I’m skeptical of New Year’s resolutions. They are too easy to make, rarely carried out, and often cover up what really needs to change. It’s not that we set our sights too low; resolutions invariably sidestep root causes.
Too often we mistake the symptom for the cause. This past summer a group of doctors reported that an extract from the fruit of the prickly pear cactus could stave off hangover symptoms. Companies now market hangover pills that we can pop before work the next day. Things are looking up, aren’t they? So much for sobriety and self-control!
If we’re honest, few of us really want things to be completely different. We just want life to get better, or easier. We can handle a tune-up or face-lift, but drastic change? Medication, yes; surgery, no. Reform, maybe; revolution, never.
“All true Christian life,” writes Dietrich von Hildebrand, “involves the deep yearning to become a ‘new person,’ and an inner readiness for something fundamentally different.” The Apostle Paul stated something similar: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The question is: Do we want the new or not?
New Year’s resolutions obscure the profound transformation Jesus brings: “Behold I make all things new.” They do so in several ways. Resolutions are generally self-referential, hence the obsession with diet and exercise. Also, most resolutions stem from a sense of guilt, thus our incessant preoccupation with staying in better touch with each other and spending more quality time with loved ones we otherwise neglect. Moreover, resolutions assume continuity with the present: improvement, but not transformation. Finally, most resolutions rest on sheer will-power, not on God’s power.
The good news of God’s kingdom, however, eclipses such good intentions. When God acts a radical reversal begins, a decisive break happens: “Drop your nets, and follow me.” Our lives get turned inside out and spun around. “Valleys are made high, hills made low.” But we can bring about none of these changes ourselves. God alone redeems.
So is it just a matter of “letting go and letting God”? Not at all! We are called, in the words of John the Baptist, to “prepare the way” for God’s future. God expects obedience, and if we heed his commands, we can take part in the revolution he intends.
Unlike resolutions, revolutions are never started by the complacent. Unless we are dissatisfied with the way things are—not just with our personality or image—nothing will change. Only the brokenhearted, the desperate, and the oppressed crave for revolution, for freedom, and for new life. It is the captives who demand liberty. Thus, only when we recognize the chains that bind us can a change begin.
When our prayers for God’s kingdom become desperate, there is hope. What keeps a recovering alcoholic off the bottle? Certainly not will-power. Inner resolve alone doesn’t hack it. Any addict knows that promises are the fool’s ploy for the next fall. The sooner he runs for help, the better. Similarly, God’s victory comes in response to hearts that beg for change, admit their need, and go for help.
Prayer, then, is a necessity. Yet it is just the beginning. God waits for us to do what we pray for. This is the crux of the matter: simple obedience, nothing more, nothing less.