Lose 10 pounds. Exercise three times a week. Read 20 books. Stare at my phone less.
The start of each new year sees many of us make resolutions like these in an effort to improve our diets, our health, our minds, ourselves. After conversations with some people who have far loftier ambitions for the coming year than I do, I’ve been thinking about resolutions.
Falling Off the Wagon
Did you know that there is a day when New Year’s Resolution makers fall off the wagon? By analyzing all the data we the people upload to the internet about are daily habits and routines, technology companies are able to predict with increasing certainty the exact day you will give up on you resolutions. This year, according to a fascinating article on CityLab, that day was January 17th, the third Thursday of January.
Of course, Big Data bases its guess for Fall-off-the-Wagon Day on aggregate information from all its users. Maybe you are outpacing the mean on your resolutions this year. But anecdotal evidence from regular gym attenders corroborates. There is a precipitous drop-off in exercisers by the beginning of February.
Among Christians, a popular New Year’s resolution is reading through the Bible in a year. Realizing that caused me to wonder: can Bible app companies predict with similar certainty when we will give up on our resolution to read through the Bible? Before we had the Bible in our pockets on our mobile devices and before we had these apps to track our progress, we could hem and haw when asked about our Bible reading. But now, Big Data don’t lie.
I’ve come to realize that resolutions are promises we make to ourselves about ourselves. As such, they have validity and some measure of influence. It’s good for us to commit ourselves to our future selves; it’s helpful to set goals and strive after them. However, it’s also important that we recognize the shadow side of resolutions. Resolutions often lead us to a sense of either pride (as we keep them and, particularly, as we see others fail to keep theirs) or failure (as we we fail, many of us again and again).
Pride or failure - these two responses are illustrated by the parable of the Prodigal Son(s), told by Jesus in Luke 15. The older son, comparing his record with all the ways his brother fails, says indignantly, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Meanwhile the younger son, all too aware of how he has fallen short, laments, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy.” As you consider resolutions this year, are you led to puff yourself up in pride or are you crushed again by the shame of your failure?
The Gospel is different. The Gospel is a promise God makes to us about Himself. And it’s a promise that God keeps. Specifically, it’s a promise that God keeps for us through His one and only Son, Jesus.
The Gospel is good news for both the proud and the failing. It’s a promise for the strong and the weak. Knowing the good news of God’s kept promise doesn’t mean that we should stop making efforts to improve ourselves. But it sure changes the equation. The gospel assures us that God loves us with an always and forever love. That truth gives us confidence without fear to strive after greater conformity to Christ, to work at being the true self God is re-making us to be. As Paul writes in Philippians, almost as though he is giving guidance to proud and weary resolution-makers: “Work out your own salvation because God is at work within you.”