Why Your New Year's Resolutions Won't Work

On fresh starts, false promises and a better way.

It occurred to me recently that when people share their New Year’s resolutions, they tend to talk about things that point indirectly to their character: "I want to eat healthier ... I want to pay off my debt ... I want to read through the entire Bible ... " Our resolutions reflect our hopes of becoming a better "me." Though they may seem to be mere matters of behavioral modification, the fact that we always fail to keep them seems to point to a deeper problem.

If you think about it, an admission of a character flaw is almost always built into a New Year’s resolution, then quickly explained away—"I know I should do this, but I have failed to do it this year. I want to set a new goal, try harder next year and succeed."

Alas, there’s the elephant in the room. Didn’t you say the same thing last year, and the year before? Perhaps this is a good indicator that we have a bigger problem on our hands than just not keeping our vows. The bigger problem is that we’re not very good at doing what we know is for our own good. This should reveal that, lurking subtly behind bad eating habits, persistent debt and slacking spirituality, are character flaws that are not essentially behavioral but existential. Our failures have less to do with what we do and more with who we are.

Our resolutions reflect our hopes of becoming a better "me."

Who would consider it a “meaningful” endeavor to succeed in eating healthy for one year, only to ruin their health in subsequent years? Who would consider it “responsible” to pay off a large amount of debt in a year, only to accrue more debt in the years to follow? These changes we like to see in our lives and vow to make are changes we want to see for the rest of our lives, not just for a year. 

And that’s probably what most of us intend when we set down our resolutions. But if the change is not in our being, the change will never be permanent. Maybe this is what Gandhi meant when he said (supposedly) that we ought to “be the change we want to see.” Perhaps he didn’t mean by this that we must simply do this or that, but, quite literally, to be this or that. Whatever we resolve to do in the upcoming year, we should resolve to be that for the rest of our lives.

What we really need are lifetime resolutions—because if it's truly worth doing, it’s probably worth living for. 

This emphasis on being is important because our actions can only take us to a certain threshold, whereas our being takes the baton and finishes the race. If no "being" is there to greet us, then our actions are just a cumbersome charade, not a way to victory. The kind of victory God desires for us is total. God wants both our hearts and our hands, our joy and our obedience, our being and our doing. And this not for a year, but for eternity.

Our failures have less to do with what we do and more with who we are.

But we must address another tempting misconception.

Lingering behind the excitement of welcoming the new "me" is the rather misguided confidence in our own ability. We’re tempted to think our characters can be changed in a year simply because we proclaim it to the world and write so in our diaries. To this, James would say, "As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil" (James 4:16, ESV). Our words fail us. So do our deeds. Our hope must be in words and works that do not fail. We need to put our hope in something more consistent, an absolute anchor that wills for us when our behaviors fall short (and they will fall short). We need our Shepherd right there with us, to help us press on, albeit inconsistently, toward being made complete (Philippians 3:14).

The profitable motivation behind setting up New Year’s resolutions is not "I’ve not done what I should’ve done" but "I’m not yet who I’m meant to be." We need take our eyes off our abilities and our accomplishments and look once again at the perfect image we want to be conformed to: Jesus Christ. He’s performed what our behaviors can never accomplish and set us free from the obligation to perform perfectly by His promise to perfect us in His time (Philippians 1:6). Both by His words and deeds, we know God cares for us more than we can ever care for ourselves.

Behavior control is no longer our resolution. To be loved by the perfect love of God is.

You’ve probably heard the adage "You can't turn the Titanic around in a day." Neither can we turn our characters around in a year. Nor can we do so on our own. So, perhaps admitting our inability to perfect ourselves and clinging to the One who is strong in our weakness is a worthy resolution all its own. Paul seems to imply this much when he says, "Let those of us who are mature think this way" (Philippians 3:15, ESV).

Let us all then, as a first step, resolve to think this way.

5 Comments

Mateusz S

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Mateusz S commented…

This was a great and thought provoking article to read right before new years! One thought though, what does it mean to 'cling to the one who is strong in our weakness'. How do you cling? Just a thought!

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Sungyak Kim

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Sungyak Kim replied to Mateusz S's comment

Thanks, and great question. The Psalmist seems to imply that in "clinging" to God we remember and meditate on Him as our ultimate hope and peace (Psalm 63:5-8), i.e. turning our thoughts away from ourselves to God. It was his only resolve.

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Filiberto Alvarado Jr.

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Filiberto Alvarado Jr. commented…

Awesome. I love this article. Really helps me focus on the big picture instead of the yearly one! Thanks for sharing!

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Brad Newton

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Brad Newton commented…

Rock on. Great article!

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Mary Atuheire

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Mary Atuheire commented…

Great read. Timely I must add. True that for most, resolutions are more like annual targets we set out to do and therefore kind of end when the year ends (if they have been achieved) yet our focus should be in renewing our minds/ character to become more like Christ which is a more sustainable goal. Kinda like hitting two birds with one stone. As we grow in Christ-likeness, we also learn how to constantly fix our gaze on the cross and not on our empty selves.

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