Introduction

We’re all familiar with the concept of making New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they’re taken seriously, but most people view resolutions as well-intentioned desires that will probably never be fulfilled for any significant amount of time. Even those who do take their resolutions seriously often become much less serious about this activity after they fail numerous times to achieve their goal.

I do think there is a theological reason behind this desire we have to start fresh. As the Scriptures teach, God’s fingerprint, as it were, is on all His creatures. That influence includes a conscience and an innate desire to “do better,” we might say. Because of sin, this God-given tendency to make improvement has been corrupted and it usually manifests itself in some misguided attempt.

Common resolutions seem to fall into one of two categories. The first category is that which relates to us on a personal level and the second is that which relates to us in terms of our relationships with others. Therefore, people will make a resolution as the New Year begins to take better care of themselves or break some detrimental habit. In the second instance, people will vow to give more attention to their essential responsibilities or to aspects of their lives that are creating problems for someone else.

Whatever the resolution might be, they all have one fatal flaw, and that fatal flaw is the fact that such resolutions originate in and depend upon human effort. If what we have determined to do will require real determination or a significant change of lifestyle, then we will quickly discover how difficult it will be to keep a resolution. Our fallen natures vigorously oppose any attempt to achieve true good.

My aim is to provide some Biblical guidance for the coming new year. As I do, I want to say that there is a Christian version of a resolution that, when enacted correctly, can be of great benefit to us. In Scripture, the most successful plans for the future—whether we are speaking of that individual, family, or even an entire nation—begin with the careful consideration of the past. It may be a previous experience or, in some cases, a command given by the Lord at some point in the past. The Word teaches us that part of the process of maturity for a Christian involves a measured concentration on things that have already been said or have already occurred.

As I read and thought about some of the stories in the Old Testament, I concluded that there are three primary categories in which this pattern of future planning based on the past may be observed. The first category that I would like to identify is what I will call monumental events. The Bible puts a lot of emphasis on those epic incidents in the history of God’s people. The emphasis is for the purpose of instruction long after the event itself has occurred.

Monumental Events

Without question, the most significant event in the history of the people of Israel was the Exodus from captivity in Egypt. After approximately 400 years, God spoke to Moses and informed him that He was about to deliver the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This would be in fulfillment of promises made to those patriarchs.

This led to the unprecedented display of the power of God as He tormented the Egyptians with one plague after another until they finally agreed to let the people go. The devastation and death in the land of Egypt was massive; and when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites, God once again intervened and they all perished in a remarkable manner.

Once they were beyond the reach of Egyptians, the people were given direction toward a particular land where God would settle them. We know the story, of course, and the sinful response of the people resulted in a 40 year long wandering in the desert until the generation that came out of Egypt was dead.

On a number of occasions during that lengthy period, the people were encouraged to obey by remembering their deliverance from captivity. Because the rescue from Egypt gave undeniable evidence of God’s regard for this people and how He was able and willing to use His power as He pleased, that event became a touchstone for every generation that lived thereafter. From the mouth of Moses and the prophets, the Israelites were constantly reminded of what God did in Egypt and the purpose of such frequent reminders was to instill courage and trust in the hearts of the people, especially when they were facing some new challenge or a superior foe.

Just after the Exodus, Moses made this declaration to the people: “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place.” (Ex. 13:3) When these people faced difficult circumstances in the future, when it seemed that they were going to perish, or when they were commanded to do something that they did not believe they could accomplish, they were to think back to this day on which the power of God was unleashed so that they, His chosen people, might go free. And by remembering this unique display, they would be encouraged and their faith in God would be strengthened.

Beginning in the book of Exodus and concluding in the book of Haggai, there are several dozen references to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt. For example, in Amos 4 we read:

9 “I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and the caterpillar was devouring Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. 10 “I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses, And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

When the people heard of Egypt, they were to recall the awesome power demonstrated by God for their benefit. In this passage, He reminds them that in their recent history they had been subjected to various means of chastisement similar to what they know happened long ago. Ideally, the people would hear this reference and repent and realize that the power of God had been used for their deliverance and protection, and it could just as easily be used for their destruction if they continued in sin.

I’ve mentioned before that I was converted in October of 1975. Without going into all the details, let me say that I knew instantly that I had been born-again and nothing would ever be the same. That episode is my deliverance from Egypt. On countless occasions over years, I have recalled that experience in order to reorient my understanding of who I was and what God wanted from me. Many things have happened to me since that day, but nothing has approached the magnitude of that occurrence.

Not everyone, of course, has the kind of conversion experience I just described because they grow up in a Christian household and are taught to trust the Lord from the very beginning days of their lives. But I believe that as we walk with God during our lifetimes, we will have defining moments during which God tenderly instructs us, patiently comforts us, or mercifully delivers us in some manner.

