Tuesday, 5 January 2016

New Year Resolutions: a blog for Epiphany

It’s not too late for new year resolutions. It never is. There’s always a new year that begins at some time or other: anniversaries, birthdays, festivals.  

But as most of us know by now, it’s not too soon to have broken the resolutions we made so hastily a week ago. All those well-meant intentions about sugar, smoking, alcohol, sex, exercise, social media and all the rest – have they lasted the week? Will they last the month? Will they see us through as far as Lent when we go through the ordeal of giving things up all over again?

The trouble with resolutions is well-rehearsed each year. They address behaviours that are the symptoms of our condition, but not the condition itself. They tend to scrutinise (albeit selectively) our habits, our addictions, the things we obsess about. I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes help to bring our lives into better order so that we live more healthily and well. But we all know that it’s the motivation of the boot strap. Make a colossal effort of the will and you’ll change your life. And the bigger the effort, the prouder we can be of what we’ve achieved.

But resolutions don’t tend to go very deep. They don’t on the whole explore our motivation and attitudes, our values and desires, all the things that make us what we are and lead us to behave as we do. They sit lightly upon the mysterious world of the unconscious where our drives come from. Resolutions are sticking plaster applied to wounds that need a radical kind of surgery if we are going to change in lasting ways.

As a theologian, I find the annual performance surrounding new year resolutions utterly Pelagian. That heresy, said to be especially attractive to the British, claimed that you could achieve salvation (note the words) through the effort of your own will. Divine grace was there to help you, but it was down to your decision and your continued resolve to live it out. I’ve often pondered our love-affair with this way of thinking. It’s not just about personal life. Organisations love it too. Think of those endless strategic plans and management techniques all designed to bring about development and change by a corporate act of will. Pelagius would have bellowed three hearty cheers for the organisational mind-set (not least in the church) that is addicted to these things.

It's not wrong for people and institution to have aspirations for the future and set about realising them. It's how we do this that matters, and the depth at which we do it. It was St Augustine (of Hippo) who said that imagining we can do it all by ourselves is to subvert the gospel. What changes lives, he argued, is God’s love and mercy held out and made real for us in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Here was the power that transformed the world and human living, offered possibilities that we could never have dreamed of, gave us back our freedom to become fully human again and live as we aspired to at the profoundest level of our existence. ‘Love God and do as you will’ he famously instructed, meaning that when God’s redeeming love makes its home at the centre of a human being, our lives and values, attitudes and behaviours become aligned to God’s own vision for his world. This is the Augustinian vision of the good news.

What we need at new year, I think, is to embrace this promised way of being more wholeheartedly. What might this mean? For me, it means living in a way that is more aware of the love of God and the goodness of things. It means being sensitised to the pain of the world and the needs of my neighbour. It means recovering joy in little things, the daily gifts of common grace. It means regaining a glad and trustful outlook rather than a suspicious or resentful ‘take’ on life where we find ourselves acting not out of hope but out of fear. It means cultivating charity. It means nurturing what lasts rather than being obsessed by the transient. It means wanting to make a difference in the world and being motivated to act on that longing, just as God’s truth and love go on making a difference to us.

Tomorrow, the sixth of January gives us a beautiful image of how God’s transforming grace works in human lives. On the Feast of the Epiphany, we remember the Magi who made the journey to worship the Holy Child. They were ‘overwhelmed with joy’ says the story. And they ‘went back by another way’ the text is careful to tell us. Yes, obviously to avoid the cruel Herod, but symbolically as an image of lives transformed by what they had experienced. The magi didn’t need resolutions. All they needed was to give themselves to what they had seen, this vision that gave them an entirely new perspective. Isn’t this what we need near the beginning of the year? And on every day that dawns?

Out with Pelagian resolutions and will power! In with Augustinian transformation and joy! In with the promises of God! In with a truly happy and hope-filled new year!

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