This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 4 (2021).
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“I’m going to read sixty books this year,” I announced to my husband on a New Year’s Eve years ago. “And I’m also going to be a nicer person.” My husband nodded diplomatically because I say this kind of thing every December 31st. He, on the other hand, when asked about his resolutions, never has any. He is a disciplined person who never breaks his diet unless he plans to beforehand. He sits down in his chair every evening at 7 p.m. to read a book for pleasure. He wakes before the dawn to pray and exercise. In this way, he never has any weight to lose nor anxiety about his salvation because he forgot to read the Bible.
Meanwhile, I don’t remember I’m on a “diet” until confronted with an irresistible treat. I careen from one task to the next with no forethought, and whenever I sit down in a chair in the evening, I fall asleep before I can turn a page. That year, however, for the first time in my life, I did read sixty books. The next year I upped my goal to seventy-five and reached it. This year I aimed for 100, but I expect I will fall well short because I’m doing other things like writing this article.
Should Christians make New Year’s resolutions? And if so, what kind? Are there any guiding biblical principles that might inform and shape such a task?
That’s a Lot of Resolutions. The most famous example of a Christian making a lot of resolutions is Puritan theologian and minister Jonathan Edwards. Between 1722 and 1723, the 19 and then 20-year-old Edwards composed for himself an astonishing seventy resolutions, hoping to forfend against the enticements of New York City.1 Resolutions that covered subjects such as time management, relationships, and his spiritual life, they epitomize the Christian tributary of self-improvement literature. For a sample of the all-encompassing nature of his resolve, here are four, five, and six:
4. Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.
5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.2
To sum them up, one might conclude that Edwards planned to be “perfect,” as his “Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 NKJV). He wasn’t going to waste one second of any day by not being holy, and when he did fall short, he planned to examine his conscience immediately in order to discover where he had gone wrong.
Every January I am bemused to see Christians sharing Edwards’s resolutions as a reasonable guide for holy living. While manifestly impracticable, and derivative of a now mostly scorned puritan theological ethos, they nevertheless tempt desultory believers to try again. Into this stream flows Benjamin Franklin and his “13 Virtues,” though, argues historian Norman Fiering, from a neo-pagan perspective.3 Whereas Edwards resolved to conform himself in his weakness to the holiness of God, Franklin so believed in the power of human initiative that he worked out a chart to keep track of his own progress. Taking one new virtue a week, whenever he failed, he made a black mark in a little book on the appropriate line. He thought he would do well and would be able to erase the marks and show a clean page by the end of a week. It took much longer than expected but, ultimately, he was happy with the results.4
Franklin’s virtue project has lately reasserted itself in the self-improvement world as the Habit Tracker. If not meant to spur the practitioner on to love and good works, it is employed by the faithful for slimming down and becoming more productive, and is included in many manifestations of the Bullet Journal.5 I accidentally bought one of these thinking it was an ordinary calendar. I then discovered that I first had to produce a “mind map” of all that I was thinking and feeling, derive goals from that map, and evaluate those goals at the end of every week, month, and quarter. I got past the first quarter and then buried the journal underneath a stack of papers, hoping never to see it again.
The Vow I Make to God. The question of making and keeping resolutions gets to the heart — as almost every human proclivity does — of the gospel itself. “If you make a vow to the LORD your God,” exhorts Moses in his last sermon to the people of Israel on the eve of their entry into the Promised Land, “you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deut. 23:21).6 The people are about to promise that they will do everything God commanded, that they will trust Him and keep all His statutes. Moses will respond by explaining that they will not keep their promises and that eventually the land God is giving them will vomit them out, and they will be sent into exile (Deut. 28–29). And yet, after entering and conquering the Land under Joshua, they vow to keep the Law anyway (Josh. 24:16–18).
Making promises, either to oneself or someone else, is an act of cheerful folly. I know I haven’t yet managed to lose the ten pounds I gained during the COVID-19 lockdown, but when January rolls around, I’m going to promise myself again that I will, even while I am devouring the remnants of our New Year’s feast. And that’s before I contemplate any question of holiness — that nebulous and difficult to define sense that I know I should be not thinner than I am but better than I am. I shouldn’t be so mean online. I shouldn’t be so impatient with my children. I should be more willing to go out of my way for other people. Most of all, I should try to be perfect — morally perfect — as my Father in heaven is perfect. Knowing this, I make the resolution, and then, breaking it, make excuses for myself, letting myself off the hook and blaming circumstances (pandemic) and other people (my mother, the brilliant baker) for my failures to achieve my goals.
