Resolutions: Our little stabs at self-control.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 December

Speaking for myself, I’m not into new year’s resolutions.

Because I make resolutions the year round. Whenever I recognize changes I need to make in my life, I get to work on ’em right away. I don’t procrastinate till 1 January. (Though I admit I may procrastinate just the same. But not ’cause I’m saving up these changes for the new year.)

Here’s the problem with stockpiling all our lifestyle changes till the new year: Come 1 January, we wind up with a vast pile of changes to make. It’s hard enough to make one change; now you have five. Or 50, depending on how great of a trainwreck you are. Multiplying your resolutions, multiplies your difficulty level.

But hey, it’s an American custom. So at the year’s end a lot of folks, Christians included, begin to think about what we’d like to change about our lives.

Not that we want to change. Some of us don’t! But it’s New Year’s resolution time, and everyone’s asking what our resolutions are, and some of us might grudgingly try to come up with something. What should we change? Too many carbohydrates? Not enough exercise? Sloppy finances? Non-productive hobbies? Too many bucket list items not checked off?

Since our culture doesn’t really do self-control, you might notice a lot of Americans’ resolutions aren’t really about breaking bad habits, but adding new habits—good or bad. We’re not gonna eat less, but we are gonna work out more often. We’re not gonna cut back on video games at all, yet somehow we’re gonna find the time to pray more often. You know—unrealistic expectations.

True, a lot of us vow to diet and exercise. Just as many of us will choose to learn gourmet cooking, or resolve to eat at fancier restaurants more often. (Well, so long that the fancier restaurants provide American-size portions. If I only wanted a six-ounce piece of meat I’d go to In-N-Out Burger.)

True, a lot of us will vow to cut back on our screen time—whether on computers, tablets, phones, or televisions. Just as many will decide time isn’t the issue; quality is. They’ll vow to watch better movies and TV shows. Time to binge-watch the shows the critics rave about. Time to watch classic movies instead of whatever Adam Sandler’s production company farts out. (I used to say “poops out,” but that implies they’re making an effort.) Sometimes it’s a clever attempt to avoid cutting back on screen time—’cause they already know they won’t. And sometimes they honestly never think about it; screens are a fact of life.

As Christians, a lot of us will resolve to be better Christians. We’ll pray more. Meditate more. Go to church more consistently; maybe join one of the small groups. Perhaps read more bible—even all the way through. Put more into the collection plate. Share Jesus more often with strangers and acquaintances. Maybe do some missions work.

All good intentions. Yet here’s the problem: It takes self-control to make any resolution stick. It’s why, by mid-March, all these resolutions are likely abandoned. So if we’re ever gonna stick to them, we gotta begin by developing everybody’s least-favorite fruit of the Spirit: Self-control.

Growth takes effort.

Too many Christians presume the Spirit’s fruit grows spontaneously. That once we become Christian he magically transforms our personalities—without any honest effort on our part. Once we become Christian, somehow we’re naturally more patient. Less chaotic. More in control of our emotions. More temperate.

And if we’re expecting magic changes, we don’t even try to make such changes. We figure they come automatically. ’Cause it’s just how things work now that we’re new creations in Christ. 2Co 5.17 Making an effort? That’s just works righteousness.

Hence I’ve run into an odd Christian practice: We make resolutions. Might be for the new year; might be the result of some really good preaching. “I’m gonna do that from now on.” And once we named and claimed our intention—and we’re usually told to state it out loud, just like pagans who believe in magic tell their followers to do in The Secret— we really do believe we will do that from now on. We’ve declared it into the atmosphere, and so shall it come to pass. It’s not magic; it’s faith!

  • Gonna share our testimonies more often.
  • Gonna believe for miracles more often.
  • Not gonna live in fear anymore.
  • Not gonna believe lies anymore.
  • Not gonna suppress our emotions using food anymore.
  • Gonna pray more often, read bible more often, do good works more often… you know, the usual.
  • Gonna be prosperous and successful; the devil’s not gonna steal our victory!

