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Each January, many of us are swept along by convention and guilt to form new resolutions. Popular American choices repeatedly include things like losing weight, saving money, getting fit, managing stress better, and getting a better job or more education. (For a list of popular resolutions, click here to see.)
These are all worthy goals. Implementing them wisely will improve our lives. But they seem like thin gruel for the saints of God. Traditional resolutions do little to nourish the soul.
The Resolutions on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount (See Matthew 5-7), Jesus prepares his new followers to make covenants. As we are poised on the brink of a new year and elevated aspirations, His message seems especially pertinent to us.
Jesus reminded the people of the ancient command against killing. But abstaining of murder does not a disciple make. Jesus pointed us to a higher standard. He said we shouldn’t be angry with each other. In Matthew 5:22, the command is “That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” Yet the words “without a cause” do NOT appear in the earliest and best manuscripts of the New Testament and are widely seen as a later addition. The words also do NOT appear in the Nephite version of the same directive (See 3 Nephi 12:22). So Jesus has asked us to not be angry with each other at all? That’s right. For calling a fellow human a fool we put ourselves in danger of hell’s purgatorial fires.
My running commentary on fellow drivers’ foolishness would not sit well if Jesus were my traveling companion. I need to be more patient in traffic.
But I know there is darker, more malignant stuff sticking to my soul. Am I ever glad when someone I dislike suffers? When the subject of some person’s weakness comes up in conversation, do I gladly add twigs, sticks, maybe even logs to the unholy fire? When I meet someone new, do I size them up based on preset criteria and pigeonhole them as useful, interesting, or merely a scene-sweller in the drama of life? Do I regularly replay offences that should be long forgotten or enlarge small irritations that need to be ignored? Do I justify my snide and ungenerous view of people as fitting for their failings? There are so many subtle ways we withhold love from each other and violate the fundamental commandment while still allowing us to feel virtuous.
When it comes time to make resolutions, confronting subtle unkindness seems like more substantive stuff than counting calories or exercising more. The Apostle Paul argued that “bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things…” (1 Timothy 4:8). No one is against reasonable exercise, but the tenderness of our hearts matters far more than their aerobic efficiency.
What if we focused our new resolves on more whole-souled forgiveness? What would happen if we met each and every person—stranger or friend—as a fresh opportunity, not asking what we might get from them but what God would have us offer instead? This does not require intrusiveness—only openness, willingness, graciousness, and patience.
God would have us cleanse our souls of every judgment, resentment, grudge, or even reservation. He actually wants us to look on each other redemptively—just as He so magnificently and magnanimously does!
Do specific ways to improve your graciousness come to mind? Several do for me. I resolve to be more gracious, charitable, and generous in the coming year.
In Jesus’ great sermon, there is still more invitation to growth. While the ancient law commanded that we not commit adultery. Jesus commanded that we not lust. If the definition of lust is full mental relations with another person, many of us may be innocent. But, if He had a loftier, more stringent definition in mind—if by lust He meant to take any sexual interest in any person to whom we are not married—then who is not condemned?
We live in a time when sexuality is so casual and so ubiquitous that it is natural for all of us to be in sexual sin constantly. We may feel virtuous compared to the seriously immoral around us while still falling far below God’s standard.
Do we take special notice of the beautiful woman in a magazine ad or the “ideal” leading man in a favorite movie? Do we allow ourselves even a momentary flight of fantasy—not sexual but romantic? God’s standard is that our minds and bodies must have no relations with anyone with whom we are not in covenant.
Of course it is not enough to skirt immorality. God invites husbands to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;” (Ephesiasians 5:25). Gulp. I am to love Nancy as purely, consistently, and redemptively as Jesus loves His church? I have a lot of room for growth! The obligations of Christlike wife-hood are similarly lofty.
Each of us who yearns for growth might not only avoid the sins of lust and immorality but build the virtues of devotion, fidelity, and charity. Do you see an opportunity for bringing greater goodness to your family members?
The Sermon on the Mount is the longest recorded message of Jesus in the New Testament. It is packed with invitations to greater growth and goodness. I commend it as a source of worthy resolutions for those who seek to follow the Master.
The Great Fortifier
I wonder if some of the people on that Galilean hillside were discouraged by the seemingly impossible standard Jesus set for them. In His message it was not enough to count steps on the Sabbath, now they must purify minds, hearts, and actions. Some may have sagged under the load.
Yet I feel sure that others in that same crowd were inspired. They left that gathering determined to be disciples in word and deed. What made the difference? I think I know the answer. The discouraged may have focused on their own weaknesses. The encouraged focused on what they felt from Jesus.
That makes all the difference.
Those who looked into Jesus’ eyes forgot their own fallenness and felt the power of His redemptiveness. Even today, if we approach resolutions by inventorying our inadequacies, we are likely to despair. In contrast we can look to Christ—the giver of life and goodness—and be renewed in our resolve. While challenging us to become like Him, He has gladly provided us with every resource we need. He offers His perfect example, His rich teachings, His spirit, His grace, His friendship.
I hope that some of our resolutions for the new year will involve bold efforts towards greater godliness. And that we will take Jesus as our friend, support, and accountability partner.
You can find many of Brother Goddard’s past articles by going to www.DrWally.org
If you are interested in additional ideas for personal well-being, strong marriages, or effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a free resource we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.