Magazines 2023 Jan - Feb Three gentle spiritual resolutions for a new year

Three gentle spiritual resolutions for a new year

01 January 2023 By Darryl Dash

Growth that allows rest, not just hustle

Istared at the checkout screen of the online shop. I was ordering a goal-setting course and debating whether to upgrade to the couples edition. It would be helpful if my wife and I hit January with common goals, I thought. I clicked the upgrade button, excited to tell her about my decision on behalf of both of us.

Char reacted with grace. She should have reminded me, again, to include her in decisions that affect her. Instead, she worked through the course with me.

"This exhausts me," she told me after completing a module. "I’m happy this works for you, but I don’t find it helpful."

Some of us, like me, love resolutions. Others hit the new year wary of people who get a little too excited about them.

Our tendencies

I have a better understanding of different attitudes to resolutions after reading The Four Tendencies (Harmony, 2017), a book by Gretchen Rubin that proposes four helpful categories of people:

  • Upholders, who respond well to both internal and external expectations.
  • Questioners, who question all expectations – they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified.
  • Obligers, who respond readily to outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations.
  • Rebels, who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

As you might guess, Char is an obliger, which explains her willingness to participate in a goal-setting program she didn’t want. I’m an upholder, which makes me more likely to love goal-setting programs.

I have a theory that most books on goals and spiritual disciplines are written by upholders like me. We think everyone’s like us and get excited prescribing what works for us. We can’t understand when others don’t approach things the same way that we do.

But even upholders like me sometimes feel exhausted from our unending plans for improvement. I used to think upholders have a lot to teach others. I now realize how much others have to teach me about learning to say no.

I recently thought about that goal-setting program and cringed. I agree with my wife now. It’s exhausting. I want to grow, but I’m weary of the endless pursuit of more, the sense that no matter what I do, it’s not enough.

I want a kind of growth that allows rest, not just hustle.

Resolution to abide

In a season of suffering, I learned to sit with my wife in the morning. Morning is my most productive time, and it took work for me to learn to stop and simply be present as we sipped coffee together.

After a while I started to get restless. "Your foot is shaking," Char would say. I didn’t know I was growing restless, but my body betrayed me.

Since then I’ve learned to sit longer. Our morning ritual has become the best part of my day. I’ve learned to get my identity not just from what I do, but from simply being present and receiving.

I want this in my relationship with God too.

In Scripture God acts first; we respond. Before we do, we receive. This is God’s gift of Sabbath. It’s also the gospel – we receive God’s gift of grace and then, in response, serve Him. Before we do anything, we first turn to God for what only He can give.

I once asked students to interview their mentors, asking what helped them grow in their relationship with God. Answers varied, but many agreed – they’d become less focused on doing things for God and more on being with God.

But abiding isn’t about what we do – it’s about staying connected to Jesus.

I often struggle to understand Jesus’ teaching on abiding in John 15. I want a list of actions to take. But abiding isn’t about what we do – it’s about staying connected to Jesus, who’s the source of everything we need.

Slowly, I’m learning to hustle less and enjoy God more. Perhaps that’s what George Müller, the Christian evangelist and orphanage director, meant when he said, "My first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord." Müller was no slouch, but he knew where to start – with receiving from God rather than doing for God.

Gentle habits

I’m learning the value of three gentle habits – call them resolutions if you will. They not only help me grow, but they give me permission to prioritize my focus. I don’t have to do everything. If all I can do is these three, that’s enough.

First, I spend time in the Bible every day. "There is no more important task in life than hearing from God and trusting Him on the basis of His Word," writes George Guthrie in his book A Short Guide to Reading the Bible Better (B&H Publishing, 2022). "I mean that quite literally: no more important task. Everything else in our lives is shaped by whether or not we are living out of a life grounded in the Word of God, the Bible."

I don’t need to get prayer right. I simply need to do it.

I vary my approach. Sometimes I read quickly. I once read the entire Bible, cover to cover, in 40 days. Right now, I’m reading slowly, taking as long as I need to work through the Bible book by book. Mostly I follow a one-year Bible-reading plan.

My goal isn’t just to read the words of Scripture, but to delight in them, as David describes in Psalm 1. I try not to treat it like a task as much as time listening to God. As much as possible I want to spend time in the Bible every day, and when I miss, to just start where I left off.

Second, I talk to God about life. "Every thing we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer," writes the British preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans, 1984). I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle with prayer.

Jared Wilson’s advice in The Imperfect Disciple (Baker, 2017) helps me. "Look, prayer is spilling your guts. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be tidy. It doesn’t have to be particularly eloquent or even particularly intelligent. But the Bible is how God speaks to us and prayer is how we speak to God."

Wilson’s advice takes the pressure off. I don’t need to get prayer right. I simply need to do it, bringing my life to God and living in an ongoing conversation with Him.

Third, I try to do this with others. Church can be hard, even for pastors. It’s not easy to put up with the idiosyncrasies of others or to expose others to my own. But I’ve learned how much I need others. Most Sundays I come to church feeling a little spiritually lethargic. Rarely do I walk away without something – a song, a Scripture, a conversation – having reawakened my heart to the wonder of faith.

I’m especially drawn to those who’ve suffered, who are just ahead of me, who no longer walk with swagger, but instead walk with grace. "I remember when I used to have all the answers," one of my friends says. "That was a long time ago. Now I have Jesus and that’s enough." I need friends like this, ones who’ve been bruised, but keep following.

I need friends like this … who’ve been bruised, but keep following.

I’m not taking any goal-setting courses this year. But I am learning to abide, practising simple, gentle habits. To keep it simple I focus on three. I do these imperfectly. But I also believe, as I do, that God will be there meeting me, shaping me and loving me. And I can’t think of many things better than that.

Darryl Dash (DashHouse.com) is the author of 8 Habits for Growth (Moody, 2021) and How to Grow (Moody, 2018). He serves as pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto.

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