It’s the beginning of February, which means the excitement and energy around New Year’s has died down a little bit. In the last five weeks, thousands upon thousands of words have been written about New Year’s resolutions. Advocating certain resolutions, telling you just how to achieve that perfect new you, or cautioning you against making New Year’s resolutions at all: if it were truly important to you, wouldn’t you already be doing it?
You might expect by now that I’m going to write several thousand more words to add to this cacophony. And I am. But here at VerseNotes, I’m more interested in how to think about resolutions with a Biblical mindset. What does God have to say about resolutions? What Biblical wisdom can we bring to bear on these changes we want to make in our lives? How does being Christian impact the kind of resolutions you make and the ways you keep them?
Historically, I’ve been in that last category: the crowd that avoided making New Year’s resolutions. I subscribe to the wisdom that you don’t need to wait to January 1 to make a positive change in your life. Want to start running? You can do that just as easily October 26 as January 2.
But several years ago, I realized that even if I weren’t going to make resolutions, I still needed to plan my days, my weeks, and my years.
So I started setting yearly goals. I like to wait until the second or third week of January, after all the excitement and the travel and the stress have calmed down and I can carve out several uninterrupted hours to think. I got married at the end of 2017, so now my wife and I do this together.
One of the benefits of spending serious time planning the new year—it takes me maybe four or six hours spread across a few days—is the luxury of considering goals holistically. Anybody can write down, “I want to write a book this year.”
That’s been somewhere on my list two years running; sadly, no book has magically appeared.
But it takes time to consider whether that’s really what you want, or if there’s something else lurking in there that might have a different expression.
I didn’t really want to write a book; I wanted to share what I learn about the Bible. Hint: you’re reading it.
It takes time to consider whether you can even accomplish all the goals you have in mind this year, or whether you ought to focus most of your effort on a couple areas of life and leave those violin lessons until later1.
And it takes time to pray over your plans, to commit them to God and to the growth of the Kingdom, to do your best to align them with God’s will for your life.
Six Areas of Life for Setting Goals
Over the next six weeks, we’re going to take your goals for this year and refine them like silver so they serve the Kingdom of God and align with God’s will for your life. Each week, we’ll take a detailed look at one of the six aspects of your life—spiritual, physical, mental, social/relational, professional, and financial—and apply the lens of Scripture. Separating the discussion this way helps you organize your goals, make sure you’re not neglecting a crucial component of your life, and focus your effort.
Why these six? Well, you can organize your life in any number of ways. This one makes sense to me. It’s comprehensive, but simple, so it leaves nothing out, but you don’t get bogged down remembering and evaluating a dozen different categories.
You’ve probably already noticed that these areas overlap. For example, your professional life and your financial life are probably woven inextricably together if you have a job; if you don’t, your financial life is more likely tied up with your relational life. Your spiritual, mental, and physical lives have profound mutual impacts that we’ll explore as we go.
We should expect this to be true! If your life were so compartmentalized that your social life didn’t impact your mental wellbeing (for example), you would live a sterile existence. If you think you can separate your financial health from your spiritual health, you may wish to revisit the gospels, where Jesus talks about money constantly.
To understand these categories better and start teasing them apart as well as we can so later we can assign goals to specific areas of focus, let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Your spiritual life comprises some obvious factors: your relationship with God, your prayer life, your small group, your Bible reading, your church membership and attendance. But consider also your habits, both sacred (like a daily devotional) and mundane (like brushing your teeth); how does your relationship with God surround and inhabit your daily life, and not just the times you’ve set aside for it?
Your physical life encompasses every aspect of physical health. Just as above, there are some obvious components, like physical fitness, diet, and disease. But there are other aspects of physical self-care that might not immediately come to mind: eating regularly, for instance; preventive medicine; sleep; sports; intentional rest; even your sex life may fall under this category (it probably also falls under spiritual, mental, and relational, although hopefully not professional).
Your mental life concerns your intellectual, emotional, and psychological health. Education falls pretty clearly under “intellectual,” but so does trying new foods or learning to garden. Your emotions, positive and negative, live here, too—although they’re likely to be heavily influenced by every other category in this list. And while “psychological health” sounds a bit terrifying, it’s no less crucial than your physical health, and may in fact drive it to some extent.
