We are bean counters. Weight watchers. List makers. No more-so than this time of year, the first weeks of the new year. Gym memberships spike. Shelters, churches, and soup kitchens see a significant increase in volunteers. Extra chairs need to be set out at A.A. Meetings. Family and friends want to know, "What kind of new year's resolutions did you make?" The start of a new year is when we hit the hard reset on old, often bad, habits. We pledge to ourselves and others that this year we are going to improve ourselves. Get in shape. Get that promotion. Heal a broken relationship. Then, usually by Valentine's Day, our resolutions are reduced to credit card charges, lightly used exercise gear hung at the back of closets, and self-improvement books with the spines still intact.
However, New Year's resolutions are not a recent phenomenon. There are inscriptions on stone tablets from four thousand years ago that reveal the Babylonians made similar resolutions at the start of their calendar year. But unlike us, they believed that someone who did not follow through on his resolutions would die.
So why do we do it to ourselves? Why do people, at least for the past four thousand years, engage in an annual audit of character flaws, bad habits, and personal demons? Why do it if so many times before we have failed to follow through. What is the "why" of new year's resolutions? What is their purpose? What is our goal?
In relation to God, it's because old Adam wants to stand in the place of God. He wants to be God. Old Adam wants to be in control of his destiny. He does not want to rely on God for all the needs of body and soul. Old Adam wants, more than anything, choice. The two things all of us lack are time and choice. We are confined by the time in which we live and the space we occupy at any given moment. We just cannot be in two or more places at once. We cannot choose for ourselves any more or less than what is already in front of us, no matter how much wishful thinking we engage in or how many resolutions we post to our Facebook profile.
We are creatures, and although we are like God knowing good and evil, we are not God. Too often, we commit evil for the most righteous reasons and wander blindly into good works, when our intentions were wholly selfish.
Are our resolutions righteous? Is our commitment to self-improvement a selfless act motivated by love for the neighbor? Do we care so long as our intent is "good", or righteous, or so long as our old Adam feels he is in control, he is calling the shots, he is the master of his own destiny?
There is a long-standing tradition in the church that at the beginning of a new year the assembly of the saints hear the call to repent and return to their Lord, Jesus Christ. Look up from vain naval-gazing and behold our Good Shepherd. The weeks after Christmas are a time in the church to hit the hard reset. A time to focus on what matters most. As St. Paul writes:
...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin... (Romans 7:15-25)
At this time of year, the church is called by her Bridegroom to again stop staring at her reflection in the mirror, to stop looking inward where only ghosts dwell, and to look outside herself to the Source of her faith, hope, and charity.
In Christ Jesus there are no beans to count, no waistline to watch, no list to scribble down, and nothing left to audit. And if we do not manage to follow through on our resolutions we don't have to worry, like the Babylonians, that we will die. Jesus died for us instead. And He has announced to us that He is Sin to our sin. He is the Death of our death. He is Satan to our satan. And even though our resolutions may fail to reach fruition, His resolve to love us is steadfast and unfailing, even in the midst of defeat, death, and damnation. That is, as St. Paul writes:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
"For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31b-39).