I must admit that most years I do make some kind of attempt at setting new goals or resolutions to improve myself. I recently read a post that Justin Taylor put on his blog at The Gospel Coalition website: (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/), where he asked guest author David Powlison to write on the topic of New Year’s Resolutions.
Whether or not you typically make resolutions or New Year’s goals, I hope this post provides you with some helpful insight, as it did for me.
Happy New Year!
I was intrigued by Justin Taylor’s invitation to offer a comment about the cultural phenomenon we call “making your New Year’s resolutions.” First, a disclaimer. I’m 58 years old and I’ve never, ever made a New Year’s resolution. The notion somehow passed me by, and it’s simply a non-category in how I operate. So my only first-hand qualifications as a commentator are ignorance and naïveté. Might such an observer see things in a fresh light? Perhaps. In this arena I am surely the tribal Amazonian stepping into a socialite’s soirée on Manhattan’s upper East side. I’ll try to walk in with eyes wide-open. (I did field research via Google and a few friends.)
There are several negative possibilities in any culture-crossing encounter. The Amazonian might experience culture shock and confusion upon entering a world of decidedly foreign attitudes, actions, and meanings. “I just don’t get it.” Or he might get self-righteous about his own assumptions and practices, and only feel disdain at the oddities of others. “A pox on New Year’s resolutions as a holdover from pagan Roman practices.”
But there are also constructive possibilities in culture-crossing. I’ll mention three.
First, an Amazonian might see things that the Manhattanite has trouble seeing: the sociocultural ocean, as it were, in which the cultured socialite swims. To this outsider, the New Year’s resolutions business seems odd and striking in a number of ways.
- Some resolutions are petty, but most resolutions make a profound statement. They express a sensed need for moral reformation. Gluttony, laziness, drunkenness, overspending and debt, loveless isolation from others, joyless workaholism, peaceless anxiety, restless entertainment, sexual self-indulgence, bitterness and estrangement from kith and kin, slovenly disorganization . . . these provide grist for resolutions to change. They raise matters that could be plucked straight off a list of the 7 deadly sins (and 7 lively virtues), of the 10 commandments about how to love, of the 9-fold fruit of the Spirit set against those “obvious” works of the flesh. I was struck by how significant the issues were. “Lose weight, quit drinking, smell the roses, and treat my family better” are not trivial matters – when properly framed.
- That’s the rub: proper framing. Whether petty or profound, New Year’s resolutions as such merely express good intentions. They describe self-referential problems – “I find abc displeasing about myself.” They make no reckoning with the power of our passions, fears, habits . . . inner sinfulness, sin directly against God Himself . . . and with the power of outer evils (including enculturation) that allure and constrain us. They propose self-dependent solutions – “I resolve to do xyz to change myself.” Change depends on fickle will-power and on common-sense strategies for self-management (e.g., “set achievable goals that are personally meaningful, and take small steps”). So they fail in large measure. Or, even when they succeed, they create absolutely no reasons to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” They make no reckoning with either the chief end of man, or the madness in our hearts while we live, or the inexpressible gift of God to sinful, dying people. Self-referential resolutions function within a self-salvation project, however noble and desirable the proximate ends in view.
- Furthermore, whether petty or profound, New Year’s resolutions express purely individualistic intentions. A self-improvement plan finds no corporate context for commitment, no reasons for joint effort and mutual accountability, and no participation in a common cause bigger than any and all of us. So it fails. Or even if it succeeds, ditto the previous paragraph. I might feel better about myself, but what is God thinking about the Better Me I have become? Am I becoming more integral to the Holy We that is His new creation?
Those are my Amazonian fly-on-the-wall observations. These “New Year’s resolutions” are about extremely significant things: moral failure, self-salvation, and individualism.
