Tom Gilson

How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Can you keep your New Year’s resolutions in 2008? Have you tried in past years? How did you do? Most of us give up long before January ends. It’s surprisingly difficult, isn’t it, to make a decision about our personal habits and stick with it. Can we actually improve ourselves?

The answer is no, we can’t. That may come as a surprise to some readers of a Thinking Christian blog, for you may think that Christianity is about improving ourselves: learning to do the right things, being more loving and kind, obeying the Ten Commandments, and so on. It’s not so, actually. People who have followed Christ for any length of time commonly say, “Living the Christian life isn’t hard, it’s impossible!”

We Can’t Do It Where It Counts
More specifically, it’s impossible to improve ourselves on the inside, where it counts. We may be able to set some goals and reach them. We may be able to adjust some behavior, or change some habits. But these changes are on the surface; they don’t get to the heart. And because they’re on the surface, often they are fragile. They break easily. We fail to keep up with our goals and standards.

That applies to New Year’s resolutions, certainly, and for that reason some Christian leaders recommend against making them. It even applies to the one standard that is unquestionably, consistently, a good one, the Law of God. It applies even to the best of us, like The New Testament leader and writer Paul, who said,

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members [parts of my body, see more here] another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

This is from the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans (ESV). Even his perfect agreement with the law of God, and his intense desire to follow it, was not enough. It only showed what a failure he was.

This sounds terribly familiar to me–it’s a picture of my own experience at many times. How about you? Have you been made as painfully aware that you can’t live up to whatever standard you have thought was good and right? What then? Are we hopeless? Is there nothing we can do?

But It’s Possible In Christ
Paul goes on to say yes, there is hope! In the next chapter he writes,

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans is a closely reasoned and complex letter, and his point may not be immediately clear, especially since I’m not quoting the whole. I’ll pick out just three main points here that I think will help.

Freedom From the Cycle
First, we can have freedom from this terrible cycle of sin (our failures) and death (the inevitable result of the cycle). That’s great news! But we do not free ourselves. We are freed by what God has done. He sent his own Son “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” It’s his doing.

Founded on Christ
Second, this freedom is founded on Jesus Christ. He “has set you free in Christ Jesus.” Paul writes elsewhere in Romans (and it’s found throughout the New Testament) that we start by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, trusting him to free us from our sin. There’s a great explanation of this here. Here’s the mistake many make: they think they must get their lives straight in order to begin to follow Jesus Christ. No, he accepts us as we are, and he will do the work to free us from our failures.

By the Power of the Holy Spirit
Third, to experience this freedom day by day, we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The Spirit here is not some vague ethereal religious sense, but the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself dwelling with those who have placed their faith in Christ. Again I’m going to rely on another resource to explain how we can experience this daily walk with the Holy Spirit.

What is life like when we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Paul wrote about this in another letter, too. In Galatians 5 he emphasized freedom again. It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and going by willpower, but of simple following:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

And the result is something that grows out of us naturally, like fruit. I don’t know what your New Year’s resolutions might be, but if you were to resolve to be more like this, and if it were really to happen, wouldn’t it be great? God says it’s not a matter of resolving but of walking in the Spirit:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

We can experience success; we can know freedom from failure and guilt! But we cannot do it on our own resources. Jesus Christ is the foundation for anything we do that is right (pleasing to God). The Holy Spirit is God’s provision for our experiencing this. Let your New Year’s resolution be to explore and learn all that this relationship with God through the Holy Spirit can mean. Let the Word of God guide your other decisions. Any other resolutions will take care of themselves.

Related: This post brought forth a question (see the first comment) that started a whole series on what Christ does for us, beginning here.

16 thoughts on “How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

  1. The thing that bugs me about this is that it’s so anti-humanistic. Humility I can understand, but, to me, this is perverse.

    When people achieve difficult objectives, they ought to get credit for doing so.

    I hate the way Christianity tells people they’re nothing, makes them feel bad, then offers them a convenient promise to soothe their soul. And to top it off, Christianity takes credit for any success those people have at solving their own problems.

