One particular day in High School I pulled myself out of bed as usual, mumbled something about sleeping through the alarm and, also as usual, left my bed unmade. From the organized chaos of my bedroom I threw on some clothes and ran out the door in a blur. I arrived at school (again, as usual) only just in time to avoid the teacher’s glare by removing the one-size-fits-all hat I had donned as a bed-head solution and stood for the half-finished national anthem.
It was an unusually usual day, and I spent almost all of it doing the usual things. That is, until later that day an unusual greeting from a friend caught my attention:
“Happy Birthday, Eli!”
It was my fifteenth birthday. And I had completely forgotten about it.
It occurs to me that I’ve always been bad with special dates. It takes an embarrassing amount of willpower and intentional habits for me to remember the dates special to people I truly care about. So it’s probably no surprise that when it comes to New Years resolutions, I’ve always been something of a skeptic.
But my calendar struggles aren’t the sole cause for my eschewing the ‘New Years Resolution’. My problem with New Years Resolutions is that they tend to lack resolve, celebrating the means as the end. Consider for a moment the kinds of goals people typically associate with the New Year’s Resolution: lose weight, quit smoking, volunteer more, read more … at first glance these ‘goals’ seem more like the natural byproduct of what we actually value and deem important every other day of the year.
All too often we’re using ‘New Years Resolutions’ as a distraction from the fact that we spend most of our days living in total disregard of the things we say that we value. This is also known as cognitive dissonance, or, the anxiety caused by believing one thing and doing another. The Apostle Paul described this in regards to living the Christian life in the book of Romans:
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
If you value Christ, for example, perhaps you ought to seek to live more like him tomorrow than you did yesterday. If your body is valuable to you, you should eat in a healthy way and probably not smoke. If education is of value to you, you should probably aim to be a ‘life-long learner’ rather than someone who “got” an education. The fact is that you can’t check virtues like these off a list as ‘completed’. It’s every day stuff.
And of course we all want to live life in a way that sincerely reflects these values, but like Paul, we fail. We do it wrong all the time. So when we’re met with the inevitable disappointment in our goals what do we do? We’re forced to admit that we couldn’t do it alone or that our expectations weren’t realistic, which are both probably true, at least in part.
But more than likely we take the approach of Aesop’s Fox and adjust our goals, or worse, our virtues themselves, just enough to justify our compromising behavior. We stop asking why we do things and settle instead for simply asking what it is that needs doing. It’s an efficient way to temporarily reduce anxiety but a terrible way to live. If you think about it, those virtues (why) from which we derive our goals are often other-centered, whereas the goal (what) is something we accomplish ourselves. If the goal is all there is, it can be easily altered. Perhaps this is why 92% of New Years Resolutions fail. Imagine if painting was was only meaningful to the artist and every work of art was thrown in the trash, never to be seen!
Virtue (why) – Good stewardship: Be healthy, take good care of what God has given us (God-Centered)
Pragmatic goal (what)– Lose weight. Be attractive. Feel better. (Self-Centered)
Virtue (why) – Love your neighbor as yourself (Other centered, and therefore ultimately God-Centered)
Pragmatic goal (what) – Volunteer more, be a “good” person (self-centered)
More often than not, we ask ‘why’ only when we’ve failed and face disappointment whether it be due to circumstances, a lack of willpower, the enemy, or all of the above. This inevitability is what Paul is talking about in the Romans passage above. But what causes us to have resolve? How do we firmly commit to accomplishing the small, daily, goals derived from attempting to live out our values?
Perspective helps. Studies have shown that “delayed gratification” is a character trait often associated with the ability to accomplish one’s goals. For the Christian, this ought to be a trait we know all too well. As we can see from Pauls’ continued thoughts in Romans 8 we are to live daily with the ‘why’ clearly in view. We are reminded constantly of the ‘now but not yet’ reality we live with every day. Why take care of yourself every day? Because what you do with your body matters (Romans 8.23). Why love your neighbor? Because we are image bearers – little Christs (Romans 8.29! We should never lose sight of the end in the means of daily living.
So, having had the time to reflect on what’s really important to you over the Advent season, I encourage you to set goals for today, this week, this month.
Goals that tell your story in light of who God has made you to be.
Goals that change the world one day at a time, starting with you.
Goals that are held loosely enough that real life doesn’t get in the way of actually accomplishing them.
Goals that serve as a ‘means’, a part of the journey, rather than an end in itself.
Perhaps it’s time we trade in our shiny ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ and dust off the good ol’ fashioned ‘resolve’ to live out our values every day of every year in all the small ways. Besides, it’s probably a heck of a lot more fun than waiting in line for a treadmill.