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On the Limits of New Year’s Resolutions

Resolutions are powerful things. We feel all the energy of a new year rushing forward, washing over past failures or shortcomings. I like goals and fresh starts and reset buttons. But they have their limits. And as with so many things, the better we are at recognizing their limits, the more likely we are to enjoy them for what they are.

Five years ago, I wrote a blog on why resolutions miss the mark. And while I may have been a little gloomy about the topic as a whole, there are a few thoughts worth repeating as we step into 2014 together.


Why does it seem that no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to make ourselves better? If Life gave out report cards, we would be lucky to hold a B average. 

What if the whole approach is off target? What if life– and life with God– is not first about progress and improvement?

The Bible has two favorite word pictures for our life with God. The first is of a potter and clay. We are reminded that God is the potter and that we are the clay. Using this imagery, God rebukes Israel for trying to take over what only God can do:

“You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” (Is. 26:19)

Jesus picks up on this theme by pointing out the futility of worry:

“Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt. 6: 27)

We cannot make ourselves more like Jesus any more than a lump of clay can make itself into a vase. We are not the initiator of change; we are the responder. From the picture of a potter and clay we learn the first reason resolutions often miss the mark: 

God is in charge of the process and the progress; we are responsible for our response.

We often defend our addiction to progress with the word “growth”. We need to grow this year– that’s why we have so many goals. The second Biblical image speaks to the concern for growth. Life with God is often pictured as a tree planted by streams.  

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in the year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jer. 17: 7-8)

Here again we are reminded that growth is God’s work. But there is another lesson from the tree:  

Bearing fruit is a byproduct of faith in God.

Will our lives be different as a result of walking with God? Yes. Will we be changed to become more like Christ? Yes. Is that the point, the focus of our efforts? No. The point is faith– trusting obedience– in God. The point is relationship and connection. Growth, fruit, is the external result of an internal work.  

Paul places our work, our effort, in the context of God’s work in us:

“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12b-13)

God is at work in us. And He is in charge of the process and the progress. That’s why it’s slightly misguided to set our own timelines for growth.

Can we have goals? Yes. But maybe our goals should be more about how we can create space for God to work in our lives, how we put down roots by the River, how we can respond to His molding. 


The words of the psalmist make an apt prayer for New Year’s:

“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom…”

It’s the numbering of our days, the acknowledgment of our limits, the confession of our finiteness– not the delusion that we can “do it all” or “have it all”– that leads to wisdom. Don’t let resolution-making spring from the myth that we are unbounded; don’t make goals from a confidence in our own strength.

The psamist concludes:

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”

What we find when we confess our limitations and the limitations of our own resolve is the blessing of knowing that only God can establish the work of our hands.

So, may His favor be on you this year.

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