You might remember a time of intense prayer that was unlike any other time in your life. You might remember a day when you sensed the loving ministry of the Holy Spirit while you were passing through some painful trial. And you have not forgotten that episode, whatever it was. Those experiences define us as believers and bring clarity to our perspective on how we should be living.

If you have had an experience like this or something similar, then I want to ask you how it has affected you since then. Again, it need not be something dramatic or life-altering. It may be that you observed some evidence of God’s activity in the life of a loved one or friend and it was profound enough that the memory remains with you. If there have been those times, have you allowed that defining moment, whatever it was, to remind you of the responsibility to live rightly before the Lord?

And today, as we are about to enter a new year, does that event (or perhaps several events that come to mind) have any bearing on what you hope to accomplish or on how you plan to conduct yourself in the next 12 months? By reflecting on these kinds of occurrences in our lives, we are made wiser—wiser about sin and about the deceitfulness of the flesh and about our own pride and certainly about how we are to use the time God has appointed for us.

If you make a New Year’s resolution this coming week, let it be grounded in those monumental events in your past. And, by the way, the events from which you should draw guidance may include destructive mistakes on your part or times when you fell into sin. Having been forgiven by God for some transgression and having been restored by His mercy; qualify as those monumental events that should forever affect the way you live on this earth.

Admirable Examples

The Bible is full of all kinds of examples, both good and bad. These examples make up the second category that I want to talk about. In this case, the example set by a single character, which brought God’s blessing on the nation, was ignored by those who came after him. I am referring to Gideon.

As much as any other man mentioned in Scripture, Gideon is an example of an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances according to what God determined should occur. Gideon demonstrated doubt, poor judgment, and fear at times, but an uncommon bravery and solid trust at others. We can learn from Gideon’s failures and his accomplishments. All in all, under Gideon’s leadership, the nation of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace.

As Gideon’s life came to a close, we read this report:

Judges 8:33 Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. 34 Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; 35 nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel.

Obviously Gideon led the nation in such a way that there was general faithfulness before the Lord. But as this text says, once the restraint against disobedience was removed, which existed in the person of Gideon, the people quickly returned to idolatry and promptly forgot all the lessons that had been learned, or could have been learned, from the life of Gideon.

Gideon’s experience was not too complicated to understand. It was a matter of seeing God’s blessing upon that man when he was faithful and God’s hand of chastisement upon him when he was not. It was the simplest truth displayed throughout those 40 years and no one who seriously desired to walk rightly before God would have had any trouble learning valuable lessons from the life of Gideon.

But note the text once again: As soon as Gideon was dead, the people returned to idolatry, and “the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.” The word translated “remember” is the Hebrew term “zakar,” which means “to remember, to call to mind, to record.” When you examine the multitude of occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, it becomes apparent that in the Hebrew mind, “to remember” was an activity that involved more than simply producing a brief recollection of some event. To remember meant to recall something to mind, yes, but that recollection was for the purpose of instruction. Therefore, when the Jews were told to remember something, the meaning was that they were to take instruction in the present based upon a past experience.

Our text says that those living after the death of Gideon “did not remember the LORD their God.” This doesn’t mean that the people forgot there was a God. The writer means that the people ignored all that God had demonstrated toward them and for them in the past. He states that God had delivered the people from all their enemies repeatedly. That happened under the leadership of Gideon and should have been a powerful influence for good in the lives of Israelites even after Gideon was no longer on the scene.

After Gideon’s departure, men competed for the leadership of the nation. In one case, 70 men from the same family were murdered on the same day to provide for the advancement of one man to the throne. The peace of the past 40 years was replaced with political and moral chaos; murder, deceit, and disorder became the norm. All of this could have been prevented if the men of Israel had determined to follow the example of Gideon.

Becoming acquainted with genuinely godly people, that is, those whose lives are examples of faithfulness to God in every area, is not a common occurrence. Personally, I have met plenty of Christians worthy of respect, but few who could serve as a model for my entire life. Nevertheless, the lessons to be taken from those few examples are quite numerous and have served as guidelines, goals, and corrections throughout my life.

Unlike Israel, we do not want to miss such a valuable resource that God has placed in our lives. Therefore, I will ask: Have you been blessed to encounter someone whose example is worthy of imitation? Is there anyone in your life, past or present, whose walk with the Lord exemplifies what you desire for yourself? One characteristic that most of our examples will have in common will be the manner in which they react to difficult circumstances. It is during such times, that the example of others can provide us with the motivation and guidance that we need.

