Many Americans have welcomed 2022 by making New Year’s Resolutions. “A new year resolution,” according to one dictionary, “is a commitment that an individual makes to one or more personal goals, projects, or the reforming of a habit. This lifestyle change is generally interpreted as advantageous, and it’s done to improve [a person’s] wellbeing.”1 According to a recent study by Statista,2 the 10 most popular New Year’s resolutions are as follows (which I’ll list in reverse order):
- #10: Cut down on alcohol (15%)
- #9: Quit smoking (19%)
- #8: Reduce stress on the job (20%)
- #7: Improve job performance (23%)
- #6: Spend less time on social media (24%) [relatively new]
- #5: Live more economically (30%)
- #4: Lose weight (31%) [Top on some lists]
- #3: Spend more time with family/friends (34%) [big since COVID]
- #2: Eat healthier (42%)
- #1: Exercise more (44%)
If you search the Internet for “10 most popular,” you’ll find some variation. But there’s one thing all the lists have in common: they all leave God out of the picture! To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with reducing stress, getting our finances in order, and doing things that promote good health. But Jesus told his followers, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). In other words, Christ is calling us to keep our priorities straight.
The inspired author of Psalm 119 agrees and provides some guidance that’s helpful for making biblical resolutions:
When I think on my ways,
I turn my feet to your testimonies (Psalm 119:59, ESV).
The Hebrew doesn’t begin with the temporal indicator “when.” It simply contains two coordinate lines of thought: “I think on my ways and I turn my feet unto your testimonies.” The ESV adds “when” because the translators correctly see an order and sequence. In other words, first, self-reflection; then, personal reformation. Let’s consider each in turn.
The Hebrew term translated “think” (hashab) conveys two related ideas. First, it means “to consider, to ponder, to contemplate” (Pss. 73:16; 77:6; 144:3). It’s what you do when you read the essay question on your finally exam. You “think about it; you ‘mull over’ it.” Hopefully, that’s what you’re doing as I’m speaking! Your mind is engaged. But the Hebrew term refers to more than merely mental cognition. The term also denotes “assessment” and “evaluation” (Prov 17:28; Isa 53:4). When two of children are involved in a dispute, the parent sits them down at the table or calls them into the bedroom to gather the facts. The parent wants to know the facts for two reasons: (1) he wants to understand what the dispute is all about, and (2) he wants to render an evaluation of the dispute that is just and fair. In the same way, the Psalmist engages his mind in order (1) to understand and (2) to evaluate.
What is the object of the Psalmist’s evaluation? “I think about,” he says, “my ways.” The Hebrew term translated “ways” (derek) can refer to a road or path on which one travels, or it can refer to the actual journey itself. But the Bible often uses this term metaphorically to refer to a man’s actions and behavior (Gen 6:12; Ps 1:6). Thus, in Psalm 119, the Psalmist is thinking about and passing judgment on his actions and behavior. That’s what we’re calling “self-reflection.”
Two words of clarification:
Attitudes and Motives
Though the Bible has our “actions and behavior” primarily in view when it speaks of our “ways,” it also embraces our attitudes and motives. Consider the synonymous parallelism of Isaiah 55:7-8:
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
And to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus argues forcefully that if our behavior is to be pleasing to God it must not be merely outward. “Your righteousness,” says Jesus, “must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20). Going through the motions is not enough. Our righteousness must be heart deep. Therefore, we mustn’t only focus on the outward act. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t cuss, I go to church, I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t committed adultery, I haven’t robed a bank,” and then to conclude, “I’m doing just fine.” That won’t do. Jesus says it’s possible to be a murderer in our heart though we never strike another man. It’s possible to be an adulterer in our heart though we’ve never sleep with another woman. It’s possible to be an idolater inwardly though we attend a Christian church. Thus, the judgment we pass on our “ways” must include our attitudes and motives.
That’s the first qualification.
Actions and Behavior
Though the term “ways” includes our attitudes and motives, the primary emphasis is upon our actions and behavior. I make this point because some people view “self-reflection” merely as a kind of “psychoanalysis.” They see it as an introspective analysis of their own thoughts, feelings, and motives. However, if we follow this approach, we’ll get so hung up on examining our thoughts, feelings, and motives, that we’ll never give much thought to our behavior. But, as we’re going to see, when we examine the second half of the verse, the Psalmist makes it clear that his primary focus is upon his actions and his behavior.
Christians today are often too busy for self-reflection. We’re too busy with our work. We’re too busy with our recreation. We’re too busy with our entertainment. We just don’t have time for “self-reflection.” But the psalmist apparently found the time or better, he made time for self-reflection: “I think about my ways,” he says. And as we transition to a New Year, I want to urge all of us to set aside some time for the purpose of self-reflection. Consider setting aside one or two or perhaps even three hours in the coming week to reflect on your ways.
