Over the years, I’ve noticed an evolution in many folks’ approach to New Year’s resolutions.

Stage 1: Make ambitious New Year’s resolutions. This is the year I get my act together! I’m going to lose 10 pounds, learn to play the violin, organize the basement, and more. 

Stage 2: Having failed to accomplish last year’s resolutions, I intentionally refuse to make any new ones. I am happy with my life. I don’t need to change!

Stage 3: Reflecting on the unhealth of the past year, I realize that, in fact, I do need to change. But instead of resolutions, I plan to adopt new habits. I will life-hack my way into the best version of myself. 

While I agree that formation through habits is certainly the most effective way to transform your life, I’ve noticed (with growing concern) how a renewed interest in habits has been combined with spiritual disciplines to produce a dangerously deceptive set of practices.

Prayer, Bible reading, intermittent fasting, exercise, sabbath rest—these are wonderfully healthy practices. However, I’m noticing many people taking up these habits as tools for what we might call “Project Self.”

[Let’s beware of co-opting] the spiritual practices of the church for personal enhancement.

Project Self is shorthand for the total life pursuit of self-actualized identity, happiness, meaning, purpose, and health. It involves your job, your romantic partner, your physical wellbeing, your recreation, your home, your amenities, your style, your whatever. Project Self is you designing your life to fit your ideal—conforming everything to your personal definition of the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Here’s the problem: when followers of Jesus pursue Project Self, they often co-opt the spiritual practices of the church for personal enhancement. And when spiritual practices are subsumed under Project Self, they end up serving a very different purpose from their original intent—obedience to Christ’s commands and conformity to his image. The ultimate purpose of all spiritual practices—and indeed all of life—is to obey and become more like Jesus.

Two Examples

Let’s briefly consider two examples to see the difference.

1. Sabbath Rest

  • Project Self: I use the weekly habit of sabbath rest as a way to unwind, detox, and rest after a long, hard week. It refreshes me and feels like a reward for my labor.
  • Christ Conformity: I practice the weekly habit of sabbath rest in order to remember that God alone holds all things together, not me. I rest in the accomplished work of Jesus, even if my own work hasn’t gone very well this week.

2. Daily Prayer

  • Project Self: I use daily prayer because it centers me, slows me down, helps me to focus and to be mindful. I feel much better after I pray.
  • Christ Conformity: I practice daily prayer in order to commune with the living God to whom I owe the fullness of gratitude for every breath, every good thing, and my eternal salvation.

Do you see how the same practices, with very different motivations, will inevitably produce very different fruit in one’s life? Are sabbath rest (whether observed out of conviction or mere prudence), daily prayer, and various other practices making you more like Jesus, or more like your idea of the best version of yourself?

Carpenter’s Hands

As 2022 begins, there’s only one motive that should undergird our resolutions, habits, and practices: a desire to be conformed to Christ’s image. You might consider the following prayer a good place to start in reframing the new year:

Lord Jesus, Master Carpenter of Nazareth, on the cross through wood and nails you wrought our full salvation. Wield well your tools in this, your workshop, that we who come to you rough-hewn may be fashioned into a truer beauty by your hand; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, world without end. Amen. 

I am rough-hewn and need to be cut, whittled, sawed, and sanded by the hand of Jesus this year. So do you. Let’s submit ourselves to his hands.