At some point over the next couple weeks, you’ll probably be asked about making a New Years Resolutions. Statistics show that about two thirds of people will make some kind of New Years Resolution, and many of us will make similar resolutions. As reported by statista.com, here are some of the the Top Resolutions from 2018*:
- Eat healthier (37%)
- Get more exercise (37%)
- Save (more) money (37%)
- Focus on self-care (ex: get more sleep) (24%)
- Read more (18%)
- Make new friends (15%)
- Learn a new skill (15%)
- Get a (new) job (14%)
- Take up a new hobby (13%)
*The number in parentheses indicates the percentage of people who expressed a desire to pursue that particular resolution. Participants were allowed to select more than one answer. Almost one third, perhaps more realistically, said that they wouldn’t be bothering with any resolutions. Over 1,100 US adults were surveyed. Conducted December 8-11, 2017. Original source: YouGov.
I’m fascinated by the New Years Resolutions people make, and if they follow through or not. I am a self-proclaimed nerd when it comes to goal-setting and habit formation. It drives my wife crazy. Admittedly, I’ve probably set more goals in my life than I have actually accomplished, which is probably not a good thing, but that’s a topic to discuss on another day. Maybe that can be a 2020 resolution.
However, this year, I am asking a new question:
Is there anything spiritual about making New Years Resolutions?
In other words, does God care about the New Years Resolutions that I make, or if I make any at all? What new thing (or things) does God want to see happen in my life this year? What goals does God want me to make for 2019?
All these questions lead to a bigger fundamental question that all Christians have asked (or will ask) at some point during their life: what is God’s will for my life?
I suppose there are a lot of ways you could answer that question. The best possible approach, if you ask me, is to let Scripture do the talking.
There are two places in 1 Thessalonians where Paul tells us explicitly – no games, no riddles, no beating around the bush – what God’s will is for us.
Side note: 1st and 2nd Thessalonians are SUPER interesting books. In Acts 17, Paul goes to Thessalonica to preach, but some Jews in the area get so angry they form an angry mob to go hunt him down. They even arrested the guy who Paul and Silas stayed with while they were visiting town. If that had happened to any of us, we probably would have considered the visit a failure, but Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2 that his visit was “not without results.” My New Years Resolution is to see life the way that Paul saw it. Nothing mattered more to Paul than sharing the Gospel – not even his own life.
Anyways, here we go:
God’s Will, Part One: God wants us to be sanctified
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” – 1 Thessalonians 4:3a*
*(The context of this verse is sexual purity. I believe this is one application of sanctification, but not the only application. Therefore, I feel this verse can be used to speak to a much wider range of issues, as you will see below.)
The simple definition of sanctification is “to be made holy.” But in order to really understand sanctification, and why it’s so important, you have to understand how the process of being sanctified has changed over time.
To best understand sanctification, you have to go all the way back to Leviticus.
Wait, really? Leviticus? Why Leviticus?
Leviticus is an ancient book that’s hard for a modern audience to read. But what’s easy to miss from list after list of ancient laws in Leviticus is the original purpose of the book, and why it mattered so much for God’s people.
Leviticus existed to teach ancient Israel how to be sanctified.
A key part of God’s covenant with Moses involved God setting up camp among the Israelites and living with them in the Tabernacle – kind of like God had lived in the garden with Adam and Eve at the very beginning. But, as you may remember from Genesis 3, once sin enters the picture, it causes separation between God and his people. God is holy, and for human beings to be able to enter into God’s presence and not die, they must become holy as well.
This is where sanctification comes into the picture. Sanctification bridges the gap between God and his people so that a relationship becomes possible. And, at that point in time, the only way to be sanctified was through ritual purification laws. Leviticus provides those instructions for those laws.
So why don’t we follow those same laws anymore?
The simple answer is Jesus. Jesus came onto the scene and redefined what it meant to be sanctified. He did this not only through his death (which functioned as a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin), but also through his life. Jesus set a new standard for holiness that was (and still is) revolutionary.
For example, there are two entire chapters in Leviticus (Chapters 13 and 14, if you’re curious), that talk about what to do if somebody has a defiling skin disease. Here’s the gist: “Stay away from people who have defiling skin diseases so that you don’t become unclean yourself.”
