Oxymorons like “rush hour” and “government intelligence” make us chuckle when we stop and think about them. I propose that we add “New Year’s resolutions” to the list of such contradictions, with the accent on the word “New.” For most of us, there is nothing new about our year’s resolutions. We simply lift old goals from the mothballs, where they have gathered dust since roughly the previous Jan. 2, and resolve that this year we will accomplish them. Christian songwriter Carolyn Arends says it well in her song New Years Eve:
I buy a lot of diaries
Fill them full of good intentions
Each and every New Year’s Eve
I make myself a list.
All the things I’m gonna change
Until January 2nd…
What prompts us to make New Year’s resolutions? Psychologically, points in time arbitrarily designated as beginnings, like New Year’s Day, seem to have special significance even though Jan. 1 is physically no different than Jan. 2 or Dec. 31. The same is true of arbitrary endings (e.g., 30th birthdays, the stock market’s closing bell on any given day), and such endings and beginnings can prompt illogical behavior. For example, consider the fact that Mardi Gras—a time of feasting, decadence and impropriety—occurs the day before Lent, a time of fasting, sacrifice and contemplation. Could it be that new beginnings give us permission for both a last chance to “sin and sin boldly” and an opportunity for a renewed focus on excellence?
Striving for excellence is admirable, of course, and resolutions can be one good way to focus on doing our best. Let me suggest, however, that the main attraction of such arbitrary new beginnings is their pledge of a fresh start and a clean slate. We humans seem quite motivated to feel self-sufficient and error-free, but a quick review of even our recent past provides stark contradictory evidence. Still, fresh starts can renew the illusion of sufficiency, if only briefly, and also give us permission to ignore past failures. It is as though we bargain with ourselves. For example: “If I start a regular exercise program and stick to it, starting today, I will have permission to erase the previous months of inactivity. It will be as though I have always been in shape!”
Of course, failing to keep such bargains is costly. When we blunder, memories of previous failures gain strength, march through our present, and spill out into the future, fueled by thoughts like, “I will never be able to change this habit!” Indeed, any benefit related to all-or-nothing resolutions is quickly outweighed by their cost in the face of even one failure. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous is well known for its philosophy that an alcoholic who abstains from drinking is still only one drink away from losing sobriety. This all-or-nothing approach provides strong incentive to stay sober, but it can also prompt a person who makes one slip to feel as though “I might as well really blow it” and give up altogether.
Am I suggesting that we should abandon New Year’s resolutions? No, they can be helpful! I would, however, recommend taking a different perspective when trying to start new positive habits or eliminate old bad ones. For that perspective, I return to Carolyn Arends’ song:
….I believe it’s possible
I believe in new beginnings
‘Cause I believe in Christmas Day
And Easter morning too
And I’m convinced it’s doable
‘Cause I believe in second chances
Just the way that I believe in You
This will be my resolution
Every day is New Year’s Day
Of course, Ms. Arends is not the first person to suggest such an approach. The apostle Paul also suggested that we “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). The key is found in realizing the great news that we don’t need to create “fresh starts” or “clean slates.” Christ has done both for us! Yes, it is great to initiate new attempts toward goals on Jan. 1, but Feb. 3 is also good, as is July 23 or Nov. 5! “Every day is New Year’s Day.”
Are there any practical ways to have more success when approaching resolutions? Let me make just a few observations. First, initiating resolutions requires overcoming our fear of possibly having to live with another failure. This is hard, though, because we know that we will cling to our failures, with thoughts like, “I will never forgive myself for doing that!” Why do we cling to failures? I think we do so because we want to cling to our successes, and fair is fair! If all our actions are totally within our control, then we cannot cling to successes without clutching failures too. With this in mind, try developing the following approach:
Don’t cling to your successes! Hold them loosely and release them to God with a thankful heart. Then when failures come, you can release them to God too.
Releasing both our successes and failures requires that we also stop valuing ourselves based on our accomplishments. This is hard in a world that always values persons this way. The Gospel offers a better values system, though, whereby our sense of value comes from the love that God showers on us, and by the intimate relationship into which God invites us! Of course, successes will still be fun and failures will still be sad, but they will no longer be tyrants that rule us.
Second, people typically initiate resolutions with an all-or-nothing approach. This can be a great incentive initially but it backfires with our first failure, often prompting us to discard our resolution in despair. With this in mind, try regularly repeating the following maxim to yourself:
“I am one mistake away from making one mistake, not one mistake away from spoiling everything!”
All-or-nothing approaches are perfectionistic; and perfectionism denies the human condition, our need for a Savior and His effective gift of grace! Instead, try Ms. Arends’ approach, and you will have much greater success in accomplishing your resolutions, one small step at a time!
This could start a revolution
Every day is…
One more chance to start all over
One more chance to change and grow
One more chance to grab a hold of grace
And never let it go
(C) 1997 running arends music/New Spring Publishing, a division of Brentwood Music Publishing, Inc. (ASCAP)
This article originally appeared in an issue of Fuller Seminary’s student newspaper, the SEMI, in the late 1990s.