S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
Yesterday, January 2, my wife went to the gym at lunchtime, as she has done faithfully week after week. On her way out another faithful partner inquired about the “resolutioners.” “Only a few additions,” she replied. “They will all be gone before Valentines Day,” her friend observed. That is, as the Brits say, spot on.
New year’s resolutions are notoriously ineffective, research indicating that only about 8% of them keep beyond the first month or two. Various explanations are given by the so-called experts: The resolution isn’t specific enough, It is promoted in a negative, rather than positive fashion (You’re giving up something), “resolutioners” are too influenced by the expectations of others. Year after year the same resolutions falter only to be picked up again next year. Will power, it turns out, isn’t very powerful at all.
What is powerful is desire. Desire, another name for love, controls behavior like the engine powers a car. Behavior, good or bad, is always driven by something deeper than mere resolve or will. Our decisions have roots that feed them. Bad habits are like the red light on the dashboard calling us to look under the hood. New Year’s resolutions are like trying to turn off the warning light by taping over it.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a French philosopher and mathematician asserted that “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” Pascal was also a Christian whose understanding of human psychology was shaped by the Bible.
The Bible uses different language to describe the same reality. Psalm 115, for example, describes a negative example of human behavior, or willing. It speaks of idols as objects that have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, noses but cannot smell and then the Psalmist gives this punchline, “Those who make them [idols] become like them” (Psalm 115:8). We are what we worship and we worship only what we love. Those who love money become greedy. Those who love fame become self-absorbed. Those who love food become gluttons.
The Protestant reformer Martin Luther said, “Whatever a man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may, wealth or self, pleasure or renown.” This is why when Jesus was asked, what is the greatest commandment, he replied “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). By nature we do not think in terms of selfless service to God and others; we’re not geared to believe love could be giving, without any expectation of a return.
We might try to resolve to stop being selfish this year, but that will fade faster than the exercise routine we started January 2. We need a heart re-orientation.
This is why resolutions fail 92% of the time. Our heart is not in it. And until the heart changes, until what we truly love shifts, the will inevitably falters. But, the good news is, when the heart is redirected, the will willingly follows.
So, here is a new year’s challenge. Take six months and read the first four books of the New Testament. Consider the life, claims, and teaching of Jesus found there. Consider the beauty of his character, the majesty of his claims to deity, and the redemptive power of forgiveness promised through his resurrection. You might be surprised by the manifold changes that blossom in your life when self-love and self-service are exchanged for the love of God and love of neighbor.
The secret to real change this year is not in another set of goals or resolutions, but in asking a deeper question. What or who do I really love? What have I given my heart over to, in service and worship? The answer to that question will explain the choices you make this year.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.