    Okay, let me revise that. I think that, in practice, Christians take credit for the choice to become a Christian. It’s a sort of credit transfer system. Imagine creating a system in which people willingly take the credit they should have for their achievements and transfer it over to a tribal alliance. “I succeeded in my business this year because I joined the right tribe, and from that flowed all my success.”

    I believe that the impressive successes you have had are your own, Tom. God did nothing. Your belief in God may have contributed to your successes, but that’s different.

    But I can see how Christianity gets away with it. Christianity is a strong meme. Organized religion is very much like a living thing. It consists of beliefs and practices that naturally have had perceived benefits to its adherents (and almost certainly practical benefits in prior ages). It exists because its adoption favors its own continued existence. It’s an attractor, just like liberal democracy or corruption.

    The response to this I would expect is that, if God is real, and we achieve nothing except through God’s interference, then we’re not having to accept falsehoods. That’s a big “if”, and one you know I don’t hold with.

    How about a prediction: those lacking the holy spirit will achieve nothing. Okay. Albert Einstein. Douglas Adams. Richard Dawkins. Watson & Crick. Carl Sagan. Jodie Foster. Daniel Dennett. Gary Numan. Bob Geldoff. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Richard Feynman. Utter failures?

    Anyway, this isn’t really an argument. It’s just how I feel, which may not be particularly interesting to you or your readers.

  2. DL:
    If I understand this correctly, this post is similar in nature to the one Tom did entitled “Can You Become a Better Person?”

    To recap what was said there, if the standard for becoming a better person is entirely subjective then by what standard have you become better?

    Anyway, this isn’t really an argument. It’s just how I feel, which may not be particularly interesting to you or your readers.

    Can we expect more of these feelings-based, non-arguments from doctor(logic) in 2008? 🙂

  3. There is a beautiful line in the movie The Perfect Stranger http://www.perfectstrangermovie.com/frontpage.html which I presume is also in the book upon which it is based.
    The woman in the story mentions how she wants to love her husband better but that he makes it impossible by being so frustrating. She is told that this kind of loving is possible not for her but for Jesus. By having the Spirit reside in her she is then capable of the type of improvement that she wishes for.

    The concept is not at all new (http://bible.cc/matthew/19-26.htm) but I found it very striking in this context. For some reason the impact it made on me this time has allowed me to turn more aspects of my life over to God and to do things and make changes that I had been unable to in the past.

    I have never made a New Year’s resolution (that I recall), and this year is no different. Instead of a promise to myself, or trying to strengthen my resolve, I am committing myself more to God’s will.

  4. Hi DL,

    I hate the way Christianity tells people they’re nothing, makes them feel bad, then offers them a convenient promise to soothe their soul.

    I’m sorry if this is what you think Christianity tells people. I’m doubly sorry if Christians have told you this. Christianity doesn’t tell people they’re nothing; it tells people they are something of great value (created image bearers of God) but that something has gone terribly wrong – we are willing parties in a rebellion against our creator and a turn toward self that taints every good deed we do. You’re right, though, that all this is predicated on foundational concepts of the existence of God on which we would disagree, which would explain why what you said above sounds to me like, “I hate the way Western Medicine tells sick people they’re sick, makes them feel bad, then offers them a convenient treatment to remedy their ailment.” It’s not about making people feel bad, and then giving them a pacifier. It’s about holding up a mirror so they can see their true condition, then conveying the good news of a cure.

    I think that, in practice, Christians take credit for the choice to become a Christian.

    Actually, I don’t, neither in practice nor in theory, but then again I’m Reformed and possibly see this differently that our host. Many Christians do take credit for the choice to become a Christian, though, which I would view as a mistake.

    How about a prediction: those lacking the holy spirit will achieve nothing.

    I know you’re just emoting, but you see, you’re treading into fairly deep theological waters here, and unqualified statements like “achieve nothing” won’t really do the ideas justice. Even those Christian thinkers in my particular theological tradition – who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty over against man’s autonomy in light of a strong doctrine of human depravity – would never say that those lacking the Holy Spirit (the unregenerate) are unable to achieve anything or do any good.