Your social life captures the things you think it captures: your friends, your family, your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse, your coworkers, your mentors, your children, your students. When we get to it, we will break this category down even further into five specific relationships: God, family (parents, children, siblings), opposite sex (girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse), same sex (or friendship in general), and self. That last one is most often neglected, so I’ll make sure to remind you when we get back to it in a few weeks.
Your professional life includes both your job and your career, whether that looks like traditional employment, self-employment, or non-employment, any of which can be either healthy or unhealthy. Your mentorship relationships might live here, as will your relationships with your coworkers and maybe even yourself. Because many of us derive our identity from our jobs, your professional life probably has more of an impact on your overall wellness than you might think at first glance.
Finally, your financial life is just that: your relationship with money. So many people spend their entire lives focused on only this segment—it gets the vast majority of their time and energy—that we saved it for last. If we’re completely healthy, this area is probably limited to making money and giving it away. But of course there’s also getting out of debt, saving, buying a house (maybe!), buying food and clothes and a million other things, and eventually, hopefully, retirement. In fact, your financial life can easily become not just overwhelming but all-encompassing, so our goal at VerseNotes is to approach it with health and with the Spirit, and to help you simplify your relationship with money so you can focus on the other five categories above.
Before You Start
Many writers about resolutions jump right in to talk about how to set resolutions, or even which ones to set, and how to change your habits or tidy your home or arrange your schedule to accomplish them.
But that’s maybe step three at the earliest in a healthy goal-setting process, from my point of view. Step one—and I am confident in this—should be celebrating your successes.
Celebrate Your Successes
Think over the past year. What went well? Don’t critically evaluate yourself here. Don’t reflect on your goals—unless you crushed them. Just write down every good thing you did last year. Every achievement, every vacation, every happy memory, every interview or job offer or raise or promotion or award. Every exam passed or class completed. Every exercise started, race run, book read, healthy meal eaten, project completed, anniversary celebrated, epiphany… epiphanated?
Do not allow any negativity in this exercise. You may not say, “well, I only read eight books, not twelve.” Instead, write, “I read eight books!” Or, you know, whatever.
Share Those Successes
After you’ve written down every good thing—you did write them down, didn’t you?—sit back and enjoy it. Maybe share with somebody close to you: “Hey, I was looking at how 2018 went, and parts of it were hard, but I realized I ran a 5K in December, and that’s pretty cool.” If you’re a particularly crafty type, you might create something to remind you of your year. Use stickers and glitter, if it helps. I’m an engineer, so I just made a list.
I particularly enjoy the year-over-year impact of doing this work. In January 2019, you can not only look over your success for 2018, but also look back at 2017 for what went well that year, and even inspiration for things you missed last year. Don’t hesitate or question—if it makes you happy, write it down!
Evaluate Your Progress
When you finish celebrating, only then should you go back and look at your goals for last year. If you had them. If you didn’t have any, that’s great! That means next year your first achievement can be, “Made goals for 2019.”
It’s a big step.
Okay, so you’ve listed all the great things you did in 2018. You’ve celebrated with an appropriate beverage and maybe a little bragging to your friend or your spouse or your rabbit. You’ve looked back at last year’s goals and had some opinion about them. Maybe you checked off every one of them; maybe you checked off one, or none.
It’s finally time to start thinking about this year’s goals. Or maybe, because it’s February already, you’ve already written them down and you’re thirty-nine days into your streak. That’s okay! And impressive! I invite you to keep reading, and consider those resolutions from a Biblical perspective.
I said that over the next six weeks, we’d look at resolutions from six different perspectives. Today, however, we’re going to look at the idea of resolutions themselves. In fact, we’re going to start with what might sound like a silly question: Should Christians even make resolutions?
The Case Against Resolutions
At first glance, it seems like maybe the Biblical authors didn’t really like New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, they would have called them Rosh Hashanah resolutions2.
Let’s see what they had to say.
We begin with one of the most famous inspirational verses in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11. You’ve almost certainly seen this printed on a greeting card, or embroidered on a pillow, or slathered on an Instagram post.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Right off the bat, Jeremiah tells us God has plans for us. And if they’re God’s plans, they must be awesome plans! They involve hope and a future, and who could ask for more? So maybe we should just stick with His plans instead of making our own.
Solomon, years before Jeremiah, more or less agrees in Proverbs 21:2:
Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the heart.
Of course we think our own plans are good. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have made them (hopefully). But God sees your desires before your actions; you can’t fool Him with flowery language or deceitful words. So God not only has His own plans for you, but sees under the surface of your resolutions to the desires of your heart. It’s not looking good for the go-your-own-way crowd so far.
