Pastoral Perspectives

New Year’s Resolution

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

—Mark Twain, Letter to Territorial Enterprise, 1 Jan 1863

Are you in the habit of making personal resolutions for the coming year? If you no longer care much about making New Year’s resolutions, then it’s likely you have been disappointed one too many times with your inability to keep them. When a new year arrives, we get excited at the fresh possibilities it brings and hopeful with what we can accomplish. So, we resolve to change ourselves and do better, either determined to not do the things which we ought not do, or to do the things which we ought to do. In due time, however, the strong resolve gets dampened by a lack of progress, and we eventually find ourselves sitting around lamenting the weakness of our flesh (despite the willingness of our spirit). The year then draws to a close and a new one comes around: rinse and repeat. So, go ahead and make your New Year’s resolutions, advised Mark Twain, but recognise they’re just a cycle of futility.

Despite the cynicism about New Year’s resolutions, the practice of making them has been around for a long, long time. Ancient Babylonians were already doing so 4,000 years ago. The Babylonian year began sometime in late March, at the new moon following the spring equinox (a day in the year with equal amounts of daylight and darkness). Their new year was marked by a major religious festival, during which people made resolutions before the gods to pay back their debts, return items which they’d borrowed, or simply maintain their loyalty to the king. Whether they would enjoy a good year ahead then depended on their ability to keep their resolutions! This practice isn’t limited to the ancient Babylonians. The ancient Romans also made promises of good behaviour to Janus—the god of new beginnings—on the 1st of January (which is named after the Roman god).

In the Christian tradition, New Year’s resolutions are associated with the tradition of Watch Night services. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, introduced the concept of Covenant Renewal services to the Methodist Societies in the 18th century. These were gatherings with a liturgy that brought parishioners through a process of self-examination and reflection, and confession and repentance, culminating in a dedication of oneself to God—essentially a personal resolution before God. Eventually, the Methodists settled on holding these services on the Sunday closest to the 1st of January. Such services caught on in other Christian communities and churches would hold them on the evening of New Year’s Eve to keep parishioners away from the drunken revelry. Instead of engaging in unsavoury activities, Christians are to go to church for Watch Night services and make resolutions for good behaviour. This originally Protestant practice of the West would eventually come to be detached from its religious moorings and entrench itself in the secular popular culture as we know it today.

Although Mark Twain may deem the making of resolutions a fool’s errand, any practice which has been around for more than four millennia is unlikely to be abandoned any time soon. Perhaps we needn’t be too cynical or pessimistic about it since the keeping of resolutions isn’t a completely Sisyphean task. According to a 2021 American survey, of the 27% of Americans who made New Year’s resolutions, 49% said they kept some of their resolutions while 35% said they kept all their resolutions. Only 16% failed to keep any resolution they made. Of course, it could be that the 73% who didn’t make any resolutions stopped doing so because of their disappointing past failures. Still, 23% of all respondents did manage to make and keep New Year’s resolutions, and that isn’t insignificant.

Furthermore, this enduring human inclination to make New Year’s resolutions despite a seemingly high rate of failure in keeping them should make us more hopeful rather than more cynical (à la Twain) about the human condition. At the very least, God has granted us the grace to recognize our personal imperfections and shortcomings to the extent that we want to improve ourselves. While most resolutions tend to be of the trivial kind, like getting more exercise or eating healthy, that desire for self-improvement already reflects an innate drive in us toward transcendence, a drive hardwired into the fabric of our soul by God so we may grow into likeness of the divine image.

At the same time, God has made us meaning-making creatures such that we not only keep time through astronomic observations, but also find meaning in them. The observable natural phenomena from the movements of the earth, sun, moon, and stars resonate with our souls emotionally such that we inevitably find rich meaning for our lives in them. Biblically we have Lamentations 3.22-23 associating God’s mercies with the morning because it is a temporal marker symbolic of hope: a new day brings about fresh possibilities, especially the possibility that God will act mercifully to restore the exiles. Not only that, but the regularity in which the dawn always comes after night alludes to the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. The morning becomes a natural symbol that reminds the author of God’s character and that gives him hope amid the despair of exile. Likewise, we also perceive the turn of a year as a significant calendric marker symbolic of new beginnings. This beckons us to distance ourselves from our past year’s failures and prime ourselves for a fresh start. A closure to the old year begets the beginning of a new one brimming with possibilities and reminds us that our God is a God of second chances. With God, there’s really no shame in failing to keep resolutions—it’s far worse to cruise through life thinking you’re fine as you are.

So, unlike Mark Twain, I won’t disparage the making of New Year’s resolutions. None of us are really okay the way we are. We’re all affected by sin and weakened in flesh, and we have a ways to go before we get to where God wants us to be. Lest you think otherwise, heed these words from St John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.8-9). We’re all works in progress before God, and the turn of the year is always a good time to reflect on our lives and resolve to do better with his help. What are the problem areas God has been prompting you about? What are some of the positive changes you would like to see in your life? How could you get there? Tell God about your resolutions and plans and commit them to him. Better still, share them with your friends in church as well so they can help you along the way and keep you accountable.

What if you fail? As Aailyah sings, “Dust yourself off and try again, try again, again, again.” As long as it is called “today,” there will be a tomorrow for you to try again. St John assures us that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2.1-2). So go ahead, make your New Year’s resolutions, and never let your failures at keeping them discourage you or make you cynical. May the Spirit of God be your help until we are perfected in Christ.

Pr Png Eng Keat

January 1, 2023