    However, I’m fighting a migraine and this is a lot ot unpack right now. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll be happy to oblige after the Imitrex works its magic.

  5. Even those Christian thinkers in my particular theological tradition – who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty over against man’s autonomy in light of a strong doctrine of human depravity – would never say that those lacking the Holy Spirit (the unregenerate) are unable to achieve anything or do any good.

    I agree with Aaron here.

    It’s a guess, but I think DL mistakenly equates the act of doing good with being good (correct me if I’m wrong). If I understand things correctly, the bible teaches that we can do good works, but there is only one way to become good, thereby improving ourselves (the subject of Tom’s post).

    As an example, a person can feed the poor while also thinking the poor are less valuable people. Whitewashed tombs comes to mind…

    27″Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

  6. I think I need to amend some of what I wrote:

    More specifically, it’s impossible to set some standard of behavior as our goal and improve ourselves enough to live up to it.

    We can change our behaviors. What we can’t change is our hearts. So changes remain on the surface, not on the inside where most needed, where it really matters. Further, because on the surface, improvements are fragile. That’s why we need the internal heart change that only God can do.

  7. One further thought. I can see now that there’s a culture/language divide I failed to take into account. It’s the divide between those to whom these concepts are familiar and make sense, and those who don’t understand them and can’t imagine how they could make sense. In order to give that difference the respect it deserves, I’m going to start soon writing more about the difference Christ makes in a life. That’s the piece that’s missing, which, if properly understood, would make the above post make a lot more sense.

  8. Steve,

    To recap what was said there, if the standard for becoming a better person is entirely subjective then by what standard have you become better?

    By a subjective standard, that, for the most part, you concur with.

    Can we expect more of these feelings-based, non-arguments from doctor(logic) in 2008?

    Oops! Sorry. I didn’t realize that rhetoric was reserved for use only by Christians. 😛

    It’s a guess, but I think DL mistakenly equates the act of doing good with being good (correct me if I’m wrong).

    In my opinion, a person isn’t being good if they’re just doing good. They have to care about the outcome of their actions, and intend for them to work out well, as subjectively viewed by me (and, fortunately, most other people). IOW, a good person is someone who has benevolence aforethought.

    So I wonder. Do you think that good acts and benevolence aforethought enough to make someone a good person?

  9. Aaron,

    Christianity doesn’t tell people they’re nothing; it tells people they are something of great value (created image bearers of God) but that something has gone terribly wrong – we are willing parties in a rebellion against our creator and a turn toward self that taints every good deed we do.

    I don’t see how it can be both ways. On discussions on this blog, humans have been described as infinitely evil compared to God, worthy of suffering, death and eternal torture. How is something worth a lot, and yet worthy of death and suffering?

    (Sorry about your migraine. I’m sure questions like this aren’t helping.)

    You’re right, though, that all this is predicated on foundational concepts of the existence of God on which we would disagree, which would explain why what you said above sounds to me like, “I hate the way Western Medicine tells sick people they’re sick, makes them feel bad, then offers them a convenient treatment to remedy their ailment.” It’s not about making people feel bad, and then giving them a pacifier. It’s about holding up a mirror so they can see their true condition, then conveying the good news of a cure.

    It shouldn’t sound that way because I can think of two important differences. First, we generally don’t see people curing themselves of major medical disorders with wishful thinking alone. Yet plenty of atheists achieve their personal and ethical goals without the Holy Spirit. Second, Western Medicine isn’t offering us an antidote to a poison created by Western Medicine.

  10. Tom,

    We may be able to set some goals and reach them. We may be able to adjust some behavior, or change some habits. But these changes are on the surface; they don’t get to the heart.

    Is this testable? How do you know what is in the “heart” and what isn’t? Are you saying that no atheist can have a change of heart? Can we not use conditioning, reflection and psychological methods to change a heart?