But these guys are Old Testament. They lived many thousands of years ago, and besides, they were a prophet and a king, both specifically chosen by God. What about the New Testament, and maybe some more ordinary folks?
James wasn’t exactly ordinary, but neither was he a king. He has another famous passage for us:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
The folks James is talking about have set a yearly goal, it seems, to go trade and profit in a particular city. That sounds suspiciously like a lot of our resolutions, doesn’t it? Some of my goals for this year literally have dollar amounts in them. But James calls it “arrogance” and “evil.” You might not even last the year, he says! We hear throughout the Bible this refrain, that our lives are brief in the context of eternity, like the mist that burns away in the sun (Hosea 13:3), or like the flower of the grass that fades (Isaiah 40:7, 1 Peter 1:24).
We can hear the beginning of a turn, though, here in James. If you read carefully, he says that the sin is not the traveling or the trading or the profit itself, but “[knowing] the right thing to do and [failing] to do it.” The mistake, according to James, is making plans apart from the Lord, acting against those Jeremiah 29:11 plans, and setting your heart in opposition to God.
The Case For Resolutions
So if James warns us not to make plans apart from God, we should make our resolutions in accordance, to the best of our ability, with God’s plans.
I can hear your question from all the way over here: How?
Great question. I promise we’ll get to that. First, though, let me show you that the Bible is in fact not against planning, or the idea of resolutions at all.
Let’s start with Daniel, held captive in Babylon during the exile. He’s been abducted along with the rest of the best and brightest of Israel, part of a standard strategy to ensure the conquered nation could never rise against the conquerors. This is the Timon and Pumbaa strategy of winning; that is, “When he grows up, maybe he’ll be on our side.”
But the Babylonians don’t follow the Jewish food laws, and Daniel resolves to keep clean:
But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.
There’s probably an entire devotional, or several, in there about gathering accountability partners to help you keep your resolutions. But see how Daniel begins: he resolves not to defile himself—that is, not to break God’s laws. You might think you shouldn’t need a resolution not to break God’s laws, but if you’re honest with yourself, I bet you can find at least one of God’s laws you habitually break. There’s a resolution for you.
Daniel’s not the first Biblical person to make a resolution, although his sounds more similar to ours than most. We can look long before Daniel, all the way back from exile to exodus, to find Joshua, the successor to Moses, resolving to follow God even if those around him would not.
And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
How beautiful! “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That’s not a one-year resolution. That’s a millennial resolution. That’s an eternal resolution. That’s the kind of resolution that obligates not just you and your family today, but your unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A resolution of such power will require equally powerful help to achieve. I wonder where that help will come from…
We see with both Daniel and Joshua that resolving to follow God may cost you relationships with your community. Daniel had to hide his resolution from his captors to avoid appearing rebellious, and Joshua stood in front of the entire nation of Israel with his resolution and dared them not to join him. I hope your resolutions don’t stress your relationships, but if they do, look to Joshua and follow God anyway.
Moving forward a bit in history, we encounter Jeremiah again, this time in the midst of his Lamentations. Far from prohibiting planning, he encourages exactly the kind of exercise we’re talking about: reflecting on your past, examining your present, and resolving to change your future to follow God:
Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.
Don’t be comforted, by the way, by thinking that you haven’t strayed from God the way the Israelites had at this point in their history. Sure, they had made gold and silver and iron and wooden idols, and they had erected Asherah poles on the high places, and they had desecrated or abandoned the temple. But “let us examine our ways and test them,” and we will surely find where we have failed to be obedient. That’s the whole point of what we’re doing: finding the places in our lives we wish to change, and setting ourselves to change them.
Around the same time, another famous prophet, Isaiah, gets in on the action.
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I [God] am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
That… is beautiful advice, Isaiah. But, reader, be careful—Isaiah’s “former things” were a life of sin, and his “things of old” were disobedience to God. He doesn’t advocate forgetting the entire past, but instead ignoring your life before finding faith in God. In the same way, I say don’t dwell on the negatives of last year. Don’t look at the goals you didn’t achieve, the successes you didn’t have, the accomplishments you didn’t… accomplish.
While it’s useful to consider your habits and systems and make changes as appropriate, I vote we listen to Isaiah and look forward to the new things God is doing in your life, and not behind to “the things of old.”
