“I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin” (Psalm 39:1)
Today we welcome a new year. For roughly 40% of us Americans, this means a New Year’s Resolution in which we resolve to accomplish something that has eluded us in the past. According to one source, here are the top ten New Year’s Resolutions:
1. Exercise more
2. Lose weight
3. Get organized
4. Learn a new skill or hobby
5. Live life to the fullest
6. Save more and/or spend less money
7. Quit smoking
8. Spend more time with family and friends
9. Travel more
10. Read more
I recently conducted an informal survey of resolutions with about twenty Christian men between the ages of 45 and 80, and the results were remarkably similar. Roughly 40% make a New Year’s resolution in any given year. For those who make resolutions, I asked two things: 1) name a resolution you recall making in the past; and 2) name a resolution you are considering for 2020. Regarding the past – only three resolutions were mentioned and all are found on the above list – “exercise more,” “lose weight,” and “read more.” The one significant difference is that resolutions to “read more” specifically mentioned the Bible. I’ll reveal their 2020 resolutions in a bit, but first a few thoughts.
Why do so many of us make resolutions? The allure of a fresh start and the idea of improving oneself no doubt play a significant role. But at its root there is a vision of a better life – one in which a bad habit that has entrapped us is broken, or one in which a beneficial pattern of behavior is established. In this regard, all of the “top ten” resolutions have value as no doubt each of them can improve the quality of a physical life. I find it curious however that none of these ten has a significant moral component. For the most part they are morally neutral, meaning they are not inherently good or bad. This does not mean that they have no moral component because they do. For example, improving one’s health is a way we care for the temple of the Holy Spirit. Still, their main focus is on temporal matters.
Because their primary orientation is not in the moral realm, these types of resolutions will not prepare us for the spiritual challenges that will undoubtedly confront us in the year ahead. Such challenges typically hit us in the form of temptations – everything from lust, anger, and pride, to gossip, criticism, and worry. Or, in the words of the Apostle John, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16) If we are unprepared, spiritual struggles born of such temptations have the potential to turn us away from God, harm our relationships with other people, and generally eat away at our faith journey.
It is important that we care for our physical body through exercise and diet, and improve our mind through reading, and travel. But no less so that we care for our soul, which we do by following the way of Jesus. This is not an abstract belief in Christ, but an active robust faith developed through practicing the virtues modeled and taught by Jesus, such as humility, forgiveness, love, honesty, purity, etc. As followers of Christ, the extent to which we pursue godly virtues goes the heart of what we believe, the heart of who we are, and the heart of our witness.
It is unfortunate that with a majority Christian population in the United States, there are no classical Christian virtues on the list of New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps we Christians should use the occasion of the New Year to resolve to focus on a virtue. With a little prayer, the Lord would surely reveal one that he would have us pursue. Here are some that figure prominently in the Bible, but there are many, many more.
The truth is that we don’t just stumble into virtue the way it seems we sometimes stumble into a vice. We are informed by Scripture that Christian virtues are something that have to be thought out and put into practice. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22) NT Wright explains it this way, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” This means that we follow the way of Jesus by practicing the kind of life he commands – the biblical record is unequivocal on this point.
And so, why not start today by making a firm resolve to pursue a Christian virtue? What better occasion than New Year’s Day to refocus one’s efforts on living the kind of life envisioned by God? There are at least two objections to embracing New Years Day as a time for making spiritual resolutions. Both of these can be easily answered.
The first objection is that the pursuit of virtue is an ongoing, everyday affair for followers of Christ. And so it is! Indeed, Jesus tells us we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) And that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Repentance is a never-ending (in this life) endeavor. We are to be constantly turning to the ways of the Lord, and not relegating it to a once a year kind of commitment. However, the same argument could be made for any occasion of spiritual focus. For example, reflection upon our sin and the sacrifice of Christ is a foundational principle of our faith, but still we have no trouble placing specific emphasis on it during Lent. Sometimes when something is to be done “all of the time” it tends to be done none of the time. Emphasizing the practice of Christian virtues at the New Year would put a fine point on Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
The second objection is that New Years Day is a secular holiday that is not traditionally recognized by the church. Perhaps it is time to change this. We all know that in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Christmas underwent a hostile takeover by the forces of modern secularism. It caught many Christians by surprise because we unwittingly participated in the takeover. We fell into line as commercial interests joined forces with Santa Clause, and relegated Jesus to a cameo role as a manger prop and picture on a Christmas card. Perhaps it is time for Christians to plot a friendly takeover of New Years Day by emphasizing New Years Resolutions that are based on Christian virtues. What would the impact be if those of us with bitter hearts resolved in the New Year to truly forgive those who have hurt us? Or those with selfish hearts resolved to serve people in need? Or those with critical hearts resolved to guard their tongue? The possibilities are endless. And in doing this we would breathe new life into what it means to be transformed, what it means to be fully human, and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.
Returning to the informal survey mentioned at the beginning, in which past resolutions closely matched those of the general population. When asked about resolutions to be made in 2020, there was a significant shift in emphasis. Although exercise, lose weight, and read more still appear, other resolutions include: “Growing closer to father and brother,” “Regularity in dates with wife,” “Volunteer,” “Get closer to God,” “Better family leader,” and “Obedient to God.” These seem like a pretty good start.