Every January, the calendar turns, and the year arrives like freshly fallen snow (in Toronto, at least). There aren’t regrets and failures to muddy the landscape, just the seemingly endless horizon of possibility. As this new year began, I didn’t set out ninja goals for personal transformation, but I did make two resolutions: I would read a poem every day and forego the internet before 8 a.m. (I wake at 5.) Almost two weeks into 2017, I can happily report the self-imposed digital boundaries are holding. I can also confess that by January 5, I had yet to crack a poetry book.
Studies show approximately 50 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions. The majority commit to losing weight, though almost 25 percent of us have returned our late-night snacking by the first week’s end. According to one grim estimation, only 8 percent of “resolutioners” actually achieve the goals they set—although one study confirms setting a goal makes a person 10 times more likely to achieve it.
It’s not entirely obvious why a Christian should even make resolutions. As Scripture testifies, lasting personal change depends entirely on God’s work in us to “will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). That said, participation is necessary in life with God, and grace doesn’t preclude effort. Hence Paul’s admonishment to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
Perhaps a New Year’s resolution is one kind of holy effort to cooperate with God’s good work in us. But what makes a resolution stick? Here are three things to consider concerning “sticky” commitments to personal change—whether we make them in January or July.
1. Want the change you resolve—or at least want to want it.
“How do I form the habit of regularly reading my Bible?” someone recently asked my pastor in the regular Q&A time after his sermon. I don’t recall his exact answer, but I do recall him saying, “You pray to want to want to.” We can’t resolve our way into personal transformation; we need the conversion of our desires. As Jesus taught, healthy trees with healthy roots can’t help but produce healthy fruit (Matt. 7:18). Or as Jonathan Edwards put it, “Free moral agents always act according to their strongest personal inclination they have at the moment of choice.”
Isn’t it true there are changes we know we need to make—yet don’t want to? I’d bet most New Year’s resolutions fall into this category. We need to lose weight. We need to exercise more. We need to read our Bibles and witness to our friends. But if we’re honest, what we want is Doritos and Netflix, a fast-paced novel and greater likeability. A resolution powered by grit alone will not effect the permanent change we want. Instead, we must look to God to deliver us into better desires.
Gratefully, Philippians 2:13 reminds us God is at work in his people not just to work for his good pleasure but to will it. And isn’t one of God’s greatest miracles that he would deliver any of us, curved in on ourselves, from our basest instincts into desires that sustain holiness?
2. Make ‘change’ your new habit.
Having just insisted the gospel promises a greater work of transformation than mere behavioral adjustment, why am I now suggesting a behavioral strategy?
As I’ve already noted, sanctification is paradoxical: Paul’s tells the Philippians both to rely on God’s grace to convert their desires and to work out their salvation with grave sobriety, even fear. Later in the letter, Paul enjoins them to imitate what they’ve “learned and received and heard and seen in me” (4:9). “Practice these things,” he insists—which is to say, make these virtues habit. As any athlete, artist, preacher, or musician knows, virtuosity in any field requires constant practice. Practice is a habituating routine for performance. As James K. A. Smith notes in Desiring the Kingdom, “Habit is the hinge of desire.” We may not exert the level of control over our desires we wish, but we can (especially with social accountability and prayerful dependence on God) change our habits.
In his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N. T. Wright describes virtue as the product of good habits: “Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically,’ as we say.”
We can’t resolve our way into change, but we can make change our new habit.
3. Seek to repent, not simply resolve.
The first sermon Jesus preaches in the New Testament begins with this word: Repent (Matt. 4:17). “Repent,” John Stott said, “is the first word of the gospel.” And unlike resolution, which often turns out to be a one-dimensional (I’ll lose weight; I’ll exercise more; I’ll read my Bible daily), repentance is a two-sided coin. One side is turning from; the other is turning toward. Repentance, then, is always this kind of full-bodied movement from and then toward.
The rich young ruler in Luke 18 is one of the clearest examples of what repentance, in its fullest form, looks like. “Follow me,” Jesus tells him. This is his command to turn toward. But this isn’t Jesus’s only imperative. He also says, “Sell all you have and distribute to the poor.” For this man to turn toward Christ, he must turn from his idolatrous love of material wealth and security. How happily the man would have done the former; how unwillingly the latter.
Taking inventory of the changes we’d like to make this year, it’s helpful to consider what each goal requires us to turn from and toward. I decided to set stricter restrictions on my digital connectedness in the early-morning hours, but this wasn’t just a decision to turn from. It was rooted first in a desire to turn toward. I wanted to consecrate my best and quietest hours of the day to the deep work of prayer and study, reading and reflection. Then, I wanted to give my kids my undistracted attention as their day begins around 7 a.m. The digital boundary only came as I thought and prayed about what deeper devotion to work and presence would require me to forsake.
One final word of grace for those like me who’ve already failed miserably at a change they’d hoped to make this year. Proverbs 24:16 tells us that “though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.”
January isn’t the only time to commit, with God’s help, to personal change. Failing is just one more reason to try again.