A clean slate. A blank page. An empty highway stretching off to the horizon. There’s something intriguing about new beginnings.
They’re more common than one might
imagine. Every game begins with the score 0-0. Every race begins with the clock set at 0:00:00. Every new day begins when the alarm clock goes off. When we look at it like that, January 1 is just one symbol of a new beginning, albeit one filled with unlimited promises, potential, and possibilities.
Yet why do we invest January 1 with more significance than any other new beginning? Countless Web sites, newspaper and magazine articles, and television programs talk about resolutions: how to make them, how to keep them, and how to make them a lasting part of our lives.
And not without reason. Most of us need to lose a few pounds; be more prudent and faithful stewards of our time and finances; nurture our relationships; and invest more time in studying, praying, and getting closer to God. The end of one year and the beginning of the next is as good a time as any to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
Resolutions would be a fine way to order our lives and end the year healthier, wealthier, more fulfilled, and better accomplished if life weren’t so unpredictable.
Who would argue with setting the alarm 15 minutes earlier to have more time to read the Bible and pray? Who would say that a little discipline wouldn’t be a good thing when it comes to eating healthfully and at proper times throughout the week?
The problems start when we miss a day. Feelings of failure are likely to make it harder to begin again. A few days of model behavior isn’t going to turn a resolution into a habit. Popular research about habit development indicates that habits take anywhere from 21 to 66 days to become established. And the process is more likely to be marked by steady improvement rather than uninterrupted success.
Simply stated: If we want to make resolutions we can keep on January 1, we should begin around the middle of October. In general, that’s how long it takes for habits to become part of our routine.
“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Ideally, we develop our characters in childhood. By the time we reach adulthood our characters are set, our strengths and weaknesses part of our fiber. Our life experiences reveal the strength of our characters.
Take Joseph, for example. As a child of privilege, he knew how to antagonize those around him (see Gen. 37:1-11). But something in his upbringing taught him the value of humble, willing service. (Perhaps it was because his father, Jacob, had to work 14 years for the woman he loved.)
Nevertheless, after his brothers sold him into slavery, and when faced with a lifetime of low-level servanthood, Joseph revealed an unusual strength of character to the point that “Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned” (Gen. 39:4).
This didn’t happen because on December 31 Joseph decided to turn over a new leaf. His character had been formed by a lifetime of decisions, so that when he was faced with one of his life’s great temptations he could respond: “How . . . could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (verse 9).
Jonah had preached about grace, but he didn’t understand grace. He knew God’s voice, but he didn’t know God.
Joseph’s calculations may have included the fact that humanly speaking, he could probably get away with it. But he knew he was called to a higher standard, even though his decision to be faithful to God landed him in prison.
And while prison might be where most people go to wither and die, Joseph found it a place where he could serve God by serving his fellow prisoners. A series of mysterious, otherwise indecipherable dreams led Joseph to a seat next to the most powerful man in the kingdom; an unpredictable and improbable reunion with his brothers and eventually his father; and this statement to his brothers who had sold him into slavery: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Who knows if Joseph ever thought, I resolve to reflect God’s grace to the people around me. He just did.
Wouldn’t it be great if God just told us what to do? If only we could hear His voice when we had to decide when to get up, what to eat, whom to marry, and whether to take that vacation.
But hearing God’s voice is an advantage only if we intend to do what He says. Consider Jonah.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it’” (Jonah 1:1, 2). What good fortune! To not only hear God’s voice but to recognize it as God’s voice. Jonah had obviously heard God’s voice before.
“But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (verse 3). Jonah knew God’s voice, but he didn’t know God. If he had, Jonah wouldn’t have tried to run away from God. The very idea is preposterous.
Ensuing events demonstrated without a doubt that God was not going to be left behind. First there was a storm. Then a great fish swallowed Jonah, and God preserved his life for three days. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’” (Jonah 3:1).
This time Jonah obeyed, at least in body. He did go to Nineveh; he did preach against it; he did see the people in the city—from the king to the beggar on the street—repent. But when God “relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened” (verse 10), Jonah went to a hill overlooking the city just in case God changed His mind.
Then God and Jonah had a conversation. It seems that while Jonah had preached about grace, he didn’t understand grace. He knew God’s voice, but he didn’t know God. He was a prophet, but he resented God for being as generous with those heathen Ninevites as He had been with him.
Which leads us to ask: Why did Jonah pray? Was it so that he could write in his prayer journal “Prayed three times today: 15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at noon, 15 minutes after supper”? Why did Jonah help others? Was it because one of his New Year’s resolutions was to help three people a week? Why did he give offerings? So he could write them off as charitable donations when he filed his income tax?
There are reasons we read the Bible, study, pray, and serve others. It’s not so that at the end of the year we have bragging rights about how much of the Bible we’ve read, how many prayer journals we’ve filled, or how much money we’ve given away to charitable causes. We do those things because we want to be more faithful in reflecting Christ to our families, friends, and communities. The numbers are just window dressing. Those we touch with God’s grace are the reasons we resolve to spend more time lingering in God’s presence throughout the year.
In our resolutions let’s make sure that we do more than that which will feed our egos. Let’s make sure those habits and behaviors bring us closer to God and make us better reflectors of His love and grace.
I’ve been a runner for more than 40 years. Years ago I would ask myself when I woke up, Should I go running today? I’d often lie in bed for 15, 20, or 30 minutes wondering whether I should leave my warm bed for the chill and exertion of a morning run. Eventually my inertia made my decision for me: I didn’t run.
But 40 years later running is part of who I am. I know that when I wake up I’m going to put on my running clothes and go for a run. I’m not a world-class runner. At my age I’m a plodder at best.
The difference between me and a world-class athlete is that running is something I do f
or part of my life; it’s not my whole life. Compared to a professional athlete who spends hours in a batting cage, on a driving range, or on a basketball court, I have other talents and interests that keep me occupied. I’m a runner, but that’s not all I am.
When I was growing up, a plaque on the wall of my grandparents’ house had these words: “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last. To me to live is Christ. Philippians 1:21.”
My relationship with Christ is my greatest priority. It colors everything I do, every decision I make. It affects my relationships with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. I’m by no means a world-class Christian; I’m a plodder. But as with running, I know that “slow and steady wins the race.”
I can say with the apostle Paul: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
It’s a decision I make every day, not only on January 1.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.