There is much debate when the new year rolls around as to whether Christians should participate in New Year’s resolutions. The gripe among the concerned is that resolutions will lead to legalism—the action of trying to earn one’s eternal salvation by doing good. The argument goes that we do not need to set up resolutions to be better Christians, we simply need the Holy Spirit to give us a deeper and wider vision of the gospel. This will then propel us to live the life of holiness that pleases God.
Salvation comes by faith in Jesus alone through grace alone, that is joyously true. And it is also true that the Holy Spirit is the supplier of power to transform our lives. But what if we’ve misjudged how the Holy Spirit works? What if the Spirit doesn’t simply give us the power to reach the desired ends, but also gives us the conviction to form different practices that will mold us into the person he wants us to be—a person that reflects Christlikeness.
Plant Seeds in the Right Field
I believe this is what Paul is referring to in Galatians 6 when he says: “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (v. 7-9 NIV)
The idea of sowing is the idea of planting seed. In Paul’s analogy, it means that whatever we practice, watch, read, experience, or desire is planting a seed in us that will ultimate grow fruit to be used by either our corrupt sinful nature or by the Spirit. The Spirit desires that we practice things in our lives that will form Christ-like habits, Christlikeness as second nature.
You Are What You Love
James K. A. Smith, in his provocative and challenging new book You Are What You Love, gives a modern voice to this topic and suggests that many people, despite having learned much Christian knowledge, have perhaps been frustrated by their lack of real life change:
Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? . . . Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a new way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness. (Smith 5)
Smith’s conclusion is that the reason we aren’t changing is that we are still ruled by our old habits. We are still formed by a world that has done everything in its power to get us to be consumers who love its products (through advertising, marketing, and even mall design!)*. What we love is what we chase and what we orient our lives toward. We love the things the world has formed us to love (and this is not simply materialistic but much deeper than that).
We Are Creatures of Habit
All this chasing and loving changes our practices which then forms our habits. We can surmise that when we are pulled away from God, it is by the claws of the world’s habits that have sunk into us over decade(s) of formation. Smith notes that some psychologists have estimated that over 90% of everything we do is from habit or “second nature.” Through the learning of Christian knowledge, we may be interacting with and affecting the 10% of conscious choice in some way, but those deeply ingrained habits will come and pull us away from the throne of God without our even realizing it.
The only way to work against the world’s formation is to engage in what Smith calls “counterformative” practices. These are practices that remind us that we are in God’s grand story and not our own. These practices develop new habits that are robust enough to hold us steady even in the strongest winds of spiritual resistance and darkest nights of the soul.
Don’t Be Yourself in 2017
This is why I believe New Year’s resolutions are a good thing for Christians. They are essentially resolutions to develop a new practice in the year to reach the desired end of Christ-like habits. Let us resolve to struggle for habits that will reap love for and faithfulness to God, habits that make us more concerned for others than ourselves, habits that make us look a bit more like Jesus at year’s end. We can rest in the truth that the Spirit will reward our efforts with good fruit.
Legalism is quite a danger, but I believe that Satan has exaggerated the danger in order to push us into a sanctification stalemate. We are far too unconcerned with fighting against ourselves to become more like Christ. The Holy Spirit has the power to form you into the likeness of Christ, and he lays out multiple counterformative practices in the scriptures to make sure that we are pressing ahead in fighting the good fight. In the next blog, I will be listing out some practices that will be good to begin in 2017.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)
*I am not discounting miraculous sanctification, in the likes of people that become more Christ-like over-night in a certain area, but it seems to be the case that in many areas our old habits are still an issue.