Made any New Year resolutions for 2017? Psychological literature suggests you might as well not bother – only half of all New Year resolutions make it beyond March! It is natural – and right – to resolve to sin no longer, whilst recognising that we are saved by God's grace and not our own efforts. But experience shows that our resolutions to stop sinning (whether made in honour of a new year or not) often come unstuck pretty quickly too. So it is hugely comforting to know that God’s mercy and forgiveness isn’t fickle like our resolve to stop sinning – it is everlasting (Psa 103:11-17).
A recent article in the BMJ (a prestigious medical journal) gives a very quick overview of some fascinating psychological literature around New Year resolutions. An old study (published in 1972) showed that 22% of people failed to keep their New Year resolutions within a week, 40% within a month, 50% within three months, and 81% after two years. Try as we might, we just can’t seem to do what we want to do. This reminded me of Paul’s dialogue with himself in Romans 7 (v15): “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
As frustrating as this inability to stop sinning can be, it is also vitally important to recognise. We need to understand that we simply cannot stop sinning by our own efforts in order to appreciate the full impact of God’s grace. His grace, his free gift to us, is to consider us as righteous, even though we are not. "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (1 Corinthians 15:57).
This gift came at a price: Jesus paid that price in giving his life for the sins of the world. And it asks for a response from us, not "OK, I can carry on sinning then, so that God can provide more grace" (Romans 6:1), but to believe and have faith in him. It's faith that gives us access to grace (Romans 5:2), not our own efforts to reduce our sin. However, faith leads us to want to become more like Jesus in character, and this is what our resolutions should be about.
So how do we do that? The BMJ article gave some useful insight on how to achieve effective self-initiated behaviour change: have a plan! If you want to achieve something, let’s use taking more exercise as an example, the literature suggests that you are more likely to achieve this if you have a specific plan, rather than having a vague sense of wanting to do it. “Every other Monday I will go swimming, and I will play squash with Jimmy once a month on a Friday” is more likely to succeed than saying “I should go swimming more often, and would love to take up squash again”. Obvious? Perhaps. Why not try applying it to your life as a Christian and see if you find it as useful as I did?
When I consider all of this – my own persistent sin-proneness, and the salvation that God offers to me in Jesus – the main emotion that I feel is overwhelming gratitude: Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever (Psalm 118:1).