There’s something about the turn of the year that always feels “new”. It’s not just having a new date in the calendar or a new book in which to write the to-do lists but there’s a sense of a fresh start, a chance to regroup and do things differently. It’s at this time of year that a reflection on the past and a desire to be better in the future often comes to the fore. I guess that’s why lots of people try new year resolutions. We think, we dream, we make lists – maybe even post some of it on social media – and then hope to see a new, improved me.
In reality, it doesn’t often work (as my yet-unworn outfits from last year’s supposed fitness kick will attest). Part of the problem is that resolutions tend to revolve around behaviour change rather than heart change. And no-one maintains a different way of acting unless they develop a new way of being underneath. Part of the problem is that they anticipate point-in-time change rather than progressive change and, whilst many of us might be able to identify particular turning points in our journey towards Christlikeness, most of us will attest to the fact that usually progress is slow, imperceptible even, and driven by the Spirit rather than our timing or agenda. Often, part of the problem is that resolutions have a tendency to be me-centred or culturally-defined… things I want to do for my gratification or because I’ve bought into the world’s agenda, rather than Christ-centred or other-centred. Though, there are undoubtedly some gloriously Christ-centred resolutions to be found.
Whilst there are definitely shortcomings to traditional resolutions, it can’t be wrong to take some time to dream, intentionally, about growth. It can’t be wrong to actively pursue that growth either, can it? Paul, in his letters, was eager to give his first readers, and us, long lists of things to which we can aspire – challenges with which to wrestle – commands to follow. It’s good to take stock, note where our lives are going astray, and consciously seek change. Christians are not called to stagnation but to sanctification and that process does consistently involve us using our energy to be like Christ.
Look closer at Paul’s letters, though, and the things God calls us to through him are far more beautiful and distinctive than average resolutions. Just look at Philippians 4 and think what it might look like if we all turned these verses into our goals for the year:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:4-9)
How would your own spiritual life (and the lives of those you are walking alongside) change if you actively pursued:
Joy – Paul tells us to rejoice, twice. Not a superficial happiness based on circumstances, but a deep-rooted joy based on Christ’s work (past, present and future). Life may well be hard – it often is – but we are lavished with more good than we can imagine. How could life be different if we spent some time at least dwelling on that?
Gentleness – there’s a call to be gentle not just with those who deserve it but those who don’t. How would our churches change if we treated everyone as we would fine china? How would our relationships improve if we longed to build others up rather than tear them down – at home, on Sundays, on our social media of choice. That doesn’t mean becoming spineless – sometimes hard conversations need to happen, but never in anger, never with harsh words or exasperation, always with kindness and the desire to love others at the fore.
Prayerful trust and thanksgiving – it’s easy to doubt God’s provision when we feel weak or alone. And there’s no condemnation for those who struggle in this way. But there are better paths to tread. How differently would we sleep, tackle our to-do lists and manage our meetings if we weren’t motivated by fear but were bathed in the kind of contented trust that only consistent and extensive prayer can bring.
Admirable thoughts – I don’t know what goes round your mind sometimes: fear, injustice, bitterness, rage, self-loathing – a deep desire to see someone out of your church because life would be so much easier that way? Not all the time, of course, but maybe sometimes thoughts begin to swirl that way? Now imagine replacing them with good, pure, praiseworthy thoughts – ones that you could say out loud on a Sunday morning and everyone in the church would respond, “Amen”. How much better would that be for you, for those you are thinking about, for the good of the gospel? After all, even the most hidden thoughts tend to leak out into word or action every now and then.
We – and our communities – would be a very different place! A place where we are really living out our faith, in visible, extraordinary ways.
It’s the start of a new year. One that will be filled with a mix of challenge and encouragement. There may well be a place for getting fitter, reading that pile of books or finally learning to cook that Korean meal. There’s more though. There’s better. Why not pick one of Paul’s challenges and make that your primary goal this year? One to walk towards slowly, prayerfully, collaboratively. You won’t be perfect by 2023. But you may well have taken a step towards Christlikeness and that’s a new year goal worth pursuing now.