Here are seven areas or categories for reflection:
First, let’s reflect upon the state of our soul. Are we right with God? Do we have assurance of our salvation? If not, then why not? Do we have a good conscience? If not, then what sin do we need to confess and forsake?
Second, let’s reflect on our use of the private and public means of grace. Have we been regularly reading, studying, and meditating upon the Scripture? Have we been spending a consistent amount of time communing with God in private prayer? How has our attendance been at the stated meetings of the church? Do we make every reasonable effort to join the people of God in corporate worship or prayer?
Third, let’s reflect upon our stewardship over time and money. Have we been making good use of our time? Are we giving more of our time to entertainment and recreation, than to the cultivation of our walk with God? Are we using our money in a way that would honor God? Are we ashamed about any purchases we made last month? What about our giving? Are we bringing the Lord the first fruits of our labor?
Fourth, let’s reflect upon our family relationships. Men, how is our relationship with our wife at this moment? Ladies, how is your relationship with your husband? Have we been trying to provoke one another to “good works” or to “good arguments”? What about our relationship with our children? Have we been trying to win their conscience? Have we been setting a good example in the home? Have we been teaching them biblical truth and praying with them?
Fifth, let’s reflect upon our Christian testimony and personal evangelism. How do we think our neighbors and workmates view us? As a good person? Is that all we want them to think about us? Have we made any efforts to bring them the gospel? Or have we tried to avoid any contact with them?
Sixth, let’s reflect upon the use of our Christian liberty. Is our use of Christian liberty consistent with brotherly love? Are we labeling things ‘Christian liberty’ that might be questionable at best? Are we engaged in an activity that may be harmless for others, but which is hurting us spiritually?
Seventh, let’s reflect upon our love and devotion for the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we spend much time thinking about our Savior? Is He, in the language of 1 Peter 2:4, “precious” to us? Are we still moved by His substitutionary death on our behalf? Are we truly thankful that He is presently living to make intercession for us? Do we look forward to His Second Coming with joy and hop
But self-reflection is only the first part.
“I think about my ways,” he says, “and [I] turn my feet to [God’s] testimonies.” Once again, the psalmist is using metaphorical language. If his attitude and behavior can be likened to a “pathway,” then “the turning of his feet” can be compared to a change of direction in his life. Interestingly, the Hebrew verb translated “turn” (shub) is commonly used to convey the idea of repentance or conversion. The psalmist had given serious thought to the drift and direction of his life. And as he analyzed his attitudes and behavior, he concluded the need for repentance and reformation.
And what was the standard by which the Psalmist assessed and reformed his behavior? “[I] turned my feet to [God’s] testimonies.” He brought his behavior into conformity with God’s Word. It’s not enough to reflect on our ways. It’s not enough to stare at our spiritual belly button. Self-examination is fruitless if it doesn’t issue forth in personal reformation.
And yet here’s where we often drop the ball! We reflect on our ways. We feel convicted about our sins. We make a resolution to change. But that’s where it often ends! A recent survey of Americans who make New Year’s Resolutions (2016) found “only 9% actually achieved their goals.”
Now if only 9% of those who resolve to go on a diet or exercise more or stop smoking or control their debt are successful, what kind of success rate does that portend for those of us who are seeking to bring our life into conformity with God’s word?
- Did we follow through with that Bible reading program we determined to follow last New Year’s Eve?
- Did our prayer life improve in 2021?
- What about family devotions? Did we average at least twice a week?
- Did we make progress in getting our angry temper under control?
- Did we give to missions and kingdom work in 2021 as we promised God we would do?
- Can we look back over the past year and say, “I’ve drawn closer to the Lord?” Or would we have to confess spiritual declension?
Somebody says, “I did lose 20 pounds!” That’s great. But physical fitness without spiritual fitness will profit you little for the life to come. We certainly should be concerned about our eating habits and bodily exercise. But the Christian’s list of resolutions should reflect a list of priorities that may not make the world’s “top 10 resolutions” list.
Consider, for example, a few of the resolutions Jonathan Edwards. As a 19-year-old new believer, he composed 21 resolutions. Over the years, he added to the list until he reached a total of 70.3 Here are a few samples from his early resolutions:
- #1 – Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’ s glory, 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….
- #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.
- #5 – Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
- #7 – Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
- #8 – Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.
- #20 – Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
Obviously, Edward’s priorities do not jive with the priorities of most Americans.Fitness and diet are on his list, but he’s primarily resolved to glorify and enjoy God! What’s more convicting is the fact that Edwards’ own life and spiritual accomplishments demonstrate that he followed through with most of his resolutions though not perfectly.
