You know the feeling: resolved on January 1, then done just a few days later. The vast majority of New Year’s resolutions don’t even make it a full month.
Resolving has its place. The apostle Paul didn’t despise resolutions but prayed that God would “fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). The resolutions that last are the ones, with God’s help, that give rise to new habits, and new habits produce change. Habit is the often-overlooked missing link between good resolutions and real change.
Whether it’s eating and exercise, or Bible-reading and prayer, the God-made mechanism we call habit is vital for seeing our earnest resolutions through to enjoyable realities. If we really are resolved to see our hopes for the coming year become life-enriching habits, we will do well to keep five basic truths in mind at the outset of a new year.
1. Focus on a Few, Not Many.
Better than big, emotional, private resolves about the many things you want to “fix” about your life is dialing in just one or two realistic resolves with a concrete plan and specific accountability.
The excitement of a new year, and ease with which we can desire change, often leads us to bite off way more than we can chew. It’s much better to focus on just a couple new habits — even better, just one. And if you’re going to narrow it to just one, you might as well make it count. Identify something important that will give your new-habit-forming particular focus, and reap benefits in other areas of your life. Soul-strengthening “habits of grace” are precisely this. Going deeper in God’s Word, prayer, and your local church will produce an invaluable harvest.
2. Make It Specific.
Bible intake, prayer, and Christian community are likely too broad in and of themselves. Give it more specific focus, like reading the whole Bible this year, or not just reading but daily meditating on a short passage or verse, or even just a word or phrase in context. Don’t keep it general at “prayer,” but make it more particular: private prayer each morning, or bedtime prayer with your spouse or family, or punctuating your day with “constant prayer,” or some new prayer initiative as a community group or church.
Maybe as the old year is coming to a close, you’re realizing how spotty your church commitment has been, and how thin your relationships are as a result. Resolve to deepen your commitment to not neglect to meet together “as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25), whether that’s making Sunday mornings non-negotiable or prioritizing your midweek investment in life together. Resolve not to let silly last-minute excuses keep you from faithfully gathering with the body of Christ, which will be a priceless, long-term means of God’s grace both to you and through you, to others.
3. Craft a Realistic Plan.
However earnest your resolution, you need a corresponding amount of realistic planning. Let’s be honest, you don’t really want to enrich your prayer life if you’re not willing to give it even a few minutes of creative thought about where, when, and how. Map out clearly and concretely what it would take for a full month to cultivate the habit.
Part of being realistic is accepting a measure of modesty to your goals. Don’t try going from no regular devotions to an hour every morning. Start with a focused fifteen minutes a day, making it genuinely nonnegotiable, and see what God does. Grow your duration and depth as Scripture intake becomes a fixture in your schedule, and you learn to wake up each day even more hungry for the Bible than for breakfast.
4. Look to the Reward.
Runners will tell you that being heart-healthy in their old age is not their driving motivation. It’s a nice added benefit, of course, but a reward that is nondescript, and a long way off, won’t get you out of bed in the morning and into your running shoes (at least not for long). Rather, what motivates most long-term runners is feeling great today, whether it’s the endorphins, the sense of accomplishment or clear-headedness, or all of the above.
God doesn’t mean for us to be motivated only by distant, future rewards, important as they are. God supplies bountiful motivations even for today. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23). He means for us to taste and see his goodness right now (Psalm 34:8). He can meaningfully satisfy our restless souls in real, life-transforming measure today.
Over the years, I have found the most transformative reward in cultivating habits of grace has not been long-term spiritual growth but knowing and enjoying Jesus today. Having my soul satisfied in him today. Making my heart merry in him this morning. The final joy in any truly Christian habit is “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Fly Hosea 6:3 as a banner over this year’s spiritual resolutions: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.”
5. Ask for Help.
One of the flaws in so many resolutions is that they stay private. When we really mean it, we draw in real and regular accountability. We are recovering sinners. Our heads are not always screwed on straight. We need others to speak into our lives and hold us accountable for who we’ve said we want to be, and what we’ve said we want to do. It is a great means of God’s grace that he has not left us alone in forming spiritual habits.
And he has given us prayer. At the end of the day, and the start of another year, the Holy Spirit is decisive, not our spiritual habits, for producing real and lasting spiritual fruit. Cultivating wise habits is not our attempt to work for God’s acceptance, but to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12–13). In prayer, we re-consecrate ourselves again and again to pursue our resolves “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). How foolish it would be to pour fresh, regular efforts into new spiritual habits without explicitly asking God to make it truly fruitful.
And so we pray — not just act, but ask — that our God may “fulfill our every resolve for good” by his power (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
Resolutions are not enough. But God has not just left us to resolutions.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.