If you’re anything like me, you love the holiday season, but you also love when the season ends. When the anticipation of December — traditions and family and festivities of all kinds — gives way to the hope and promise of January. We return to the rhythm of life renewed for the daily routine. The new year stretches before us as a clean slate, not yet tarnished by broken resolutions, blots of sin, and disappointed hopes.
Making resolutions and setting goals just seem in keeping with that January feeling of new beginnings, which is why so many of us participate. But come February, we’re often back in the same, old ruts. What goes wrong? Why do we abandon our resolutions so quickly and fail to reach our goals year after year?
Underneath Our Resolutions
After all the holiday overindulgence, it’s no surprise that the number-one New Year’s resolution is — you guessed it — losing weight. The diet business thrives in January, as do fitness centers (exercise holds second place on the list of most common resolutions). Rounding out the top five resolutions are managing money, practicing self-care, and learning a new skill.
We all desire to conquer bad habits and to make choices for personal growth, but what motivates those goals? When it comes to our resolutions for this year — our personal goals — are we motivated by love for the Lord, or is it really more about improving ourselves? We have to be careful here, because it’s easy to conflate the two. We must guard against thinking that self-improvement and Christian discipleship are the same thing. In fact, they can be radically opposed. Self-improvement curves in; discipleship aims up and out.
We’re all a mix of motives when it comes to goal setting, and we don’t need to get all tangled up in sorting out our motives, or in tossing aside goals that seem less spiritual. The way forward is simply getting our eyes off ourselves altogether and fixing our gaze on Christ.
As we look up and out, instead of in, everything about us changes. Some of our actual goals change; other goals stay the same. But the way we approach those same, old goals is radically transformed.
We might still resolve to eat better, along with the majority of New Year’s resolution makers; what’s different is that we’re no longer driven by a number on the scale. When we’re focused on Christ, we desire to change our eating habits to avoid the sluggishness — both physical and spiritual — that results when we overindulge. Rather than obsessing on how our weight makes us look, we become passionate about making the Lord look good in all we do and say — and ingest.
Along the way, we discover that Jesus is way more satisfying than any earthly indulgence, and we weaken our temptation to escape stress and trouble by misusing food and drink. And as we lean more fully into Christ, we also discover that godly habits are developed and maintained not primarily through strict self-denial, but through joy and gratitude (Ephesians 5:15–21).
The second-most-popular resolution, regular exercise, might remain on our list too, because we know that exercise improves health and strength. But when Christ is our focus, our physical fitness goals are no longer rooted in vanity or in fear of aging and death. Instead, we find ourselves motivated by the delight that comes from using our strength to carry out our God-given callings (see how the apostle Paul uses exercise as a metaphor for discipleship in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
The third resolution, reduced spending, is typically fueled as much by fear as by frugality. Financial experts tell us how much savings we should have by a certain age, and we panic. Or we discover that our dream house is going to require an impossibly large down payment. We spiritualize our material goals — “I plan to use those retirement years to serve the Lord,” or, “The bigger the house, the more hospitality I can offer” — but for so many of us, we really just crave a more comfortable life.
When Christ is our reason for living, we aren’t afraid of our financial future (Matthew 6:19–34), and comfort matters so much less. We can also balance the tension we find in Scripture between planning for the future (Proverbs 6:6–11) and living in the present (James 4:13–15), and our financial anxieties diminish.
Self-care is the fourth most common resolution. It’s true that in Scripture we see Jesus going off by himself to get refreshed (Matthew 14:13), yet while his example assures us that solitary retreats aren’t selfish, our own motives for retreating might be. If we are constantly assessing our personal needs, we can’t simultaneously prioritize the Lord or the needs of others.
Looking away from ourselves is actually the best kind of self-care we can practice, because only then can we apprehend Jesus’s care for us. And as we lean on him, our inclination toward boundary setting and self-protective practices falls away. We simply don’t need them anymore. Jesus’s purpose in withdrawing from the pressing crowds wasn’t self-care, but love for his Father and for people. That’s the key here. Life in Christ is about self-death, not self-care, and it’s the only path to real living. “Whoever loves his life loses it,” Jesus said, “and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).
The fifth most common resolution is to learn a new skill. As we set our minds on Christ and his word, however, we desire to learn new things not as a way to feel good about ourselves but as a way to better serve the Lord. As the Spirit works within us, we are increasingly motivated by a desire for excellence in all we undertake (Philippians 4:8).
Only when we live for Christ will our pursuit of personal growth bear fruit rather than frustration. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
Life in Christ
Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). That kind of life and power turns resolutions into habits of worship and love.
When it comes to our goals, this year really can be different, and getting it doesn’t require resolutions or teeth-gritting determination. When we’re in Christ, we simply step out by faith and begin to walk in what we’ve already become.