Indeed, isn’t that the testimony of the psalmist? He doesn’t just write, “I think about my ways, and make New Year’s resolutions.” Nor does he say, “I think about my ways and make an earnest though failed attempts to change.” Rather, the verse reads, “I think about my ways, and turn my feet to your testimonies.” To some degree, Edwards and the Psalmist followed through with their resolutions.
If they could do it, it’s doable. It’s going to take effort. It’s not going to be easy. But if we’re genuine believers, none of us should read Psalm 119:59, and conclude, “Unrealistic and unattainable.” No, it is realistic and attainable. Otherwise, God would not have placed it in the Bible for our instruction!
Some Practical Suggestions
What are some practical steps we can take toward making biblical and fruitful resolutions?
Plan to set aside 1 to 3 hours to take inventory of your life and to discern prayerfully areas where you need biblical reformation. We can’t “think about our ways” if we don’t set aside some time for some undistracted self-reflection. I’d like to challenge each of you—young and old, male and female, believer and non-believer—to set aside a few ours tonight, tomorrow, in the coming week or month for the express purpose of reflecting on your “ways.”
- Get out a piece of paper or a journal, ask yourself the kind of questions I suggested earlier, and write down a self-evaluation.
- Identify those areas in your life that need change.
- Then develop a biblical plan and a realistic strategy for bringing about that reformation.
Review, Renew, Repeat
Use the New Year as the occasion but not the limitation for making biblical resolutions. The New Year should never be treated as the one-and-only time for making or reviewing our resolutions. I would encourage you to plan some periodic reviews. Daily, weekly, at the very least monthly reread your resolutions, evaluate your progress, and pray that God will enable you to keep pressing forward.
Ask a family member or brother in Christ to serve as your accountability partner. We’ll be more successful in overcoming obstacles if we enlist the help of others. As Solomon reminds us, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl 4:12, NIV). Our personal experience confirms this biblical principle. We’re usually much more successful with our resolutions when we have the accountability and encouragement of others.
By the way, this is one of the reasons why God has placed us in a spiritual family called the church. He never intended us to live the Christian life alone. So, we read in Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So ask your Christian spouse or parent or brother or sister in Christ to be your accountability partner. Share with him or with her the areas where you need to change and grow. Meet with him regularly to share your progress and to ask for prayer and counsel if necessary.
Read books and listen to sermons that address the subject of spiritual discipline and biblical sanctification. Get some good books or download some helpful sermons that address those areas of deficiency. Let me recommend a few books:
- Donald Whitney, The Disciplines of the Christian Life (NavPress).
- Kent Hughes, The Disciplines of a Godly Man (Crossway Books).
- Barbara Hughes, The Disciplines of a Godly Woman (Crossway Books).
- Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies for Satan’s Devices (Banner of Truth).
- John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway).
- John Piper, How to Fight for Joy (Crossway).
- D. A. Carson, Praying with Paul (Baker).
Remember that Christ has given to the church the gift of “pastor-teachers” so we might be “equipped for every good work” (Eph. 4:11-12).
Don’t Give Up!
We mustn’t let past failures to keep us from future success. Many of us have made New Year’s resolutions in the past but failed to follow through and eventually forgot. In light of our failures, we may be tempted to simply give up on making resolutions. But I don’t believe that would be a biblical response.
First, the Bible commends the making of vows or resolutions. In Psalm 50:14, Asaph turns to his fellow Israelites and declares, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High” (ESV). In Psalm 17:11, he says, “Make your vows to the Lord your God and perform them” (ESV).4 Second, the Bible promises us complete forgiveness when we confess our failures to God. The apostle John assures us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV). Such pardon includes failed resolutions. Third, the Scripture encourages perseverance. We must not give up. As Paul reminded the Galatians, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
Let us resolve anew that in 2022 we’re going to evaluate where we’ve strayed from the path of God’s word, and, God helping us, we’re going strive to bring those areas of our life into greater conformity to his word!
What if you’re not a believer? What should you do? Here’s what I think the Psalmist would say: “Think on your ways and turn your feet in the direction of God’s word!” Consider the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible teaches that there’s “none good—no not one” (Rom 3:10). Jesus said to the crowds, “I did not come to call the righteous, but I came to call sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
You see, Christianity is not for “good people.” Christianity is for bad people like the Psalmist who come to the realization that their ways are sinful and that their only hope is to put their faith in Jesus. That’s what the gospel is all about! The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of his all” (53:6). Or in the words of the apostle John:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, ESV).
Dear reader, turn your feet unto that path—for that is the path that leads unto eternal life and everlasting joy!
4 Additional texts: Gen. 28:20; Lev. 23:38; Num. 29:39; Pss. 22:25; 61:8; 66:13; 116:14, 18; Nah. 1:15.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.