It’s a lot of prosperity gospel poppycock. Nothing actually does change. We psyche ourselves into thinking these changes are happening—in small increments, at least—but we’re no different. Because we’ve made no effort.

But if we wanna grow in Christ, we have to work at it. Grace only means God does all the saving: He arranges things through Christ so we don’t waste our time earning his favor and kingdom. He empowers our efforts so they actually get stuff done, and don’t entirely go to waste. (Provided we’re actually working with God, and not taking his approval for granted.) So if we wanna grow and change, we gotta give God something to multiply. He gave us the talent; quit burying it in a hole as if it’s a seed! Mt 25.14-30

I know popular Christian culture doesn’t think this way. We say, “Jesus, take the wheel!” even though he’s trying to teach us to drive. We preach, “Let God be in control,” and ignore the self- part of self-control. We think we’re practicing faith. Really we’re disguising our laziness as faith.

Okay, so how do we work on our self-control? Resist temptation!

The first step is to recognize we have a problem: We sin. We’re sinners. It’s built in. But if we’re gonna follow God we need to be rid of it. No more keeping a toe in both light and darkness.

Sin looks like a massive, insurmountable problem. But you know how we tackle such problems: Stop looking at the size of it, and start chipping away. Tackle sin one moment at a time:

  • Are you sinning right this moment?
  • If so, stop.
  • If not, good!—keep it up.

It’s not that complicated. Like they say in 12-step meetings, handle it one moment at a time. The hard part is remembering to stay at it.

And the hard part is resisting temptation. We forget that’s why God gave us his armor; we think it’s so we can put the stuff on and play “prayer warrior.” Instead we give in to temptation, and figure (as sinners will) it’s way easier to apologize to God after the fact, and use God’s abundant forgiveness as cheap grace. Instead we need to cry out to God, and fellow Christians, for help. It’s available, but too many of us try to fight sin alone, and we were never meant to.

This is how we grow in self-control: The moment-by-moment, minute-by-minute, day-by-day battle with sin.

If you’re not yet doing this, ditch all those other resolutions. (If we’ve never developed self-control, they’re never gonna come to anything anyway.) Focus on self-control. Only self-control. Your only resolution is to fight sin. Concentrate on this for a year. Tackle new resolutions next year.

And now that you know this…

Ever notice how often people casually admit they have no self-control?

  • “Oh, I don’t bother with new year’s resolutions anymore. I can never keep any of them.”
  • “I can never finish a bible-reading plan.
  • “I never go to my gym. I’ve been paying dues six months, and I’ve never even set foot in there.”
  • “Whenever I find a TV show I like, I just binge-watch all the episodes. I even go without sleep. I have to call in ‘sick’ to work the next day.”

As if this behavior is actually clever of them. Some of ’em even say this with pride.

You realize every time they admit, “I have no self-control,” what they’re also admitting to are all the other bad habits related to an absence of self-control. “I don’t bother to resist temptation. I just sin, and ask forgiveness after. I only look like a good Christian because I don’t sin right in front of you. Get to know me better, and you’ll find out how much of a pagan I really am.”

Yeah it sounds harsh of me. It’s totally true though. A lack of self-control in the small areas, means a lack of self-control in all areas. Including, sometimes especially, the big areas.

So whenever we joke about our lack of willpower, or brag about how we just can’t say no when it comes to chocolate, coffee, money, or sex: This is what we’re really telling everyone. We’re confessing our sins.

Which ain’t necessarily a bad thing. ’Cause people can help! And you can offer to help right now.

  • “Oh, you never go to the gym? Me either. Wanna start going together?”
  • “I can never finish a bible-reading program either. Wanna be study buddies?”
  • “I can never say no to cocaine either. That’s why I’m in Narcotics Anonymous. Come to a meeting with me.”
  • “Tell you what: Next time you start binge-watching a show, call me and I’ll get you to stop when it’s bedtime.”

These reminders let people know they actually can control themselves, if they’re willing to get the help to get ’em started. They just gotta make the effort, ask for help, and accept it. From others, and from the Holy Spirit as well. God helps those who follow him. So start following!