I know we’re talking about New Year’s resolutions and not, you know, the salvation of your eternal soul, but there’s nonetheless great encouragement here! It’s God Himself suggesting that you leave the old behind. He promises to do the same thing: “I will remember their sins no more,” He says through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:34). If God can forget and forgive our sins, surely we can forget our failures.
In a minute, we will see another Biblical hero who has the same opinion. But first, one more from the Old Testament.
King David not only understands the need for reflection, he even invites God into the process with him. The more I researched this topic in the Bible, the more I realized you don’t really need all these blog posts and worksheets telling you how to choose resolutions and how to make them stick. All you need is right before you in Scripture. Here’s David doing exactly what we’re doing:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
The course practically writes itself. “Seven Ways in Seven Weeks: How to Invite God Into Your New Year’s Resolutions.” Hmmm… well, instead of pausing here and writing that, let’s press on into the New Testament to make sure our understanding doesn’t change as so much else did when Jesus came and died and rose for us.
If you had to guess, what one character in the New Testament would be most obsessed with resolving to improve themselves?
If you said “Jesus”—well, nice try, but what, exactly, would Jesus resolve to do differently in the new year? (Here’s another step in our hypothetical resolutions course. Setting a goal to continue a good thing from last year is just as valuable as setting a new goal. Just because you succeeded last year doesn’t mean you will this year. Jesus might write, “Live each day without sin.” For that matter, so might we.)
No, it’s our dear friend Saul–Paul who concentrates so intently on making yourself new. It took the appearing of Jesus Christ Himself to convince him to change, and he’s trying to convince you to join him before you meet Jesus face-to-face. Here’s a sampling of his recommendations for resolution:
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator
Boy, Paul really advocates for this resolution thing! Put off the old self, he repeats, and put on the new. Put aside those deceitful desires; forget what lies behind; do not lie. Instead, be renewed in the spirit of your minds; strain forward to what lies ahead and press on toward the goal; be renewed (again) not just in spirit but in knowledge.
Paul covers all three possible categories of resolution: cease a harmful activity (desire, deception); begin a new helpful one (be renewed in spirit and in knowledge); and continue an ongoing success (press on toward the goal).
In typical Paul fashion, he takes each of these resolutions to extremes: it is not enough to stop lying; you must kill the liar in you. It is not enough to change a harmful behavior to a helpful one; you must forget that the former self ever existed.
From one perspective, he’s right: if you dwell on your failures, making progress will be that much harder. That’s why we started by cataloguing our successes and ignoring our failures, just as he says (see, we were already Biblical, and we hadn’t even jumped into the Bible yet).
I want to caution you about applying his advice uncritically, however. You must indeed kill the liar, or the smoker, or the overeater, or the lazy sloth, or whatever. But not all at once! Kill him or her one day at a time. If the sloth wins on Tuesday, resolve to kill her Wednesday. If she wins Wednesday, resolve to kill her Thursday.
Remember Paul’s first message: forget what lies behind, and press on to what’s ahead. Forget Tuesday; work on Wednesday. Forget Wednesday; work on Thursday. Don’t let one failure, or ten, or even three hundred sixty-five, defeat you.
So in this part, we’ve seen that Jeremiah has changed his tune (not really; we’ve just understood him better), and Daniel, Joshua, David, and Paul have joined him in affirming our need to look carefully at our lives, prayerfully determine what to keep and what to discard, and strive every day to press on toward the goal of perfection.
Become perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Deuteronomy 18:13, Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 1:15–16
WWJR: What Would Jesus Resolve?
It seems clear that the Bible, from first to last, celebrates and encourages setting goals and making plans and moving ahead—if those plans are in line with the will of God. We should ask, then, while we’re making these resolutions and setting these goals, what, exactly, He wills.
Or, to put it simply, what would Jesus resolve?
Okay, we already talked about that. Where we resolve to become perfect, He would resolve to remain perfect. Let’s ask a different question: what would Jesus resolve for you?
Friends, I have a problem here: I can’t answer that question for anyone except myself. And frankly, if I had a clear and complete answer even for myself, that would be a profound blessing. No, this is a conversation between you and Jesus in one of the many prayers with which you are of course covering this entire activity.