But then, in two of the Gospels, we have a story about Jesus touching a man with leprosy and healing him. Shockingly, instead of diseased person passing his uncleanliness onto Jesus, Jesus passes his holiness onto him! This former lepers walked away clean, not because of something he did to purify himself, but because of an encounter with Jesus.
Jesus’ ability to heal people of physical conditions points to an even greater power he has – the power to forgive sins.
In Mark 2, we come across a story where Jesus is preaching and teaching inside a house that is so full of people, you couldn’t even enter through the front door. A lame man who wants to see Jesus is lowered through the roof by four friends. When Jesus sees this man, he tells him that his sins are forgiven.
The Pharisees are quick to criticize Jesus for what he said (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”). Jesus goes on to tell them that he does, in fact, have power to forgive sins, and he demonstrates this power by instructing this man to get up and walk. Everyone would have thought that the man’s disability was a punishment for sin, either his own sin or his parents’. By healing this man’s physical condition, Jesus demonstrates his power (in the context of his audience’s understanding) to forgive sins and transform not only his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well.
This is good news for us all. We are all spiritually unclean because of past sin. Jesus is able and willing to take away our uncleanliness and make us holy. There’s nothing that we can do to earn this forgiveness – it’s a gift given out of divine love and mercy. Jesus taught us that we don’t become holy by doing the right things. We become holy by the work of Jesus on the cross.
Paul reminds us of this in Ephesians 2:8-10:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
What a beautiful passage that reminds us of the unconditional love and mercy of God. We are saved by grace, through faith, and it is not something that we earned or worked for or deserve, it is simply a gift from God.
Because of Jesus, sanctification is no longer about what WE do. It’s about what Jesus has DONE. And it leads to a new order of things. Sanctification reminds us that God cares more about who we are than what we do.
However, this doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about what we do.
Paul is clear that we aren’t saved BY our good works. But he would argue that we are saved FOR good works. In fact, that’s what he says in Verse 10 – “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.”
God cares more about who we are than what we do. But that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter.
In addition to reconciling us to God through the saving work of Jesus, sanctification also transforms our identity, which equips us to do the work God has called us to do. It is our new identity is what empowers us to do these good works.
When it comes to changing a habit, there are two ways to do it – and spoiler alert, one way is better than the other.
The first way to change a habit is by changing the process. If you want to get in better shape, you might start going to the gym, or you might go on a diet. If you want to save more money, you open up a savings account and make plans to deposit a certain amount each time you get paid. This is one way to change, but it’s not the only way, and I would argue that it’s not even the most effective way.
The more effective method of change is to change your identity. For example, one of my New Years Resolutions is to decrease my screen time (before you give me too much praise or credit, you should know that resolution this wasn’t my choice – it was assigned to me by my wife).
There are two possible ways I can work to decrease my screen time. I might decide to leave my phone at home when I go to meet a friend. I might tell that person that I left my phone at home because “I’m trying to cut back on my screen time.”
This is somewhat effective, but the language that I used still reflects a belief about myself, that I am a person who uses my phone too much. It’s not enough to change our behavior. We need to also change our beliefs.
So what if, instead of saying that I am leaving my phone at home to decrease my screen time, I tell myself that I am leaving my phone at home because I value being present in my interactions and I want the person who I am with to get my full, undivided attention?
Both of these examples feature the same process (I’m leaving my phone at home). But only one situation reflects an identity change. In the first example, I still believe that I am a person who struggles with using my phone too much, and the way I explain my actions reflects that belief. But in the second example, I have changed the way I see myself. I have a different attitude and different values. And because I have chosen to see myself this way, I am far more likely to
Shifting your identity, not adjusting your processes, is the best way to change your behavior.*
*(For more on this idea, see Atomic Habits by James Clear, specifically Chapter Two)
This idea is highly practical, but it has spiritual and theological roots. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul tells us that we are a “new creation in Christ.” He tells us that our old self has gone, and our new identity is here. This identity shift leads us to a new way of life, guided by a pursuit of Christ and not selfish ambition or desire.
Sanctification isn’t earned by our actions, but it should naturally affect our actions. When I tell myself daily that I am a transformed follower of Jesus, it causes me to live differently. It changes the way I think, speak, and act. It affects the way I see others. It fills me with hope and compassion rather than cynicism and selfishness.
