How many New Year’s resolutions did you make this year? Hmm, okay. Now, how many have you already broken? Yeah, thought so. Me too.
I’ve been pondering the fact that despite our best intentions, most of us are unable to keep our most sincere resolutions for more than a few days. We make our personal lists of dos and don’ts—do exercise, do be more generous, do read our Bible every day. Don’t lose our temper, don’t eat so many desserts, don’t buy things on impulse.
All our goals are laudable. Some are easier than others. We might even manage to achieve a few. After enough practice, they become habits, and we find we’ve made progress. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves—hey, look at me, I eat two servings of vegetables every day!—until we compare how far we’ve come with how far we have to go. No matter how many resolutions we make and keep, the distance to perfection never seems to change. It’s always out of reach.
God gave us His list of New Year’s resolutions in Exodus 20. (In case we miss it there, He repeats the list in Deuteronomy 5.) We call them the Ten Commandments. And for thousands of years, many of the Jews thought they were doing pretty good at keeping them. In fact, just to be extra careful, the Pharisees came up with thousands of additional rules in an effort to clarify the ones God had already given.
These days, our culture isn’t so concerned with most of the commandments. Murder may still be a no-no, but the United States has the highest murder rate of any developed nation. No one even blinks when the Lord’s name is taken in vain. We shall not steal, yet 2.5% of households experience a burglary yearly. The concept of a Sabbath rest vanished years ago. Most Americans don’t worship graven images, but how many of us would rather watch the latest TV show than spend time with God? Idols come in many guises. If most people even think about the Ten Commandments, they probably consider them the Ten Suggestions.
If you ask self-professed Christians about how they’re doing at keeping God’s resolutions, in general they’d tell you they’re managing pretty well. And many of us are, at least on the outside. Then along comes Jesus, who ups the ante by explaining a bit more what God had in mind. It’s not good enough to keep from murdering anyone. We can’t even call them an idiot! It’s not good enough to abstain from adultery. We shouldn’t even look at some hot movie star and imagine it. It’s not just what we do or don’t do. Our thoughts matter too. Anyone who thought they were successful at following the rules is suddenly brought up short. And the realization dawns—it’s impossible.
So here we are, stuck in a quandary. If God knows that we can’t possibly measure up to His standards, why did He give us the commandments in the first place? It’s like we’re suckers, set up to fail. This doesn’t match my concept of a God full of grace and mercy.
So here’s the catch. The commandments aren’t there to stop us from sinning. Sure, they help keep things in check (Gal. 3:19). The world would be a much worse place if no one even tried to keep from stealing or murdering. Even though I don’t keep perfectly to my diet, every cookie not eaten helps keep me from turning into a dirigible. It’s not that the law is bad. It’s that we are.
The Law exists to show us that we can’t be perfect. No amount of resolve is going to keep us from messing up. If we hadn’t known God’s standards, we might have thought we could be good enough for Him. But when we try to get it right—and fail—we realize that we can’t do it on our own. God gave us the Ten Commandments to convince us that we need a Savior. (Gal: 3:24)
It’s so appropriate that the new year, complete with resolutions, comes right after Christmas. What we are unable to accomplish in our own strength becomes possible through “Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) And not only does God promise to transform us into His likeness—in the meantime He accepts us as we are.
This year, instead of making resolutions, I’m asking God to make me more like Jesus. (This may be the bravest prayer I’ve ever prayed!) While the process might be painful, the results are worth it. God promises us that He will give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7:11). That’s a resolution I know He will keep.