By Michael Wright
When we think of New Year’s Day, we want a day of new beginnings, a hinge where we try to swing from our old selves and into the new. The problem is there’s not much difference between eating a bag of potato chips on New Year’s Eve and, one resolution later, standing in front of the pantry the next day tempted. Our lives rarely change in one twenty-four hour period, and whatever new intentions we might establish, the momentum of our choices are actually difficult to redirect. Usually, this gives me reason enough to never make a resolution or, if I do, to feel followed by a haze of guilt when I don’t meet it. Whether I make one or not, underneath the idea of a resolution is a deeply held assumption about what it means to change ourselves.
I’m specifically thinking of that deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic where we push ourselves in fear and trembling towards holiness as an objective goal. It’s the mindset behind my personal resolution in high school to read the Bible in a year (I stopped at Lamentations and started reading Calvin and Hobbes), and it turns spiritual disciplines into external practices fueled by our own willpower. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton calls this person the hero of virtue:
He sees “happiness” and “the good” as “something to be attained,” and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing, he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have what he desires: between the wrong and the evil, the absence of what he seeks, and the good that he hopes to make present by his efforts to eliminate the evils. (The Way of Chuang Tzu, p. 22)
Merton describes people so hell-bent on being good that they wreck their lives in the process. This kind of ‘spiritual discipline’ is common among us Protestants, and while it seems laudable on the surface, this approach to the spiritual life is toxic and often blinds us from the very thing we’re studying. In his TED Talk on compassion, the psychologist Daniel Goleman told the story of seminary students who are so focused on presenting their sermons on the Good Samaritan that they walk by a fainting old man on their way to class. Their discipline of studying compassion was the very thing keeping them from expressing it in real life. This is not exactly what the writer of Galatians had in mind when he described the fruits of the Spirit—those sustaining fruits of compassion and goodness and selfless love that grow naturally out of our hearts and into our actions.The truth is no matter how virtuous the goals we have, no matter how resolute our intentions to be godly people, no matter how impressive our attempts to be Christ-like become—pursuing them in the wrong way pushes us away from our heart’s desires and wounds people around us in the process. Real spiritual growth is not forcing ourselves to fit prescribed molds of perfection; it requires time and tenacity, and it starts from deeper places within us than our self-will and desires to control. This is the deep truth Christ taught us when he confronted the Pharisees: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14-17). Ironically, they were so focused on the external pursuit of virtue (whether it was keeping the Sabbath or washing hands or reading Scripture every morning) that they lost sight of their own internal defilement. Distracted by their spiritual disciplines, they neglected to prayerfully cultivate from within their own selves the compassionate hearts that make spiritual growth possible in the first place.
Spiritual growth that starts from within is as small as a mustard seed, and it comes through prayerful surrender and humility. This approach is playful, patient, and content to wait on the Spirit to grow fruit within us at the appropriate time. It requires a single-minded focus while still being emotionally open and flexible. Yes, there’s discipline, but our approach is open-handed and gracious. When we approach New Years with this kind of posture, resolutions become less a burden and more a time to recalibrate.
We make resolutions not to burden ourselves with our own ideals but to patiently realign ourselves to God’s deeper purposes. We set them before us not as goals to achieve by our own strength but as reminders of our own hearts’ desires, content to set out again on the same path we so often stray from, that path towards expansive grace and love.
Michael Wright has a Masters in Theology and the Arts from Fuller Seminary where he manages social media and writes for FULLER Magazine. He is an advocate for artists incorporating their faith in their work and for churches trying to understand how to approach the arts. Find more at The Commonplace Book and on Twitter @mjeffreywright.