Friday, January 15, 2016

Thomas à Kempis on New Year's Resolutions

(Cartoon by Bob Satterfield, 1904)
Well, we're two weeks into the new year. This is where most people's New Year's resolutions begin to falter. If I tallied my results from over the years, I could produce a very short list of resolutions that I've managed to keep (most of them having to do with reading-goals) and a long list of resolutions I've failed at (many of them having to do with diet and exercise). If my resolution-keeping were a baseball batting average, I would be buried at the far end of an intramural roster. (Incidentally, the same would result from my actual batting average).

It's enough to make one question the wisdom of making resolutions at all. Why set up goals for oneself if the most likely result is an avalanche of guilt, backsliding, and continued reinforcement of the belief that my nature is unamenable to discipline? 

But for the Christian, resolutions have an important place in the spiritual life. Christianity is not just about getting your ticket to heaven; it's about growing, here and now, into the image of Christ and greater union with him. This is accomplished through the Holy Spirit, but it is aided by our efforts. An old example from the early church father John Cassian explains the process well: Just like a farmer doesn't have any power in and of himself to compel his seeds to sprout, so we don't have any power to effect spiritual changes in ourselves. Only Nature can make a seed grow, and only the Holy Spirit can prompt inward spiritual growth. But the farmer can prepare the way for the seed--till the soil, weed it, fertilize it, give it everything it needs to progress towards the greatest possible growth. And we, too, can do the same to partner with the work of the Holy Spirit--rooting out sinful habits, practicing virtues, immersing ourselves in Scripture and prayer, etc.

Jonathan Edwards
Although "New Year's resolutions" are a relatively new, secular phenomenon, the practice of making resolutions has a long Christian pedigree. Jonathan Edwards, the great early American theologian, made a list of resolutions for himself that continues to be well worth studying (and emulating) to this day. My own humble attempt at a similar list was posted here a couple weeks ago.

Another great Christian thinker who had a good deal to say about resolutions was Thomas à Kempis, the probable author of the classic work The Imitation of Christ. I'm going to close out my own comments at this point and simply let Thomas speak, both about keeping resolutions and failing at them, about what they mean for us and what they mean for our relationships with others. May these words bless and inspire you, as they've done for me.

"If you only knew how much peace you can give yourself and how much joy you give to others by living as you should, I think you would show greater interest in your spiritual progress." (I.11.5)

"If every year we rooted out one fault, we would quickly become mature Christians." (I.11.5)

"Speak to God in the secret mansions of your heart about the miseries your passions cause you. Be sorry...that you are so willing to make good resolves, but so unwilling to keep them." (IV.7.1-2)

"This should be our chief employment: strive to overcome ourselves and gain such a mastery that we daily grow stronger and better....If we were as diligent in uprooting vices and planting virtues as we are in debating abstruse questions, there would not be so many evils among us...Certainly, when Judgment Day comes we shall not be asked what books we have read, but what deeds we have done; we shall not be asked how well we have debated, but how devoutly we have lived." (I.3.3-5)

"Be patient in bearing the imperfections and weaknesses of others, no matter what they be, just as others have to put up with your faults. If you cannot remake yourself in the way you would like why, then, do you expect another to fashion himself according to the pattern you set for him?" (I.16.2)

"The resolutions of a righteous man depend on God's grace and not on his own wisdom, and whatever he undertakes to do he must first place his trust in Him." (I.19.2)