Goal-setting has never been one of my strong points. I consider myself a classic Type B personality, and have been content with a mantra that has served me well each New Year's: "I resolve to not make any New Year's resolutions." This year, however, I felt stirred to push myself out of my comfort zone and make some resolutions. But the three I came up with exist in thought only. Although they are manageable, I sense that as obstacles arise, I will mentally retract them.
Not keeping my resolutions would put me in good company; one bit of research shows that about 80 percent of all New Year's resolutions are broken by January 31st. So what's behind the inevitable failure that comes with resolving to change? Is success even an option?
A biblical look at change for the Christian is encouraging. Scripture teaches that not only is change possible, it is fundamental to the gospel message. Christ's ministry was a call to move us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. In him we are transferred from death to life (Eph. 2:4-5), our heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26), we become friends of God instead of his enemies (John 15:15), and we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:19). Given such radical changes on a spiritual level, why are changes on a smaller scale so seemingly impossible?
Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan pastor and theologian in the 1700s, wrote 70 life resolutions that show his desire to pursue holiness in every thought and deed. Not only did he lay out the highest standard of personal conduct, but he was willing to pen these maxims in painstaking detail. His passion for purity and obedience to God still rings loud and clear, causing me to re-examine my own half-hearted resolutions.
I have to admit, though, reading Edwards's list leaves me feeling both motivated and paralyzed. On the one hand, I am inspired to vigorously practice righteousness; on the other, I feel weighed down by the thought of committing to resolves that I know I will fall short of by breakfast tomorrow.
I've been a Christian long enough to know that desiring God's law is for my good. Purging my heart of sin and walking in obedience to God is (usually) a daily resolve. I have grown to love his Word and relish its wisdom and understanding of the human heart. I have personal experience of the law of God being like a light to my path (Ps. 119:105), the sweetest tasting honey (Ps. 19:10), and the most precious earthly treasure (119:72). So why do resolutions to "do better, be better, love better" scare me so much that I usually don't make them?
Perhaps some of my wariness comes from stern warnings in Scripture that our outward holiness is not pleasing to God if our inner person has not first been clothed with the holiness of Christ (Gal. 3:27). Jesus' interactions with the Pharisees shows us that we can look good in our behavior (Matt. 23:27-28) while our hearts have no love for God. Even Christians can become slaves to rules they believe will secure God's favor and their own happiness. This is a serious hazard for the believer. Paul is clear that the law cannot save (Gal. 3:11); it can only reveal how sinful and helpless we are by highlighting the holiness of God and the infinite chasm between us. Instead of producing righteousness, the law reveals the depth of our unrighteousness and our desperate need for a Savior (Rom. 7:5).
So, is it worth making resolutions this year that will likely only serve to expose our inability to keep them? My answer is yes. Setting goals for change will not produce change, as any law is powerless in and of itself to do so. But they can be beneficial, if we approach them from a position of weakness, recognizing our helplessness apart from the grace of God. Ultimately, as Christians we should desire and pursue the kind of holiness that Edwards espouses in his resolutions, but only with total reliance on God's grace to see growth in our lives. So go ahead and make some resolves for 2010. But allow the inevitable failures to press you even further to Christ and to the boundless mercy of God, who has already accomplished the greatest transformation you could hope for.
Lynn Roush is a counselor at The Crossing Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, Missouri. She received her master's degree in counseling psychology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She wrote about Jon and Kate Plus 8 for Her.meneutics this spring.