This gets to the very heart of the human condition. I know I should be good but I don’t really want to be. I know I should trust God and worship only Him — every person, even Franklin, knows this at the core (Rom. 1:18–23) — but I don’t want to. I want to eat bread and scroll through Facebook. I pick up every day where Adam and Eve left off, choosing to know what is good on my own without reference to, but more importantly trusting in, God (Gen. 3:1–7).
With ludicrous optimism, the cure must be to make more resolutions and try harder. Even Edwards, the renowned theologian, was willing to take the task into his own hands and spare no effort to become the person he knew he should be. Surely by examining himself more, thinking about the project more, he would eventually succeed.
I Can’t Help It. Is there any remedy? What if a person (like me) can’t help making resolutions? Is there a way to do it rightly? Fortunately, yes. We get a glimpse of the way in an obscure and oddly timed provision in the middle of the Book of Numbers. There, the Law provided a way for a man, in the most un-PC way possible, to cancel the oath of his wife or his daughter. She could make a vow to God, and hearing of it, he could cancel it if he felt she had been rash. She would then be free — completely free — from the obligation to do what she had vowed. Why would such a provision exist? It might have been because God doesn’t think that women are capable of keeping their vows, which I don’t think is the case. Rather, knowing that all Scripture is about Jesus (John 5:39–46), we might see that God the Son purchased the forgiveness of His bride, the church, by His death on the cross, cancelling in His own blood the vow she made to death by her disobedience. Embedded in the very law itself was a promise of the redemption to come.
When I make a resolution, on the surface I am just trying to improve myself. But at the heart of it, I am attempting to be redeemed without asking Jesus to do the work for me. In both solemn and trifling vows, in trying to be both thin and holy, I am trusting in my own strength to do what only God can do. But in that very moment, I am perfectly positioned to throw myself back on His promise to cancel all my foolish and ruinous vows.
I Did Read 60 Books in a Year, Though. Still, some level of self-improvement is possible. Franklin, apparently, became more virtuous, and I know of many people who have managed to lose weight. For my part, I decided to acknowledge my own frailty and admit that I was never going to sit down and plough through sixty books in a year. Instead, I bought an Audible account and added listening to old-fashioned reading. I pushed myself, trying all the time not to make it into a law, not a vow to God, but only to myself, that I would read sixty books.
And that is always the trick. Why are you resolving to do something? Is it because you want other people to notice your virtue? Or do you want to glorify God? God is most glorified not when we try to improve ourselves, but when we trust Him, when we lean on Him, when we let Him cancel our debts, when we run to Him after doing the wrong thing. Our success isn’t what makes Him happy, our dependence is. That being the case, making a resolution should be an act of praise for what God has already accomplished, a free gift given back to Him.
Rather than the exercise of spiritual affliction as self-improvement, as seems to me to be Edwards’s forty-eighth resolution — “Resolved, constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or no; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of”7 — the Christian could practice the habit of self-forgetfulness, and, along with St. Paul, turn toward Christ. “For this reason,” he proclaims in one of the most sublime passages of Scripture,
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:15–23)
This sort of glory is not brought about by making a list of ways to be “better” on one day of the year. It creeps up on a person contemplating Jesus on His own terms by constantly flinging herself into His loving care. If this is the context of making resolutions, I think Christians of all people should be free to make them. But if, as is more likely, it is a matter of succeeding for your own glory, it is not worth your while.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (Square Halo, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Stephen Nichols, “The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards,” Ligonier Ministries, January 1, 2009, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/resolutions-jonathan-edwards.
- Jonathan Edwards, “The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards,” Desiring God, December 30, 2006, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.
- Norman S. Fiering, “Benjamin Franklin and the Way to Virtue,” American Quarterly, 30, 2 (1978): 199–223, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2712323.
- Fiering, “Benjamin Franklin and the Way to Virtue.”
- The Bullet Journal Addict has no less than fifty different recommendations for habit trackers: https://www.bulletjournaladdict.com/collections/50-bullet-journal-habittracker-ideas/.
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV.
- Edwards, “The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards.”