There is a peculiar ritual that many of us observe every year in late December and early January: the New Year’s Resolution. I suppose it is evidence of people’s irrepressible sense of optimism; they sincerely believe that they can make significant changes in their lives through sheer force of willpower. But whether it’s losing weight, drinking less, or spending more time with family (all good things, to be sure), the patterns we have established for the last year or more are unlikely to be broken because of a single isolated goal.
No matter how motivated we think we are, there is so much in our lives that resists any serious attempts at change that we are more than likely to miss our target, probably by a wide margin. Over time, our thoughts and routine decisions have created certain patterns in our lives. And instead of targeting particular outcomes, we need to establish entirely new patterns. As former Executive Editor of Christianity Today Andy Crouch writes “The most powerful choices we will make in our lives are not about specific decisions but about patterns of life: the nudges and disciplines that will shape all our other choices.”
That’s not to say that positive change is never possible. It’s just that a successful, lasting resolution requires more than just willpower in one specific area; it requires an overhaul of our values, attitudes, and priorities. And according to the long tradition of Christian theology, such an overhaul of our lives is beyond our capacity as individuals. That is why the Bible says relatively little about the imperative to change oneself, but it says a great deal about our redemption. For that overhaul of our lives, we must depend on another to redeem us, to revitalize and transform us. We have our part to play as well, but we are counting on the active work of the Holy Spirit within us, and not just our own willpower.
This perspective is optimistic about the possibility for change, but it also takes those old patterns of our lives seriously, and does not underestimate their hold on us. Even after we have been redeemed and transformed, we always remember the patterns that used to define our lives, and how it is only by God’s grace that we are not still stuck in them. As C. S. Lewis explains: “Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”
By intentionally remembering the patterns and influences we’ve been redeemed from, and by recognizing the limits of our capacity to effect change in ourselves, we will avoid arrogance and self-delusion. And our lives will be marked by increased maturity, humility, and gratitude. A successful, lasting, and faithful New Year’s Resolution will seek that kind of redemptive overhaul, rather than a quick, isolated change on the strength of willpower alone.
Tim Challen is Pastor of Virden Baptist Church