It's customary to start a new year out with resolutions. We resolve to eat less, exercise better, pray more, read our Bibles with greater regularity, drink less Diet Coke, and all sorts of other things. The standard joke is that such resolutions stay with us a few weeks, maybe a couple months if we're lucky, and then fall by the wayside. Why is that? It's because most resolutions to change behavior just don't go deeply enough into the motives behind our behavior. Another way of putting it is that resolutions typically address the sin but not the sin beneath the sin. Human beings live from the inside out. Behavior change starts with heart change, and most New Year resolutions simply don't touch the heart.
So here's a thought: Let's start 2012 not with resolution but with repentance.
Repentance is different from resolution. Repentance is not so much a change of behavior as it is a change of direction. Repentance is not so much a decision to "do better" as it is a deep, shocking realization of why we don't want to do better.
C. S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity: "Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor - that is the only way out of a 'hole.' This process of surrender - this movement full speed astern - is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death."
Lewis is saying that it's relatively easy to change behavior, especially for people who are pretty self-disciplined anyway. We can teach ourselves a few new tricks. We can develop new habits if we try hard enough. But the funny thing is, we may develop new habits and find out that we're farther away from God than we were before. God is not really calling us to pray more, as though the mere outward act of prayer is what he's after. He's calling us to be less self-reliant and more dependent on him - and that's potentially very different from simply chalking up more hours in prayer. It's the heart that God is pursuing. He doesn't so much want my time as he wants ME. He doesn't so much want my money as he wants ME. And so on.
I'm not knocking all New Year Resolutions. But I'm saying that far more potent, far more transformational, and far more dangerous, is repentance. Lay down your arms. Identify the ways you avoid God and his people. Ask a trusted friend to tell you what he or she sees in you that is less than godly. Name people in your life for whom you have contempt. Name your idols. Identify ways you hide your true self from others. These are the kind of steps we should take throughout 2012 to practice repentance. It's "a kind of death," as Lewis says. But it leads to life.