Second, hanging around the New York soirée helps this Amazonian see himself in a new light. Culture-crossing can throw light in both directions, helping us become properly self-critical. Why don’t I make resolutions? Maybe I should. Does my “non-category” register a relatively haphazard, goal-less way of coming at life? Is there a way to make resolutions that is truly constructive and life-rearranging? Or, maybe I do a functional equivalent to “resolutions,” but have never recognized the analogy? And isn’t there something important in that common-sense idea of clearly defining goals and identifying small steps in the direction you want to head? Those questions lead to my final point.
Third, culture-crossing can help us become constructively counter-cultural. We can subject both our own assumptions and those of others to criticism and reevaluation. Both Amazonians and Manhattanites can change by cross-pollination in light of the Redeemer of every tribe. We can each and all think about this resolutions business in a new way.
For starters, what is a resolution? What does it mean for me to resolve something? (We can dispense with the “New Year’s” part as merely arbitrary, not necessary.) This use of the word resolution means coming to a firm and determined decision to do something, to behave in a certain manner, to abide by certain principles. That sounds decidedly Christian. Considered from this angle, the Nicene Creed is one sort of resolution. And “I am Your servant . . . I promise to keep Your words” (Ps 119:124, 119:57 ) is another example of resolve. When you resolve_____, it means you formally express what you believe, will, or intend. It is a stand you take, a direction you choose. After thought and decision, you commit yourself to take steps along a trajectory which changes the destination of your life. Put that way, the entire Christian life might be conceived as a lifelong determination to make and walk out “New Creation Every-Day Resolutions.”
Let me give a specific example. In 1976, newly converted to Jesus Christ, I joined a church. I did so by making a resolution in front of an entire congregation of likeminded people. These were the words: “I now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that I will endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ.”
That resolution was not cooked up on some hung-over January 1st because I’d become dissatisfied with my life over the previous 12 months. It is a resolution expressing the mind of Christ, mapping out a new life through all my days and years. To live “as becomes a follower of Christ” takes very seriously many specific sub-resolutions. For example, it identifies those sins against what ought to be: gluttony, laziness, drunkenness, overspending, drivenness, anxiety, and the rest. It aims for the fruits of change: temperance, diligence, gratitude, stewardship, rest, trust, love, joy, peace. . . . And the resolve to “humble reliance” seeks to make very sure that this is no self-referential and self-dependent project for self-salvation.
The corporate context, too, was significant. This was not my resolution for 1976. It was and is our resolution together, always, because it captures God’s resolve and purposes. One of the ways, then, that we help each other is by getting down to specifics. We identify goals that walk out how we will live becomingly today, wrestling out the particular steps – here, now, for me, for us – that head in the direction where Christ is going.
In fact, this past Saturday my wife and I spent the better part of a long car ride making “resolutions.” We didn’t call them that (remember, I don’t do resolutions!), and the approach of the New Year never even came up. But, as I think about it, such fresh resolves of faith and love have been part of every good conversation we’ve ever had. On Saturday we discussed ways to pay closer attention to our choices in the “transition-connection points” at the start and close of each day and whenever one of us returns home. We prayed to God for each other. We decided and committed to specific expressions of love. Sitting here on Monday night, I can identify immediate, sweet fruit in at least a dozen choices made and attitudes expressed over the past 48 hours.
So are you making your New Year’s resolutions? On this New Year’s eve, I’ve decided to make one for the first time in my life, and I’m making it public.
I now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that I will endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ.
I can see very specific implications for my choices later this evening (when Nan and I go to a party with old friends) and early tomorrow morning (when we drive our daughter to the airport).
Then, by the grace of God, I’ll make this same resolution tomorrow on New Year’s Day, and, no doubt, there will be different implications, in different spheres of life. (My office really does need to be tidied up and reorganized. And University of Hawaii is playing in the Sugar Bowl. And several good friends are facing serious cancer. And. . . .) And then by the grace of God, I’ll make (and live out) the same resolution on January 2nd, and 3rd, . . . , and every day in this new year of Christ’s new creation, every day, for as long as it is called Today.