What? You just sat down and started writing? Confession time: me, too, this year. It wasn’t until after our first several-hour session that it even occurred to me to invite God into what we were doing, even though half of it was related to Him and His church. If you forgot like me, stop reading right now and pray for guidance. It doesn’t have to be long or flowery; it just has to be sincere. You know what, I’ll join you. And because I want you to have words to pray (not everybody can just pray at the drop of a hat), I’m going to pull something up from the end of this post. When you get there, pretend you’re surprised.
Lord, I pray that my resolutions this year would be made by your grace, through faith in your power, for your glory. Amen.
You’re back! Me too.
Anyway, I’m not going to tell you what Jesus would resolve for you, because, again, I don’t know. But the Bible is not silent on this front. The following passages of Scripture form a background against which to place your own goals and resolutions. You shouldn’t necessarily consider these as specific goals to write down for yourself, but as examples of the kind of goals the Bible supports. Some of them are directly actionable; some are more general; all are valuable.
Let’s start with the biggest goal in Scripture:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Jesus focused His entire ministry on this goal, known as the Great Commission. Just before He left His disciples and ascended into Heaven, He made it explicit for them. If He set it for them, He surely sets it for you.
But the Great Commission is not the only thing Jesus asked of us; here’s another, broader, commandment from much earlier in His ministry:
But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
That sounds awfully close to the Golden Rule (which is just a few verses later, in Luke 6:31), but it’s even more positive: don’t just treat others how you would want to be treated, but love even your enemies and do good even to those who hate you. You know, in case you’re up for a serious challenge in 2019. (If you decide to engage this resolution directly, be serious about it. Make a list of your enemies and those who hate you, and figure out how to love them, and how to do good to them. Then, as always, take it one day at a time.)
We usually pair treatment of our neighbors and enemies with this other resolution/commandment about God:
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
It is times like these that I long for the straightforward style of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. They would ask, point-blank, “How have you failed to love the Lord with all your heart? How have you failed to love Him with all your soul? How have you failed to love Him with all your mind? How have you failed to love Him with all your strength?” And you would write down, for each of these four questions, honest answers along with ways you could align each element more closely with the love of God.
It is not a mistake that Mark, quoting Jesus, nails four of our six aspects of life from earlier: emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical. To complete the hexafecta3, how can you love the Lord your God with all your relationships and with all your money, too?
The Gospels are not the only source of resolutions, though. James has a pretty all-encompassing one for us to think about as we decide on our specific goals this year:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
Whew. That’s pretty far-ranging. From our interpersonal relationships to our internal emotional life to our sinful hearts4 to our communion with God, James hits us on all sides.
One of these is in fact on my list of specific, actionable goals: Be slow to anger. To be specific, I wrote, “Be less impatient,” but much of my anger results from impatience, so if I can learn to be patient, I will be, with James, slower to anger.
Let’s see what else the New Testament has to say.
With all of Saul’s earlier encouragement to renewal and change, you knew he would have some gems for us. We’ll start with one you can put right on your list unchanged, an admonition to study the Bible:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
—2 Timothy 2:15
The Word of Truth is the Bible. To handle it rightly requires consistent study, both of the Bible itself and of those who have studied it before you. And Paul even sets the vision that guides the resolution (this seven-step Scripture-saturated resolution-setting system is coming ever more into focus): “to present yourself to God as one…who has no need to be ashamed.” How glorious to stand before God unashamed!
This desire to stand with confidence before the throne clearly drives Paul. In Philippians, he has another suggestion to achieve the same vision:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
While he encourages Timothy to study the Scriptures (remember, Timothy was leading the church at Ephesus, so a robust knowledge of Scripture was important for his ministry), Paul writes to the Philippians about honoring Christ with his body, “whether by life or by death.” How might you honor Christ this year?
One way to honor Jesus is to obey Him. Combining the messages to Timothy and to Phillipi, Paul has a spectacular benefit to studying the Bible for the purpose of honoring Jesus:
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
—2 Corinthians 10:5
“Take every thought captive to obey Christ” sounds like something Jonathan Edwards would have written down, or maybe John Wesley (or, you know, Paul). It has that flavor of absolute devotion that the two of them strove toward with such energy. And what a result! We will destroy arguments against the knowledge of God. Not merely disagree with or argue against, but devastatingly eliminate any opinion not in line with God.
Finally, we cannot leave Paul alone without one of his most famous callings. This passage provides, I think, the least concrete, actionable guidance, but one of the strongest influences on our goals.
