I used to have a tradition for New Year’s resolutions. I would find some quiet time before New Year’s Day—maybe when the kids were napping—and sit on the porch with my Bible and a journal. I would, in sequence, read Scripture, pray, and journal. At the end, I would write some resolutions for the year to come.

I recently flipped through some of my old journals, and the resolutions were pretty much the same each year, only with different wording or different color ink. Some were casual, like deadlifting X number of pounds. Others were more serious, like learning to serve my wife with joy instead of duty.

After writing my resolutions, I’d look at them in the coming days—never often. Most of the time, I forgot they existed. By June, they had evaporated from my mind.

I’ve failed at keeping most of my resolutions, and most of us have failed at keeping resolutions, whether they’ve been to pray more or lose 10 pounds. The University of Scranton did a study that showed only 8 percent of people keep their resolutions. Thus, it’s wise to learn from these failures and reframe the way we think about meaningful life changes.

Here are five things our failed resolutions tell us.

1. We’re unable to change ourselves.

Our wills are not strong. We can read all the self-help books we want, but growth in character and holiness are not DIY projects. In fact, self-help can be detrimental if we aren’t careful.

Growth in character and holiness are not DIY projects.

Life change comes from heart change, and heart change comes from God.

2. We don’t even know what we want.

So often in my resolutions I’d want something that became worthless to me months later. Our interests change, and as we grow in wisdom our desires elevate and mature. Even with wisdom we still see dimly, and if our goals alone charted the course of our lives, we’d end up lost. We need the Lord to guide our lives and desires.

3. We have an unhealthy and unrealistic interest in our earthly future.

In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape tells Wormwood, his understudy:

We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

Here’s what Lewis was driving at: we are obsessed with the future and unsatisfied with the present. Really, we are obsessed with our earthly future. But our earthly future is merely an idea. The past has passed. And while we should plan for our future on earth, it’s not guaranteed. Far better to seek contentment in the present and hope in our eternal future. These are guaranteed.

4. We’re not content in every circumstance.

Our failed resolutions teach us that we’re not happy with how God cares for us. We want more: more muscle, more money, more notoriety, more everything. True contentment in the grace and hope of Christ is not circumstantial; it flourishes in the dungeon as well as the mansion. We fail to comprehend our fortune because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, and we fail to appreciate the outrageous grace of merely being alive.

5. We need Jesus.

Our resolutions are often shallow, but even the deep ones and our failure to keep them shows a dire need for heart change. We’re not what we should be, and we want to be different. The transformation we seek is valid, but the means by which we seek it are often insufficient. We need Jesus to transform us into his likeness, and resolve alone isn’t enough.

Not Bad, but Often Ineffective

Resolutions aren’t entirely bad. It is by no means sinful to make New Year’s resolutions. Jonathan Edwards famously made them. So did T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Resolutions aren’t wrong, but they’re not usually effective.

My kids once made a treasure map of our back yard. They drew crossing dotted lines and an X, which marked the spot of reward. It was cute, but the map was useless. There was no treasure, and their map was inaccurate. Too often, this is us. We tend to chart a childish course for our lives and pursue treasures that don’t exist.

The apostle James potently evaluates our attempts to manipulate the future:

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.” (James 4:13–15)

How to Make Resolutions

Okay, so it’s clear that resolutions are often short-sighted and ineffective. But what about those of us who like to make them? Here are some recommendations:

  • Make sure your resolutions align with God’s Word and with God’s aim to glorify himself by magnifying your joy in him.
  • Set realistic resolutions that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.
  • Seek counsel, and accountability, from brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • Pray over your resolutions and submit them to the Lord for his guidance.

Whether or not you set resolutions for 2019, don’t place your hope in your ability to change yourself. If we could change ourselves, Jesus wouldn’t have had to come. Only he can transform us. Resolve this year to praise him for what he has done, and seek to become more like him by this time next year.