As the New Year approaches, thoughts inevitably turn to New Year’s resolutions. That the mere mention of this subject usually prompts a snigger, or at least a smile and a raised eyebrow, is indicative of our typical success rate when it comes to following through on our resolutions. We suck at keeping resolutions, and we know it. That’s why I don’t generally bother with them.
Now, there are some things that lend themselves to resolutions. For example, over the past year or so I’ve gained around a stone in weight (that’s fourteen pounds to you, dear American reader). I’m not exactly overweight by any official standard, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable at this weight, so I’d like to shed a few pounds. Unfortunately for me, I’d also like to keep eating chocolate, biscuits (American friends, read cookies) and all manner of sweet things. Losing weight means making a conscious effort to eat less of what I like. Cue a resolution.
I’ve also begun playing squash again in the last few months, after a break of a year or so. I enjoy it, but I’m let down by my general lack of fitness. I don’t get much exercise – my daily commute consists of walking about ten yards from the kitchen to my office. The only way to improve this situation is to put in place some kind of exercise regime, such as going for a run several times a week. Just as I’d like to be able to lose weight and continue eating chocolate, I wish I could feel fitter but without the hassle of having to exercise. Sadly, it’s not possible, and so I may have to resolve to start exercising.
The examples I’ve given are the typical stuff of New Year’s resolutions: we identify something about us that we’re not happy with and we announce a bold plan to put it right. Weight loss and fitness are the classic contenders. I’m not going to make any ambitious resolutions in either of these areas, but I am going to try to make some kind of specific effort in both of them.
However, when it comes to things about myself that I’m not happy with, there are issues far more serious than weight and fitness. For example:
– I’m far too much of a control freak
– I get angry way too easily
– I’m intolerant and impatient when people don’t do or say as I think they should
I could go on, but will spare myself the public humiliation. I’m sure you get the picture; you probably have a similar list of your own. (If you don’t, you’re either much more of a saint than I am or you need to develop your self-awareness.)
These kinds of character flaws are things that do not lend themselves to simple resolutions. I can’t put in place a three-point plan to stop being intolerant; or rather, I can, but such a plan will typically fail at the first hurdle because I’m usually intolerant without even realising it. Character flaws persist because they function as blind spots: how can you implement a plan to stop something from happening when it happens without you even realising?
Now, I don’t mean to say that there’s no place for self-effort in combating character flaws. There most certainly is. “It’s just the way I am” is often nothing more than a way for us to let ourselves off the hook for our own laziness and selfishness.
However, once you get to a certain age you begin to realise that self-effort will only get you so far. As our repeated failure to live up to our own expectations regarding more trivial issues like weight loss and fitness shows, we have a remarkable propensity to overestimate our capacity for self-improvement. How much more true this is when it comes to character flaws.
Thankfully, this struggle against inherent character defects (in fact, let’s call them what they really are – “indwelling sin”) is not unique to me. None other than the Apostle Paul documented the same struggle in his letter to the church in Rome: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19) We’re in good company, folks.
Awareness of my sin and a determined effort to kill it off are, I believe, two key ingredients in my sanctification (the process of me becoming more like Jesus). But they are not enough; on their own, they will never get me there. The reason I find it so hard to correct my wayward thoughts, words and deeds is that they proceed from a wayward and damaged heart. As such, what I need is not mere resolutions; what I need is a new heart.
Thankfully, God is a specialist in heart surgery. I believe He begins His divine surgery the moment we first come to Him in repentance and submission to his rule. But I also believe we need to continue to bow the knee and humbly submit to His rule in order for His Spirit to be able to continue the work of sanctification within us. For many of us – for me, certainly – this needs to be a daily exercise.
So my prayer as we approach the turn of another year is not so much that God will help me do more of this and that and less of the other. Rather, I join with David in asking God for the help I really need:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.