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Resolutions are not enough: Habits of grace for a new year

January 2022 | by David Mathis

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But haven’t we all tried this enough times by now to know how futile mere resolves are if not accompanied by more?

Whether it’s eating and exercise or Bible-reading and prayer, the God-created mechanism we call ‘habit’ is vital for seeing our earnest resolutions become enjoyable realities.

If we really are resolved to see our hopes for 2022 become life-enriching habits, we will do well to keep several basic suggestions in mind at the outset of a new year.

1. Focus on a few, not many

Better than big, emotional resolves about the many things you want to ‘fix’ about your life is dialling in just one or two realistic resolves with a concrete plan and specific accountability.

The excitement of a new year, and the ease with which we can desire change, often leads us to bite off more than we can chew for a new year.

It’s much better to focus on just a couple new habits, even just one. Identify something important that will give your new habit particular focus.

Soul-strengthening ‘habits of grace’ are precisely this. Going deeper in God’s Word, prayer, or your local church will produce an invaluable harvest.

2. Make it specific

Bible intake, prayer, and Christian community likely are too broad in and of themselves.

Give it a 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, bedtime prayer with your spouse or family, punctuating the whole day with ‘constant prayer’, or some new prayer initiative as a community group or church.

Perhaps as the old year has drawn to a close, you’ve realised how spotty your church commitment has been, and how thin your relationships are as a result.

You might resolve to deepen your commitment to not neglect meeting together ‘as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10:25), whether that’s making Sunday mornings more non-negotiable or prioritising your midweek involvement in the church Bible study or prayer meeting.

Resolve in 2022 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 just a few minutes of creative thought about where, when, and how you will pray in 2022.

Map out clearly and concretely what it would take for a full month to cultivate the habit. Think long-term and make sure it’s realistic.

This also means accepting a measure of modesty in your goals. Don’t try going from no regular devotions to an hour every morning. Start with a focused fifteen minutes daily, but make it genuinely non-negotiable, 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. Identify 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 for long.
New Year’s resolutions can be an important first step, but they are a far cry from real, lasting change.

The bringing in of a new year brings with it the possibility of a fresh start or an opportunity to begin maturing in a new direction.
Rather, what motivates most long-term runners is feeling great today, whether it’s the endorphins, or the sense of accomplishment or clear-headedness, or all the above.

Trying to draw on the same long-range motivation each morning to get out of bed and hear God’s voice in the Scriptures will soon run dry. And God doesn’t mean for us to be motivated merely by distant, future rewards, important as they are. God supplies bountiful motivations 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 right now.

Over the years, I have found the most transformative reward in cultivating habits of grace to be, not being stronger and holier as a Christian long-term, but knowing and enjoying Jesus today.

Having my soul satisfied in him today. Making my heart merry in him this morning.

The point of daily spiritual discipline isn’t first and foremost being holy or obtaining growth, but knowing and enjoying Jesus and having our souls satisfied, imperfectly but powerfully, in him.

The final joy in any truly Christian habit or practice or rhythm of life is, in the words of the apostle, ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). ‘This is eternal life’ – and this is the goal of the means of grace – ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17:3).

Fly Hosea 6:3 as a banner over your 2022 spiritual resolutions: ‘Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.’

5. Enlist regular accountability

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 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.

Perhaps talk through some of these principles for forming good habits and consider a monthly calendar reminder to check in with each other. It is a great means of God’s grace that he has not left us alone in forming spiritual habits.

6. Cover your efforts in prayer

At the end of the day, and the end of another, the Holy Spirit is decisive, not our spiritual habits, for producing any 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).

We would be foolish 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 make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power’ (2 Thessalonians 1:11).

Resolutions are not enough. But God has not just left us to resolutions.

David Mathis, executive editor for desiringGod.org.