All of a sudden, I am not just a sinner who is trying to live a better life. I am a person who has been transformed by the saving work of Christ.
God’s Will, Part Two: God wants us to have joy
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
The Bible never said, “God wants me to be happy.” It’s a popular narrative in our world today, but that doesn’t make it true. This false belief can be used to define lots of things that are not God-honoring, or that don’t make an eternal difference.
Scripture never says that God wants us to be happy. But Paul does tell us that God wants us to find joy – and find it often.
Happiness and joy are related, and similar in some ways, but not identical. As we realize their differences, we can better identify what qualities God wants us to pursue.
Happiness is best represented by a lack of desire. When all of your needs and wants are fulfilled, you feel happy.
The problem here is that human beings constantly struggle with comparison. We see a co-worker with a better job title than us, or a friend with nicer stuff than us – house, cars, possessions, and so on. These feelings of jealousy have the potential to destroy us. This is why God originally warned the Israelites not to covet. Coveting not only dishonors God, but it’s harmful to God’s people.
On the other hand, joy is best represented by a feeling of pleasure. Pleasure can come from a number of things: meaningful relationships, special moments, utilizing talents, awareness of God’s presence, and the list goes on and on. Encountering God can bring us joy. Spending time with family and friends can bring us joy. Doing something significant or meaningful can bring us joy.
Finding joy isn’t about “having it all” – in fact, some of the people I have met in my life who have the most joy also have glaring physical or spiritual needs. Finding joy is about seeing the beauty and goodness in what we DO have.
The secret to finding constant joy is recognizing that perspective matters more than circumstances.
As Chuck Swindoll once said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond.”
That being said, I don’t want to make light of any situation that somebody might be going through. I’m aware of the struggles of many people close to me, and it hurts me to see the burdens placed on people I love. However, I still believe that joy is possible for all of us, because joy is not the result of a lack of struggle. Joy is a result of the awareness of how we have been blessed.
All of us, whether we realize it or not, have been blessed beyond measure.
I’ll give you permission to disagree with me, but first, you must do this exercise. Sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and spend five minutes writing down things you’re grateful for. I’ve done this exercise multiple times with youth groups over the past several years, and it lifts the spirits of each person in the room. It’s hard (I would even say impossible) to be sad while giving thanks.
Cultivating gratitude is the easiest way to discover joy.
That’s why Paul says, in the same breath, that we should rejoice “always” and give thanks “in every circumstances.” If anybody had an excuse to not give thanks, it was Paul. In his lifetime, he encountered frequent opposition and persecution. But at the same time, in nearly every letter he wrote, he mentioned giving thanks to God for a multitude of reasons.
I mean, he even gave thanks when he was under house arrest chained to a prison guard waiting to go to Rome for his almost certain death as a martyr. I want to have that same kind of attitude about life.
Paul was able to maintain this attitude of gratitude because he chose to celebrate not only the blessings in his own life, but in the lives of others as well. Take a look at some of these passages where Paul gives thanks on behalf of others:
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.” – Romans 1:8
“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” – Ephesians 1:15-16
“I thank my God every time I remember you.” – Philippians 1:3
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.” – Colossians 1:3-4
This is a powerful discipline, and one we would do well to adopt. What if we chose to spend time intentionally celebrating the goodness of God in the lives of others, even though we are struggling with jealousy and comparison in our own hearts?
“God, thank you for giving that person a promotion, even though they got the job that I wanted.”
“God, thank you for helping that person find someone they love to spend the rest of their life with, even though I’m still single and would really like to be dating somebody.”
“God, thank you for blessing that couple with children, even though my spouse and I have been trying for years and are still unable to conceive.”
This is HARD to do, and you probably won’t ever feel like saying these things. However, gratitude in the face of jealousy is powerful. It has the ability to turn envy into joy, to replace coveting with giving thanks. In doing so, you point your heart back towards God and you gain a new attitude, one centered on the goodness of God.
To sum this up – want to have more joy? Spend time being thankful. Work on your perspective. Look for God in the little things. And never forget that you are blessed.
So a quick recap:
God’s Will for My Life
- Be sanctified
- Have joy
Now, if I can, let me add one more to the list. This isn’t written verbatim in 1 Thessalonians (or any book for that matter). But I still think this concept is biblical. I believe it represents a truth close to God’s heart.
