From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study Spiritual Resolutions Jan 4, 2023
In late December I attended a Christmas party, and one of the people there said that she had two more days of eating and sitting around. On January 1, she planned to begin using her rowing machine which had been in her basement collecting dust for a few months. I don’t doubt her resolve, for she is the kind of person who will keep the promises she has made to herself. Her New Year’s resolution was to get back into shape. Rowing machines are one of the best tools to get the job done.
Perhaps many of us have made New Year’s resolutions, and, because it is already four days into 2023, some of us have broken the already. It is impossible to tell when people first began making New Year’s resolutions, but they date back to at least the 1780s where the practice is recorded in a piece of literature of that time. We can assume that the practice of making a resolution on New Year’s Day is much older.
Normally, when we make a New Year’s resolution, we resolve to do something differently. “I’m going to cut back on eating after 6:00pm.” Or, “I’m going to arrive early for appointments rather than always being a few minutes late.” We resolve to do something, but the resolutions arise out of a frame of mind. We feel unhealthy because of our weight, or we don’t like the feeling of being rushed all the time. Most often resolutions arise from the awareness of a problem and the desire to solve that problem. If we make a resolution that does not arise from our frame of mind, chances are we won’t keep at the activity we promised ourselves we would do. If I think I am healthy enough, I probably won’t use that rowing machine for very many days. We have to want to change if we are going to change.
The resolutions we decide to make are determined by what is important to us. I’m guessing that if we listened to what people resolved to do, we would also be able to determine what their priorities are, and I don’t think that it would surprise many of us that most of our resolutions probably have to do with our health and our wellbeing. I’m only guessing, but I suspect that diet and exercise top the lists of things people resolve to do. Health is important to us. We want to improve ourselves so that we live a better life for a longer time.
Those who have studied the content of New Year’s resolutions tell us that until the 19th century (200 years ago), almost all resolutions were of a spiritual nature. In other words, the resolutions people were making had a lot more to do with their relationship with God rather than with self-improvement. Spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, worship, and the like were included in people’s resolutions on New Year’s Day in the past. It is evident that the most important aspect of life for people in the past was their walk with God.
This should give us pause. What has changed in the last 200 years? As I have mentioned on previous occasions, what has changed in the West is that we, as people, have become more and more confident in our own abilities. We have come to believe that if we work hard and put our minds together, we can solve all the problems of the world by ourselves, and, in reality, we don’t really need God. That we are self-sufficient and self-determining is one of our highest cultural values today. In fact, in some circles, the idea that we have finally divested ourselves of any dependence on God is celebrated as being the greatest accomplishment of the last couple of centuries.
It is for this reason, it seems, that our New Year’s resolutions have lost their spiritual grounding and have become almost entirely focussed on self-improvement. Nowadays, our resolutions reflect the attitude that “I can make myself a better person” rather than, “I need God to become a better person.” In the first, we put ourselves in control of our lives, but in the second, we allow God to control our lives. Self-improvement resolutions can be closely tied to selfishness or self-centredness. We think about ourselves and what we need. On the other hand, when our relationship with God deepens, we find ourselves thinking more of others, for when we love God, we, by necessity, must also love others.
I didn’t make any resolutions this year, but maybe I should. But I need to consider what is important. There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, but if that is my highest priority, I do need to question if I have the right frame of mind. Perhaps I need to be a little bit old-fashioned and make it my highest priority to love God and deepen my relationship with him. Not only will that be better for me, but it will be better for others as well.