And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Well, maybe he did tack on a concrete goal at the end there.
But the rest of it is simply about letting love and peace rule everything you do. Calling back to Jesus’s command to love God and love our neighbors and love our enemies, we see the continuing need for our resolutions and goals, whatever they are, to be grounded in love and peace.
The Bible is full of passages like these, commanding, suggesting, or prescribing either specific actions that you could take as goals, or complete philosophies of life that should undergird the goals you set for yourself. These eight are among the most important, and representative of all the rest.
You Are Not Alone
Up to this point, we have seen that the Biblical authors strongly commend evaluating your life, considering it deeply, and making a change.
I guess we should expect that to be the case, since the entire point of the gospel is to remove your old heart and replace it with a new one. But it begins long before the gospels.
Where, you might ask, does that new heart come from? There are hundreds of books answering that question, but Ezekiel puts it rather succinctly:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
God repeats this promise throughout Scripture; see Jeremiah 31:31–34 and Hebrews 8:8–12 for incredibly similar promises. This understanding aligns with what we saw earlier: you may make your plans, and you should, but the direction and the power to walk in it both come from the Lord. (It would take too long to cover fully here, but this pattern is common with God: He provides both the requirement and the solution, and asks you only to accept it and follow Him.)
The final point I want to make about resolutions is that we don’t have to do them alone.
You Are Not Alone With Friends
This is true in two ways. The first is the obvious: sharing your goals with friends, family, your Instagram followers, the guy next to you at work, all provide an accountability structure. Close friends know your life and can hold you to your resolutions when you have trouble. Sharing with the public can provide internal motivation to achieve those goals on your own.
Accountability is a super-effective method of making consistent progress toward your goals and ultimately achieving them. And this isn’t just good advice; it’s Biblical wisdom:
Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
You Are Not Alone With God
But I’m interested today in talking about the other way you are not alone. If your resolutions follow the contours we discussed above—frankly, even if they don’t—God is with you, as Ezekiel and Jeremiah affirmed so clearly at the beginning of this section.
I’ve mentioned Jonathan Edwards a few times now; here’s what he wrote in the preface to a series of resolutions:
Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat Him by His grace to enable me to keep these resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to His will, for Christ’s sake.
He’s quite careful about what he asks. He knows God is his only strength, but he knows also that he might stray outside God’s will here or there. So he asks God’s help “so far as [his resolutions] are agreeable to His will”—he insists on staying within the bounds, as we just discussed. And for those goals that meet that criterion, he pleads for grace and strength to achieve them. It’s a beautiful prayer, and one that you might adopt as your own as you consider your plans for the next year.
But we can do better than Jonathan Edwards, of course. So are you ready for a fusillade of Scripture confirming Edwards’s instinct and guaranteeing God’s continued presence with you as you set out to achieve your goals for this year?
Let’s start right where we are: committing, with Edwards, your goals to God.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.
This is basically the short version of James 4:13–17 about prefacing your plans with, “If the Lord wills…”
Just a few verses later, we see that even when our resolutions don’t fall entirely within God’s will, God redirects us back to His path:
The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.
I love this one because it reminds us of our own full involvement in exercises like this: making plans, setting goals, establishing resolutions. And then it immediately crushes us with the truth that no matter how well we plan, God guides our feet in the way He has set out for us. Crushing, yes, but comforting: God remains in charge no matter what our hearts desire or our brains propose to pursue.
Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers,
and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.
A lot of comforting verses from the Bible, like this one, appear to apply to very specific situations, but together they reveal a glorious and consistent image of God that is no longer specific but universal.
In this case, Solomon is setting up an obvious human truth, that listening to good advice is a good idea, and in effect asking, “If listening to wise human advisors is profitable, how much more blessing will rain down on the one who trusts in the Lord?” This idea reflects our path through this entire process: talk to your friends, your colleagues, your spouse; spend time in prayer; make your decisions and set your goals; and then commit the whole thing to the Lord. And you will be blessed.
From Isaiah, we have two promises of uplifting strength:
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
The first verse comes at the end of a song of praise of the everlasting power of God. Isaiah says to us: This God, the one who created the heavens and the earth, whose days are from everlasting to everlasting, this God who is your hope, this God will not let you grow tired or weary, will not let you fail or fall.
The second contrasts the nations surrounding Israel, who rely on the strength of their warriors and skill of their craftsmen, with Israel herself, who relies on the power of God.