  11. doctor(logic),

    Is this testable? How do you know what is in the “heart” and what isn’t?

    The basic facts are testable, meaning the test of whether it’s true that God changes people from the inside, from the heart. The test is this: it holds true to the trustworthy statements of the Word of God.

    Is it testable in any individual life? I think so; I’ve seen it happen many times. Does that mean we know what’s in any individual’s heart? No. It can be faked; but it’s happened often enough to support the principle.

    Is it testable in groups? You’ve seen my “Spirituality and Life Outcomes” page often enough. There’s supportive evidence there. But the main test is whether it is supported by God’s true words.

    I know you have only one test you’ll accept, and that’s empirical. Lots of us have other tests, though.

  12. doctor(logic),

    I don’t see how it can be both ways. On discussions on this blog, humans have been described as infinitely evil compared to God, worthy of suffering, death and eternal torture. How is something worth a lot, and yet worthy of death and suffering?

    This is where basic philosophical categories and distinctions come in handy. Something cannot be both A and non-A in the same way and at the same time, right? Well, the sense in which humans have worth (in virtue of what they are and were created to be) is different than the sense in which they are worthy of punishment (in virtue of what they have done). In fact, the distinction seems so obvious to me that it seems like the only way they’re connected in your statement is with the equivocal use of “worth(y)”.

    (Sorry about your migraine. I’m sure questions like this aren’t helping.)

    Thanks. I never used to get headaches, but as I’m getting older I’m starting to get these darn things with increasing frequency. No worries, though – sleep in a dark room helped, and I’m good to go now 🙂

    It shouldn’t sound that way because I can think of two important differences. First, we generally don’t see people curing themselves of major medical disorders with wishful thinking alone. Yet plenty of atheists achieve their personal and ethical goals without the Holy Spirit. Second, Western Medicine isn’t offering us an antidote to a poison created by Western Medicine.

    It seems as if you didn’t understand the point of my comparison to Western Med, which was that, when a doctor tells a sick person he’s sick and what treatments are available, he’s not constructing a fable and then a convenient “cure” – he’s dealing with the real condition of the patient. We both, in principle, accept the physician’s authority and ability to deal meaningfully with reality in this regard. Additionally, I accept the Bible’s description of the human dilemma and the only available solution as equally dealing with reality and, in an important way, making the same kind of claim as the doctor. That was the point I was trying to get across (sorry if it wasn’t clearer, but that was why I followed it up with “It’s not about making people feel bad, and then giving them a pacifier. It’s about holding up a mirror so they can see their true condition, then conveying the good news of a cure.”). The only way your original statement (“I hate the way Christianity…”) worked was by presupposing that Christianity was a farce used to fool and manipulate people.

    You can’t question logical coherence (which is what I assume you’re doing) without stepping outside your own system.

    You’re also still attacking a straw man again, after I tried to give a small bit of clarity on this point. I’ll say it again – no one is (or at least I am not) saying that atheists, or any other non-Christian, are incapable of (roughly) achieving their personal or ethical goals without the Holy Spirit. The problem is deeper than that.

    Lastly (and briefly, I’m out of time), to imply that Christianity created the problem of sin is silly. This doesn’t even work in analogy. The way in which I claim Christianity “created” (if you want to put it that way) the problem is the same way in which Western Medicine “created” the cancer.

  13. OT
    Hi Aaron,
    Sorry about your migraines.
    Mine increased in severity and frequency when I was in my early twenties (as you are?). It took me years and years to find one of the primary causes was my grinding of my teeth at night.
    While you look into causes keep that one in the back of your mind as well.

  14. Hi Charlie,

    Mine increased in severity and frequency when I was in my early twenties (as you are?).

    Actually, I’m turning 30 this year. I’m gettin’ old 🙂

    Thanks, though. I don’t know if it is teeth-grinding – my wife is a very light sleeper, and she’s never seen or heard me do that. They also tend to come on at the end of the day, around sunset, and it’s really only been in the last year that I’ve started getting them. But I really appreciate your concern.

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