Think of the person or persons in your experience who fit this model and then ask yourself these questions: Am I sincerely striving to imitate that godly person? Am I able and willing to let those examples change my thinking and action? Does a life that is pleasing to God truly matter more to me then opportunities to express myself and go my own way? How do you plan to implement examples of godliness in your life the next 12 months? Where does your life need correction, the correction of a consistent and mature standard seen in the lives of those you admire most? Do you want to improve the manner in which you respond to a trial? What about love for the brethren in this congregation? Is that an area in need of reformation and, if so, has God put anyone in your life whose pattern may help you?

Let me emphasize that the most critical aspect of what I’m describing is not finding a godly person to imitate; the most critical aspect comes after identifying such a person. That is when you must determine whether you are willing to copy that person’s standard. Depending on the adjustment that needs to be made, you may have a significant struggle against your flesh. But if that change is necessary and if that change is what God commands and if that change is for your good and the good of others, then you simply must dedicate yourself to achieving that goal. And as we begin a new year, you have the perfect time to make this decision and formulate a plan by which it will be implemented.

Divine Character

We come now to the third and final resource upon which the people of God have depended when preparing for the future. This is the resource of God’s character. Since God’s character does not change, which means He is consistent in what He requires and how He responds to us, the better we know that character the better prepared we will be to analyze those areas in need of attention in our lives during this coming new year.

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God’s character is recalled and applied in a troubling situation. David does this frequently. In the Psalms, he often describes the threat of some enemy or some circumstance, but then reveals how he was delivered from fear and made bold when he meditated on some aspect of God’s character—it may have been God’s strength or God’s faithfulness or God’s mercy, but God’s character is that resource that completely changes David’s perspective and expectations.

It is not just in the Psalms, however, that we find such passages. Consider this statement found in Nehemiah 4:

“Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” (v. 14)

The context of this exhortation is an alliance of Israel’s enemies who have conspired together to fight against Jerusalem and interrupt the process of rebuilding, which is under the authority of Nehemiah. It was imperative that the work of rebuilding continue, so Nehemiah was not willing to stop in order to deal with this threat exclusively. Instead, he took steps to guard against the coming assault while, at the same time, continuing the work of reconstructing the city wall. Many of the people, however, became fearful because of the size of the army poised to enter the city. Nehemiah realized that he had to do something to stabilize his people so that they would not abandon their work.

Consider what Nehemiah had to offer. He could not assure the people that he had a well-trained army himself ready to defend the city. He could not refer to negotiations that he believed would preserve peace. Nehemiah could not attempt to convince the people that this coming enemy would be merciful. What, therefore, did Nehemiah have at his disposal that would eliminate fear, encourage bravery, and motivate a relatively small number of men to continue the very work their enemy insisted they stop? He needed something that was absolutely trustworthy, something that had been seen in the past, and something he knew would be just as dependable now. The only thing that meets those criteria is the character of God.

Therefore, Nehemiah exhorts the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who was great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Remember the Lord! That is Nehemiah’s solution to the threat posed by the alliance of his enemies. We have no chance on our own. We cannot make a successful stand. On our own, the city will be taken in the work of rebuilding will cease and we will surely die.

Israel did not have to give up or stop building. What the men did have to do, however, was exercise faith. They had to trust God. They had to look back at previous examples where God came to the aid of His people, even in the most dreadful circumstances, and delivered them. Then they had to realize that God’s character does not change and they are still His people and He will, therefore, fight for them now.

Notice what was at stake: family and houses, which are among the most precious items in life. The coming fight would be for their existence. And, as already stated, what is needed in such a circumstance is that which cannot fail and that which does not depend upon human ability or effort. The Divine character meets these qualifications. The people could be fearless because the Lord is “great and awesome.” He had demonstrated these aspects of His nature countless times in the history of this nation. This wasn’t the first time God’s people were outnumbered. This wasn’t the first time God’s people appeared to have no chance of survival.

There are many more passages like this one in which the character of God becomes the foundation on which His people rest in dangerous surroundings. This single text, however, sufficiently illustrates this third category related to making plans for the future. Just after making the statement in verse 14, Nehemiah reveals that the enemy became aware that God had frustrated their plans. Therefore, “all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.”

The unchanging character God is, of course, the most reliable basis for our plans for the coming year. Other things, which may have been reliable in the past, may still fail, but God’s nature cannot fail and the love He has shown to you in the past when He delivered you from harsh circumstances or when He removed a burden causing much anguish in your life, is the same today as it has always been. Therefore, any plans you make for this coming year, any resolutions you adopt, any changes you desire to see in yourself, any defeat of sinful tendencies and establishment of righteous practices must, first and foremost, be grounded in the unchanging character of God.

No one here can say that they have no need of correction in any area of their lives. God has provided this opportunity for you to examine yourself and follow the instruction He has given. Decide what aspect of your life needs reformation and then draw strength from one of those important events from your past and focus upon the admirable example of someone you’ve known and, above all, ground your effort in the holy and unchanging character of God. This is how Christians prepare for the future.

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