Sticking with Isaiah, we have the promise from earlier about God doing a new thing:
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I [God] am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
There is no hesitation here: “I will make a way.” Isaiah recognizes that we may be blind to the new way, so he assures us it exists even if we “do not perceive it.” Oh, there is abundant comfort here.
From Paul, we have two marvelous gifts of God that allow us to achieve the things we set our hearts and minds to. The first of these gifts is Scripture:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
—2 Timothy 3:16–17
We have been using Scripture this entire time to guide our thoughts; Paul steps back and asks whether all Scripture might be similarly useful. And indeed, it is. Every word, every line, he says, is useful for you. Spend enough time with the Word of God, and you will be, like Timothy, “equipped for every good work.”
The second gift Paul identifies is our creation itself:
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
—2 Timothy 1:7
I have spent a lot of words repeating God’s promises to support us, sustain us, guide our steps, and carry us through. And I’m about to spend even more. But in the midst of it all, Paul whispers that we have already received these two beautiful gifts, and we should not exclusively look for more. God gave us sixty-six books of history, wisdom, advice, songs, praise, worship, heroes, and prophecy. And He made us with built-in power and love and self-control (some translations read “discipline”, which fits our focus of resolution even more closely). So do not fear! All this is within your grasp.
Finally, we have two prayers, also from Paul. The first prayer combines all of the verses we’ve looked at so far in this section into a single powerful request:
…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Here we have the glory and power of God, as highlighted by Isaiah, giving us strength through His Spirit just as Paul wrote in 2 Timothy. Imagine Paul praying this over Timothy, and the comfort and strength Timothy must have felt when he read those words the first time. These words and this prayer are for you, too.
The second prayer deserves our full attention, because it speaks directly to the concept of resolutions. Paul prays not only that God lifts us up and moves us along our quest for holiness, but that He would also “fulfill every resolve for good.” Here, bathe in this:
To this end we always pray for you, 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, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
—2 Thessalonians 1:11–12
John Piper has a thorough examination of this prayer, but the short version is this. Once you break down this prayer line by line, word by word, you see this truth: the grace of God, mediated by Jesus, moves God to show his power, through our faith in that power, to fulfill (a) our resolve for good and turn it into (b) our works of faith, which lead to (c) God’s being glorified in us (because this is His performance, not ours) and (d) we are glorified in Him (changed from one degree of glory to the next).
Therefore, we conclude once more what we have seen again and again: we should make resolutions. It’s right there in the text! Just like in Ephesians, Paul prays our resolutions will become works of our faith by reliance on God’s power and God’s grace.
And we can even ask Paul what our resolutions should look like, and find an answer in the breakdown above. Piper puts it this way: “How do you make resolutions? By God’s grace. Through faith in God’s power. For God’s glory.”
I’m going to repeat that, because it sums up so nicely everything we’ve looked at.
How do you make resolutions? By God’s grace. Through faith in God’s power. For God’s glory.
Far from our original assumption that this whole “resolution” concept worked against God’s desire for us to rely fully on Him instead of our own plans and desires, we have landed somewhere new: a Biblical encouragement, almost a mandate, to resolve to make Jesus’s name famous.
Look again at our six areas of life:
After reading through the Biblical authors’ ideas on resolutions, think again about yours. For each of them, ask yourself one of two questions:
- How can I use this resolution to the glory of God?
- How can I modify this resolution so that it works to the glory of God?
Over the next six weeks, we’ll look at all six categories in detail. We’ll consider how to apply Biblical understanding to each in turn, and how we can answer these two questions for resolutions in each area.
While you’re waiting, what do your resolutions look like? Let me know; I’d love to use your examples as we work through this Biblical case for resolutions.
A quick strategy for avoiding this: write down every single goal you can possibly think of. Exhaust your capacity for thinking of things you want. Fill up as many sheets of paper as you can. After it’s all on paper, then harshly prioritize them and decide how many you can tackle in a year. This exercise will keep you from worrying you might have a good idea still locked in your head. And if you manage to accomplish all your goals before December, you can just pick the next one off the list. ↩
This is a joke. You see, most Biblical writers were Jewish. ↩
This may not be a word. But if three make a trifecta, six must make a hexafecta. Plus, it’s fun to say. ↩
The KJV uses the glorious phrase, “superfluity of naughtiness” where ESV has “rampant wickedness.” Just thought you’d like to know. ↩