I’m one of those people. You know the ones … despite years of evidence to the contrary regarding its effectiveness, still sharpening my pencil on January 1 and making a list of ways to improve myself in the coming year.

This list often includes spiritual disciplines, designed to bring revival and increased closeness in my walk with God.

I’ve accomplished these disciplines with varying success, but I can’t help noticing that the victory always seems short-lived. There is the momentary high of checking off the list, but it only seems to leave the gap between God and me wider instead of the intended result.

I was missing the point that spiritual disciplines are designed to reshape my soul, my desires, my longings.

Over the years, God has gently shaped my “achiever personality” to be one who is learning to trust in the enabling grace and righteousness of Jesus (Philippians 3:8-10), and not in my success at carrying out New Year’s resolutions.

Along the way, He’s also teaching me about the disciplines. Obvious questions arise when faced with the reality that we cannot earn anything in our walk with God.

Is it okay to strive for closeness (corporate or personal) with God through the disciplines of Bible reading, praying, serving, memorizing, reading, rest, and worship?

If we are not acquiring more weight in a cosmic scale of good deeds versus bad deeds, then what should be happening inside us when we make time to soak in the presence of God?

Consider this peek into the psalmist’s prayer to God:

How sweet your words taste to me;
they are sweeter than honey.
Your commandments give me understanding;
no wonder I hate every false way of life.
(Psalm 119:103-104 NLT)

Long meditations on the Word of God and spontaneous worship sessions among the sheep had reshaped this poet’s heart to desire God and His way more than any other way of life. The best safeguard against clinging to any false way of life is not white-knuckled discipline, but feasting on the sweetness of God.

As John Piper put it in Hunger for God,

The more deeply you walk with Christ, the hungrier you get for Christ. If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened.

Grace is always opposed to earning, but it is certainly not opposed to effort. Weeding out small desires to make room for the eternal requires maximum effort.

So, back to our original question—are plans and goals helpful toward bringing about revival in our hearts and churches? Absolutely, but only to the end that they help us fix our gaze on Jesus.

By all means, make a plan for spending time with the Lord through the disciplines, but approach it as a treasure hunt rather than a goal chart.

Lord, would You help us treasure You above all else this year? And would that desire for You shape our lives and priorities in a way that New Year’s Resolutions can’t account for or explain?