a close, you’re realizing how spotty your church commitment has been, and how thin your relationships are as a result. You might resolve to deepen your commitment to not neglect your meeting together “as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25), whether that’s making Sunday mornings more nonnegotiable or prioritizing your midweek investment in life together in community group. Resolve in 2017 not to let silly last-minute excuses keep you from faithfully gathering with the body of Christ, which will be a priceless, long-term means of God’s grace both to you and through you, to others.
3. Craft a Realistic Plan.
However earnest your resolution, you need a corresponding amount of realistic planning. Let’s be honest, you don’t really want to enrich your prayer life if you’re not willing to give it even just a few minutes of creative thought about where, when, and how you will pray in 2017. Map out clearly and concretely what it would take for a full month to cultivate the habit. Think long term and make sure it’s realistic.
Part of being realistic is accepting a measure of modesty to your goals. Don’t try going from no regular devotions to an hour every morning. Start with a focused fifteen minutes a day, perhaps even ten, but make it genuinely nonnegotiable, and see what God does. Grow your duration and depth as Scripture intake becomes a fixture in your schedule, and you learn to wake up each day even more hungry for the Bible than for breakfast.
4. Identify the Reward.
Runners will tell you that being heart-healthy in their old age is not their driving motivation. It’s a nice added benefit, of course, but a reward that is nondescript, and a long way off, won’t get you out of bed in the morning and into your running shoes on for long. Rather, what motivates most long-term runners is feeling great today, whether it’s the endorphins, or the sense of accomplishment or clear-headedness, or all the above.
Trying to draw on the same long-range motivation each morning to get out of bed and hear God’s voice in the Scriptures will soon run dry. And God doesn’t mean for us to be motivated merely by distant, future rewards, important as they are. God supplies bountiful motivations for today. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23). He means for us to taste and see his goodness right now (Psalm 34:8). He can meaningfully satisfy our restless souls in real, life-transforming measure right now.
Over the years, I have found the most transformative reward in cultivating habits of grace to be, not being stronger and holier as a Christian long-term, but knowing and enjoying Jesus today. Having my soul satisfied in him today. Making my heart merry in him this morning.
The point of daily spiritual discipline isn’t first and foremost being holy or obtaining growth, but knowing and enjoying Jesus and having our souls satisfied, imperfectly but powerfully, in him. The final joy in any truly Christian habit or practice or rhythm of life is, in the words of the apostle, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life” — and this is the goal of the means of grace — “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Fly Hosea 6:3 as a banner over your 2017 spiritual resolutions: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.”
5. Enlist Regular Accountability.
One of the flaws in so many resolutions is that they stay private. When we really mean it, we draw in real and regular accountability. We are sinners. Our heads are not always screwed on straight. We need others to speak into our lives, and hold us accountable for who we’ve said we want to be, and what we’ve said we want to do.
Perhaps talk through some of these principles for forming good habits and consider a monthly calendar reminder to check in with each other. It is a great means of God’s grace that he has not left us alone in forming spiritual habits.
6. Cover Your Efforts in Prayer.
At the end of the day, and the end of another, the Holy Spirit is decisive, not our spiritual habits, for producing any lasting, spiritual fruit. Cultivating wise habits are not our attempt to work for God’s acceptance, but to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12–13).
In prayer, we re-consecrate ourselves again and again to pursue our resolves “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). We would be foolish to pour fresh, regular efforts into new spiritual habits without explicitly asking God to make it truly fruitful.
And so we pray — not just act, but ask — “that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
Resolutions are not enough. But God has not just left us to resolutions.