New Year’s Resolutions: Needed Resolve or New Law?

I was in a goofy mood. It was 11:45pm on New Year’s Eve and Steph (my wife) was sitting on the couch with me. “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?” She asked. Then, as I sometimes do while in a goofy, contrarian mood, I responded much too quickly and much too confidently, “I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.”

Despite the immediate enlarging of Steph’s eyes and the knowledge that I had unwittingly gotten myself into a losing debate, I decided not to back off my off-the-cuff, pseudo-moralistic stance. Hey, my pride was at stake. So I began to give reasons why I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions.

  1. They become just another life-sucking way of measuring how good you are by arbitrary, self-chosen standards…standards that, if they are worth keeping, you generally can’t (or don’t) keep perfectly.
  2. When you break them they only make you feel worse about yourself, sending you into a spiral of anti-resolution activity.
  3. Finally, I aspire to have an integrated life…a life where the principles I live by are part of my life everyday without making a decision on one arbitrary day.

But do I? I mean, is it possible for a person in my condition (that is, the condition of not being perfect) to have such a well-integrated life without a little New Year’s pick-me-up every now and again? Steph’s rebuttal gave me some pause for thought.  Humans need goals to defeat bad habits and strive for good ones. Our internal motivation isn’t good enough sometimes, so we need benchmarks, targets, or sometimes even penalties for failure.

I suppose that’s why lifetime smoker, Zelda Gamson, made a decision to give $5000 to the Ku Klux Klan if she had even one more cigarette. That’s right…it’s heinous. That’s why she never picked up a cigarette again.

A recent Radiolab episode that tells Zelda’s story also retells the age-old story of Xenophon the Greek who, when faced with an imposing Persian army, backs his army up to a cliff. One of his generals is like, “Whoa, Xeno, you know that’s a cliff right? All due respect, but this is NOT one of your best military strategies!” But Xenophon knew that his men would have to fight for their lives…period. No retreat. And he knew that the Persians would know that too.

The bottom line is sometimes we need resolutions to have resolve. Even the negative emotional impact of breaking a resolution can sometimes be the mild deterrent that keeps us on the right path.

Okay, that’s all fine and good. But I still can’t help but stare with suspicion at that chipper New Year’s resolution waiting for me on the other side of the Times Square ball. Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I still don’t think I’m entirely wrong about the possible pitfalls of New Year’s resolutions. If I rely too heavily on the resolutions, maybe I’m a person with no internal resolve. I don’t think I’m alone in my reservations either. I know plenty of people who balk at optimistic, self-help goal setting. However,  I know I’m not alone when I still think that New Year’s resolutions can be a good idea.

I wonder if my ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions is something akin to the human  ambivalence toward laws. They’re great for making us behave, but regrettable when they squash more authentic motives for moral behavior. Christians like myself have always felt this tension when it comes to the Law in the Bible, God’s description of the fully human life.

In the book of Galatians, Paul passionately pleads with his friends not to return to a way of life that measures them by a law they will inevitably fail to keep. He says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” You cannot earn your status as good person, Paul says. No matter how much good you do, you can’t take back the bad you push into the world. When you said that nasty thing to your spouse, or parent, or sibling….You can try to be kinder from now on, but neither of you will ever forget you said that. It’s out there. You can’t earn your status as a good person. But, Paul says, you don’t need to. Jesus Christ absorbed the evil we put into the world when he was on the cross, and he conquered it when he rose from the dead.

So we are set free, but Paul goes on to say:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus has set us free from the law…from its burdens, from its condemning glare, from the shame we feel in failing to fulfill it. However, we are set free to a higher law, a law of love that flows out of the most authentic place in our soul. Christ’s love for us gives us the passion and the resolve to love others.

So laws…I mean New Year’s resolutions…aren’t all bad. While we have to be wary of trying to earn our goodness by them, they certainly can point us in the direction of the more beautiful, fully human life that God intended.

So I resolve to blog at least once every two weeks (If I’m not traveling) in 2012.

What are some of your New Year’s resolutions? Got any ideas for the rest of us?

Cartoon gathered from

One Response to New Year’s Resolutions: Needed Resolve or New Law?

  1. Kathleen says:

    I have to agree with Steph 🙂 … resolutions give me a goal to shoot for which I feel the Lord is moving me toward. I have felt the distinct “nudge” from the Lord that I need to spend loads of time with Him in His Word and in prayer this year for my mind to be “transformed” as His Word says we will be. A scripture I memorized years ago while in the Navigators Ministry in college is:Romans 12:2 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
    I do so want a “teachable spirit and to be eager to be changed!” Another one of my goals this year … to memorize one verse per week! Join me? 🙂

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