God’s Will for My Life
- Be sanctified
- Have joy
- Pursue a gift or talent that glorifies God
I love this quote from JD Grear: “Whatever you’re good at, do it for the glory of God. And do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.”
I believe God wants us to pursue things we’re passionate about, things that we’re good at, and things that we enjoy doing. Once we discover these things, God desires to use these gifts to contribute to his mission. That’s Jesus’ vision for his new kingdom – everybody participates, everyone contributes, everyone brings something unique to the table.
That paragraph opens up a few questions for us to answer as we consider what God wants us to do:
- What am I passionate about? What do you wake up in the morning thinking about? What is the first thing you want to do each day (after you get up and make a cup of coffee, of course. Nobody can think clearly before coffee!) In my work with the local church, I love getting to watch passion and ministry intersect. This is usually where people do their best work, because they see it as important and meaningful.
- What am I good at? Everyone has been gifted with a talent or skill of some kind. God’s hope for you is to recognize that talent and use it for your personal fulfillment or joy, as well as a contribution to his mission. If you don’t know what that gift is yet, it’s not because it doesn’t exist, it’s only because you haven’t discovered it yet. And if that’s you, take some time to pray that God would reveal to you what your greatest strengths are.
- What do I enjoy doing? We tend to think of hobbies as things we do in our spare time, and not things that we can use for a greater purpose. But, if you enjoy doing something, why can’t that be a way that you share the Gospel with others? This is a key component of youth ministry – I have bonded with teenagers over shared hobbies more times than I can count. Next time you’re doing something you enjoy – whether it involves sports, music, art, construction, or food, ask yourself how you might be able to use that to show Jesus to somebody else.
- How can I use these things to contribute to God’s mission?
This is not about you being the star of the show – this is God’s desire for the entire community. Paul talks frequently about how the church is the body of Christ. What a cool metaphor to describe God’s desire to use each of us as a part of his mission. God doesn’t call one person to do everything, but he calls each person to do something, and he gives you the skills necessary to participate in his plans.
One more question – why does all this matter?
To answer the question from the very beginning, yes, there can be something spiritual about making New Years Resolutions. God cares more about who we are than what we do, but that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter for anything. Our actions are a reflection of what’s in our heart. You can tell a lot about somebody’s relationship with God based on what they say and do.
So maybe this is the year that you decide to be sanctified.
Or, maybe this is the year that you choose joy.
All of us have been gifted by God to do something specific and something meaningful. Maybe this is the year where you take steps to figure out what that is. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what God wanted you to do, and 2019 needs to be the year when you take that first step.
I hope that following God’s will for your life is an exciting thought for you. If it’s not, maybe that’s because you’ve misunderstood who God is. Too many people view God as moody, demanding, or fickle – quick to give and take away love based on your most recent performance. Unfortunately, this take on God comes from our all-too-common interpretation that the Bible is a book of rules, and God is like a teacher with a clipboard grading us on our performance and effort. Better not make too many mistakes, or God won’t be happy!
Here’s a powerful truth, and if you don’t hear anything else I say, hear this: God wants something FOR you more than God wants something FROM you.
God’s will for your life is not about achieving performance so that you can earn God’s favor. God’s will for your life is meant to help you discover your unique identity, purpose, and skills, so that your relationship with Jesus will grow and so that you will reach your God-given potential. As Jesus says in John 10:10b, his goal in coming was that we would have life, and life to the fullest.
Does this mean that God doesn’t care how we live or behave, as long as we are living life to the fullest? Of course not. In fact, it means just the opposite – God wants us to follow his design for living, because that’s where ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment is found.
God has shared with us about his will for our lives, and this can be the year where we do it.
So it’s time to get really practical with this – you’re going to make three spiritual resolutions:
- Sanctification – How can you shift your identity in order to better understand who God wants you to be in 2019?
- Joy – How are you going to experience God’s joy this year? How can you cultivate gratitude?
- Gift/Talent – Think back to the questions above. What are you passionate about? What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? And how can you use these things to contribute to Jesus’ mission and contribute to God’s kingdom?
I can’t wait to see what God does in my life and in your life in 2019. I think it’s going to be our best year yet.