The Key to Change: Resolution or Repentance

new-year-resolutions-2016

Many people are fond of making resolutions as the new-year begins. But how effective are such resolutions? One study found that typically 95% of such resolutions fail. While there is nothing wrong in the absolute sense with a resolution, it may be worth contrasting the idea of human resolve and divine repentance as agents for human change.

To illustrate the difficulty of human resolve one need look no further than Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a literary giant of the 18th Century who left behind a definitive dictionary of the English language. Even so, he struggled with the simple discipline of getting up on time each morning.

His journals record his struggles and his resolutions to rise at a decent hour, shaking off sloth. One of his first entries occurred in 1738. Twenty-three years later, still sleeping late, he writes in 1761 “I have resolved until I have resolved that I am afraid to resolve again.”

But in1764, he does resolve again to rise “not later than 6 if I can.” In a sense, giving up on that optimism during 1765 he sets a more modest goal. “I purpose to rise at 8 because though I shall not rise early it will be much earlier than I now rise for I often lie until 2.”

Still sleeping late in 1775, after thirty-seven years of resolutions, he writes: “When I look back upon resolution of improvement and amendments which have, year after year, been made and broken, why do I yet try to resolve again?” But he does again resolve to rise at 8:00 AM, still unsuccessfully.

While there is nothing wrong with human resolve, what we see in the life of Johnson we may have experienced ourselves: human will cannot always or easily overcome human will. What we need is help from outside of ourselves. This is where repentance comes in. When we resolve, generally speaking, we rely on our own strength. When we repent, we confess that we are devoid of the needed strength and turn to another to supply what we need.

This spiritual dynamic is clear throughout the Bible: when we attempt to fix ourselves on our own, we are left to our own limited and failing devises. When we humble ourselves before God, confessing our inadequacy and our need for his forgiveness and healing power, God reaches down to change us.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Pet. 5:5-6)

To the extent in our resolutions that we are saying to God: “I have got this, I really mean to change myself by myself this time.” God is very willing to oppose us, allowing us to understand the limits of our abilities. When we humble ourselves before him he is gracious to extend us his transforming grace. As Calvin writes in his commentary on this passage:

We are to imagine that God has two hands; the one, which like a hammer beats down and breaks in pieces those who raise up themselves; and the other, which raises up the humble who willingly let down themselves, and is like a firm prop to sustain them.

It is repentance, then, that invites the help of God, and willful resolution which invites his discipline.

Of course, to be fair, repentance consists not only of the recognition and hatred of our sin and a clear sense of God’s mercy in Christ, but also includes the “full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” So our resolution is part of repentance, but only a grace-enabled resolve which relies on the Lord himself.

Yet, the biblical point remains clear, resolutions of the human will, to fix oneself by one’s own power, are in a sense doomed, because God opposes the proud human will which believes in self-help. Repentance, however, invites the help of God.

Here is a thought. Rather than making a list of resolutions this year make a list of repentances. See if this will not move you from the Samuel Johnson dilemma to experience what the Psalmist said: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7 ESV) What a nice change that would be!

 

Author: Rev. Dr. Tom Hawkes

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