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New Year’s resolutions require the lost art of self-reflection

If you’re anything like me, you say you don’t believe in making New Years Resolutions, but in the back of your mind, you’ve got a list of things you’ve resolved to do differently in 2017.

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The lure of ‘starting from scratch’, to ‘turn over a new leaf’, to have a blank canvass that is the next 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,750 hours is too strong.

Some of the most popular Christian New Year’s resolutions revolve around Bible reading and personal time with God. There are so many guides to reading the Bible in a year, or 365 daily reflections from the Bible-style tomes it seems only natural to start one on 1 Jan. In fact, when my husband and I had just that idea a few years back, we were thrown almost immediately off-course when the book we chose – John Stott’s ‘Through the Bible, through the year’ – didn’t start in January, but in September.

One of the greatest Christian ‘resolution’-ists is Jonathon Edwards who, as he prepared for ministry in 1722, developed a series of 70 resolutions to “regulate his own heart and life” (from: The Works of Jonathon Edwards, Vol 1). Here is his introduction to his resolutions, and the first four of them:

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.

“Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week:

  1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.
  2. Resolved, To be continually endeavouring to find out some new contrivance and invention to promote the forementioned things.
  3. Resolved, If ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.
  4. Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to be the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.”

The concept of making resolutions, using the Edwards model at least, is something lost to many people today in a noisy world.

There is an intense self-reflection that permeates Edwards’ resolutions that would require stillness and meditation on God’s Word and God’s will in his life– not only to write them down but to keep them, as he demands of himself, on a weekly basis.

Justine Toh and Simon Smart at the Centre For Public Christianity recently reflected on the value of stillness and silence, asking whether the increasing noise in our world signals an end of self-reflection. Toh says that the always-connected world can be “psychologically deafening”, with no time or space to sit quietly and think about your life and relationship with God.*

The Psalmist says “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), so is silence and reflection on God what we need the most in 2017?

Billy Graham has answered many a New Year’s resolution question in his time. On his website, he says that while the Bible doesn’t mention making resolutions at the beginning of a new year, it does urge us to examine our lives regularly, and to seek God’s help to become better persons. He quotes Lamentations 3:40: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.”

Such examination and reflection, says Toh, is what many of us have lost. She quotes British philosopher Peter Vardy: in this day and age, surrounding yourself with gadgets, television and social media can be an excuse not to reflect. Taking time out, says Vardy, perhaps in the bush away from the world, means “the whole order of what really matters begins to be re-appraised. And I think there are a lot of young people growing up who’ve never experienced that.”

This time last year, a friend of mine challenged me to read a short book that she warned “packed a punch”. It was called Shopping for Time: How to do it all and not be overwhelmed. Written by US Christian writer Carolyn Mahoney and her daughters, it outlines five tips to make the best use of your time for God. And it’s a book that I’ve come back to as 2012 wraps up and I seek to re-examine the time I’ve spent, and whether it’s been spent wisely.

The most relevant tip, as we start to hear the crack of fireworks, is to take a ‘personal retreat’, to sit and plan. To reflect and identify priorities for 2017: how can I better serve God at work? At church? At home?

“Guided by God’s Word, we can acquire clear direction and purpose for the season in front of us… It’s precisely because the needs are so great and life so short, because the seasons keep rolling in without pause, that we need to take time to sit and plan,” writes Mahoney.

She points to the example of Jesus, who withdrew to isolated places during his ministry on earth, to “prayerfully discern his Father’s will” (see Luke 5:15-16).

Back at the Centre for Public Christianity, Toh suggests the majority of us may not be able to head off to a mountain retreat or take days at a time for personal reflection. But there are plenty of opportunities we can grab to sit in silence even if only for half an hour, to reflect and listen to God.

To make a resolution, you must stop and reflect. Be honest about something that needs to change. My resolution is to do just that. To stop and reflect. To examine my ways, to test them, as it says in Lamentations, and to return to the Lord. To listen.

What’s yours?

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