Summary: Four reasons why making (and keeping) resolutions can be a spiritually beneficial practice.
How many of you made New Year’s resolutions this year? (Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to reveal any specifics. That could get a little embarrassing.) Researchers tell us that about a third of Americans do make New Year’s resolutions. Not only is it traditional, it’s human nature. When we pass a significant milestone, it’s natural to pause and take stock of our lives; evaluate how we’re doing. And the areas people resolve to change are fairly consistent: lose weight, exercise, quit smoking, get organized, reduce debt, spend more time with family. Predictably, memberships in Weight Watchers and health clubs increase in January, while the sale of alcohol declines.
Now, how many have already broken your resolutions? If it’s any consolation, that’s also traditional. The experts tell us that most people’s good intentions don’t last more than a few weeks. And so, by February, everything is pretty much back to normal, that initial surge of enthusiasm and willpower only a fading memory. At best, maybe ten percent succeed over the long haul. And so you’re in good company. But why is that? Why do our resolutions collapse so quickly? Several reasons:
People often underestimate how difficult it will be to change; they forget that "old habits die hard". They set unrealistic goals, and when they fail at those, they get discouraged and give up altogether.
Or, they lack a means of monitoring their progress. They have a genuine desire for change, but they never make any specific, practical plans for how they’re going to fulfill that desire. And so it comes to nothing.
Or, they simply lack the commitment and perseverance that are needed for fundamental change.
All this is why a lot of people don’t make New Year’s resolutions, or any kind of resolutions for that matter. Why attempt something that’s doomed to failure? Why pretend that change is possible when experience tells you it’s not; when you’ve tried and failed, time and again? They may consider resolution-making to be an expression of naïve optimism, or hypocrisy, or just a waste of time, but in any case, they see it as pretty much a pointless exercise. Something to make you feel good about yourself in the short term, but which serves no real purpose.
My goal this morning is to examine whether making resolutions is a good thing. More specifically, whether this practice can be spiritually beneficial for us as Christians. Is this something we should consider doing, not just out of a general desire to improve ourselves, but with the specific goal of maturing in our faith and growing more like Christ. If so, then how can we be successful at it; how can we avoid the high failure rate of so many resolutions?
I’ll start by saying that there is nothing inherently good, or praiseworthy, or pleasing to God about making resolutions. Or keeping resolutions. Self-improvement, in and of itself, has no value in God’s eyes. And therefore, God is not impressed when a non-Christian, by the exercise of his will, manages to lose weight, or control his desire for nicotine, or restrain himself from cursing. Why? Because his basic orientation is one of disobedience rather than obedience; one of rebellion rather than submission. His controlling purpose in life is not to serve and honor God, but rather to serve and honor himself, or someone or something other than God. And that’s sin. It’s idolatry. It’s refusing to give God his rightful place at the center of our lives, and instead, giving that place to another; whether it’s a person, or an idea, or a project, or a thing. Here’s how Paul describes the unbeliever in Romans chapter three:
"as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." – Romans 3:10-12, ESV
A person in that state cannot do anything to please God, no matter how much he cleans up his life. It’s impossible. Because his motive for doing even "good" things is not fundamentally to glorify God. And that’s what matters. The heart. As Hebrews 11:6 tells us, "without faith it is impossible to please Him . . ." (Hebrews 11:6, NIV). Not difficult. Impossible.
And again in Romans, we read this:
The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God." – Romans 8:6-8, NIV
Those who are without faith, those who don’t have the Spirit of God in their lives, cannot please Him, no matter what they do. Until they repent and believe the gospel, no amount of self-improvement will make any difference. Again, in Proverbs fifteen we read this: