On making resolutions that count for something…
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Many people have mixed feelings about making New Year’s Resolutions. Do you or don’t you? One problem with making such Resolutions is that we find that they have little lasting impact and can be a source of guilt when we consider our failure to keep them! Nevertheless, as a practice, making resolutions has a good Christian pedigree.
The best example is Jonathan Edwards, the famous New England revival preacher of 300 years ago. He wrote 70 resolutions during the period 1722-1723 which express his resolve to live, not for himself, but for God and His glory. He prefaces the Resolutions with these words:
Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his frame to enable me to keep the Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake I must remember to read over these Resolutions once a week. (a helpful modern version may be found here http://www.ccob.org/women/docs/resolutionsjonedwards.pdf )
Three quick general thoughts:
- Resolutions are not just about human effort
Clearly, resolving to do something matters, and human effort is necessary for this to happen. But Edward reminds himself that resolve in itself is not enough. Without divine help, we humans cannot change for the better.
- Resolutions are only as good as their alignment with God’s design for humanity
It is only in-so-far as we encapsulate God’s will for human beings – to love him best and love our neighbours as ourselves – that we will also find his help to fulfil this resolve.
- Resolutions are not a one-off wish lists
We do well to follow Edwards’ practice of reading over the resolutions once per week to keep ourselves accountable to them (to “examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt the love of God….”, No 25), examining himself every night, and at the end of every week, month and year.
We can summarise Edward’s 70 resolutions in three main categories:
- The Christian life is to be lived for the glory of God. Hence Edward’s resolved: “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God‘s glory” (No 1). “Resolved, never to do any manner of thing whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God ….” (No 4). “Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it…..” (No 23)
- The Christian life is to be lived for the advantage of other human beings. He resolves never to lose one moment of time, but to live it profitably, with all of his might (No 5 & 6). “Resolved, that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age” (No 52); “Resolved to endeavour to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments” (No 55). Well summarised in this resolution to speak only whatever is “agreeable to the highest Christian honour … and the lowest humility” (No 31). “Resolved, never to do anything but duty; and then according to Eph 6:6-8, do it willingly and cheerfully as unto the Lord, and not to man; “knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord” (No 62).
- The Christian life is to be lived in self-denial and preparation for eternity. This is what John Owen called “mortification” (“putting to death the works of the flesh”, see Romans 8:13). For Edwards: “Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom” (No 10); Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die” (No 17); “Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking” (No 20); “Resolved…never in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions (No 56).
There is much more to be said about Jonathan Edwards’ 70 resolutions which speak volumes about his God-focused self-discipline.
But, for now, let me give a few hints for formulating your 2016 resolutions:
- Formulate a resolution which encapsulates John Newton’s famous resolve to “humble the sinner, exalt the saviour, and promote holiness”.
- Commit it to writing and allow this to act as a pledge you make to yourself and to God.
- Formulate an action plan (perhaps by listing Dave Allen’s “next actions” from Getting Things Done). Plan the next action which leads to furthering the resolve will help keep you focussed on it beyond January and enable you to track progress.
- Reread your resolution regularly throughout the year (daily, weekly or monthly). Again, this helps ensure that the resolution abides beyond the initial resolve.
Here Jonathan Edwards is so helpful. Remember that the goal of making resolutions is in order for us to focus, not on the bettering of this life, but on preparing for heaven and anticipating the happiness which is to be found there. Hence I end with what is perhaps the best known resolution:
Resolved, to endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of. (No 22).
So, what am I resolving in 2016?
In some respects my resolution is both mighty, and modest: “Resolved, to fight the world, the flesh and the devil, by the power of the Spirit and to the glory of God”. This is a mighty goal because all Christians are engaged in this war – internally; in the world; and against the principalities and powers of this dark age, until Christ returns (Hence Eph 6:12). But, more modestly, I plan to write a book on this subject, with every hope that it will be a part of my personal discipline and devotion throughout the writing period, in the hope that my writing will overflow from my personal growth. And now I have told you, I really have to do it!
Happy New Year!
(A short article on Jonathan Edwards which I wrote for Churchman may be found here http://archive.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_117_4_Vibert.pdf