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January 12 is coming. You won’t find that day marked on our liturgical calendars. It’s not a civic holiday of any sort here in North America. I don’t have a significant personal or family event tied to that day. But I am aware that January 12 is coming.
Last winter, a couple of British newspapers ran articles on a Strava (a social network for athletes) study that identified January 12 as “Quitters Day.” It seems that January 12 is the most frequent day on which people give up on their New Year’s resolutions for better physical health. A simple online search about New Year’s resolutions brings up multiple articles indicating that more than half of all resolutions have been broken by the beginning of February. Our resolve to change ourselves doesn’t have a great track record.
That realization is no great surprise for those of us rooted in a Reformed tradition. After all, one of our primary discipleship tools reminds us that apart from God’s intervention, we are completely unable to do any good (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2 and 3).
Admittedly, setting New Year’s resolutions is not one of the typical spiritual disciplines. The day itself simply marks the beginning of another trip around the sun. Culturally, we’ve turned the day into a festive, indulgent day of celebration. It feels a bit like Fat Tuesday at the culmination of Carnival and Mardi Gras just before the beginning of Lent: Indulge today; repent tomorrow.
But New Year’s also traffics in acts of remembering and anticipating. From Top 10 countdowns to singing “Auld Lang Syne” to catching up with old friends, New Year’s has become a season of remembering. At the same time, we mark January 1 as a season of new beginnings, through which we anticipate how our lives could be different, even better, than they have been.
In this way, our New Year’s cultural rhythms of remembering and anticipating mimic our liturgical cadences of recognizing what God has already done and watching for what God will yet do. It’s within these liturgically familiar waters of remembering and anticipating that making New Year’s resolutions have become an annual spiritual discipline for me, albeit with a twist.
Rather than focusing on how I am going to make all sorts of improvements to my life, this discipline has reoriented me within the story of God’s unfolding grace and the Spirit’s ongoing work of sanctification. The practice of remembering God’s faithfulness in the past year has led to a growth in gratitude within me. The discipline of wondering how the Spirit might more fully conform me to the image of Jesus Christ has led to a greater sense of wonder and a deeper hope. Together, this annual practice of setting New Year’s resolutions has taught me that my sins and failings, even those that come before January 12, will not be the end of me. In Jesus Christ and through the Spirit, God is more faithful than I have yet to imagine.
Over the past few years, I’ve been learning to embrace the prayer in Psalm 139 as the foundation for my New Year’s resolutions. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24). It’s not a magical prayer that suddenly empowers my efforts and willpower so that I can keep my resolutions longer. Instead this prayer helps me to remember that I am not the expert on my life; and that my life only makes sense, and will only get better, as I join the Spirit in anticipating what God might still want to do within me. The reality of celebrating New Year’s is that I have not arrived.
When it comes down to it, some of my New Year’s resolutions will sound familiar: lose weight, read more books, be more attentive to my kids. But the discipline involved in setting these priorities—knowing full well that I will fall short—has been a process of learning and relearning to submit my past and future to the only one who is capable of making me whole and holy. So, bring on January 12. Because even if I fall down on keeping my resolutions, I am confident that the One who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).