Whose Resolutions? Goal-Setting, Individualism and the Bible

By Calum Samuelson 11 Jan 2018

As we begin 2018, my mind turns to the perpetual project of crafting New Year’s Resolutions. Making careful plans for the future should certainly be commended by Christians (cf. Luke 14:28-31; Proverbs 15:22), but I’d like to take a closer look at a practice that is largely prompted by cultural norms and sometimes accompanied by external pressure. I have two questions: 1) How biblical is resolution making? 2) How relational is resolution making?

1) How biblical is resolution making?

It’s not difficult to cherry-pick examples of ‘resolutions’ from Scripture. One recalls, for instance, Zacchaeus’ commitment to give away half of his possessions to the poor and Peter’s bold promise to ‘lay down’ his life for Jesus. Interestingly, in neither case did Jesus demand this type of response. Therefore, to what extent are such resolutions in line with God’s will for us? Are they initiated by God or by us?

The Church, of course, has long recognised and commemorated significant moments in life such as baptism, marriage, and death. Some of these events involve commitments to a new way of life (‘Do you renounce Satan and all his works?’) and have been integral to the life of the Church. But on the whole, God seems to be more concerned with our daily behaviour than with one-off pledges. Consider Luke 9:23: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ There is no need to make a pledge first or negotiate the terms of a contract (cf. Micah 6:8). Sometimes the ones who make formal pledges are the most guilty (Matt. 21:28-32) and besides, God already knows what’s in our hearts.

So, if God doesn’t demand ‘resolutions’ from us, is it still valuable for Christians to make them? I think it can be, mainly because of our own forgetfulness and fickleness. I’ve already hinted at how the sacraments can help remedy these weaknesses. But just as certain sacraments align with important events, it seems fitting that Christians should strive to make resolutions at major junctures of life. Starting a new job is an opportunity to commit one’s professional efforts afresh to God just as the loss of a job is also an opportune (though more difficult) time to surrender to His sovereignty.

2) How relational is resolution making?

A quick read through the top Google results reveals that most New Year’s Resolutions are highly personal and individualistic. Although pundits are increasingly encouraging goal-setters to make their resolutions known to others, such strategies still take for granted that most resolutions are individualistically focused.

Fortunately, Christians have great resources and opportunities to resist this trend. I recently attended a service during which everyone present was asked if we would commit to supporting baptismal candidates in their new life in Christ. We responded: ‘With the help of God, we will.’ Not only are such resolutions arguably more fulfilling, they also are much more likely to succeed when friends are actually invested rather than merely informed. It is hardly surprising that new research is discovering this very thing.

Just as baptism and marriage are sealed amongst a community of believers, I suggest that serious Christian resolution-making should be done within a group of close and trusted friends. If a hypothetical resolution seems too trite for this, it might be an indication that your resolution isn’t actually important; if the thought of sharing the resolution with a small group is daunting, it is probably an indicator that this is exactly what should be done.

An instructive passage from Scripture is Joshua 24:14-15, in which Joshua commands the Israelites: ‘choose this day whom you will serve.’ Joshua explicitly identifies the entire congregation as ‘witnesses’ to the decision the made, and the people themselves accept this responsibility. This type of resolution not only preserves relationships—it strengthens them.

It has been said that a detailed resolution is more likely to succeed. Here again, the Christian community can be invaluable in holding us accountable to the full extent of the ‘original plan’, and Christians preparing for a sacrament such as marriage have the additional accountability of vast Christian wisdom asserting precisely what marriage should be.

In conclusion, making resolutions can be both biblical and relational. Memorializing significant moments and events is important and worthwhile, but we need not let this practice become fused with the first day of a Western month called January. Rather, we should do our best to remind and encourage each other about the lives we ought to be living, drawing on both the wisdom of past Christians as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit within our churches today.


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