If you are like I am then you most likely act out a certain cycle every year. Each Jan. 1, you make New Year’s resolutions, keep them for a while, and then, eventually, sometimes by Jan. 2, break them and fall back into old habits.
If you are like I am then you also have a certain sense of why this is going on . . . even as you are seemingly powerless to change things. Old habits, especially bad ones, are hard to break.
Aristotle said that habit is second nature, it replaces instinct. Augustine, who knew more than most about the difficulty in breaking old habits, once put it this way: “I longed to give myself wholly to you, Lord, but I was bound by my own will, as by a chain. Because my will was perverse it changed to lust, and lust yielded to become habit, and habit not resisted became necessity. These were like links hanging one on to another—which is why I have called it a chain—and their bondage held me bound hand and foot.”
In a former time, before we had psychological words such as obsession, dysfunction and neurosis, this was called being possessed by a demon. There was more wisdom and accuracy in that than our age sees fit to acknowledge. In our bad habits we are indeed possessed!
Given all of that, it is no big wonder that we so easily break new resolutions. The wonder is that we continue to make them, knowing our own histories. Why do we? Why do we continue to want to make new resolutions when we know that, barring miracles, we will not, in the end, succeed in keeping them?
Robert Frost says that there is something inside of us that hates a wall, that wants it down. That is also true for the wall of bad habit and the part that wants it down is the best part of us. Stated positively, there is something inside us that hates our own moral fat, that refuses death, even in this sense.
There is something inside of us that is driven to the higher, that refuses to settle for second best, that wants to sing the new song that the psalmist speaks of, that believes in the possibility of resurrection. There is something inside of us that needs to keep on keeping on.
Thus it is a sign of health that we keep making new resolutions, despite a life-long history of failure. Why? Because in striving to renew ourselves in the face of our own falling we are making an important act of faith:
First of all, in making new resolutions we are saying: “I believe in a God who continues to love me, even when I can’t live up to it.” Every time I pick myself off the floor after a fall and begin again with some hope in my heart looking for a new start, I am saying the creed in a way that is considerably more radical, in terms of expressing actual belief in God, than is my too-easy Sunday recital of it.
To make a new resolution is to believe in God.
But it is more. To make new resolutions is to express faith in the God of the resurrection. To try for new life, for a fresh start, precisely when bad habit has kept me so long in a certain helplessness, is to say: “I believe in the resurrection and the life!”
Why do I say this?
Martin Luther once put it this way: “Just as God in the beginning of creation made the world out of nothing, so his manner of working continues unchanged.” For anything to really change, including our capacity to live beyond our own wounds and selfishness, God still had to defy the impossible.
Our inner world, akin to the physical world, is, to all outward appearance and to our own feeling of it, a closed system, determined entirely by history, by cause and effect. Within it, certain things are possible and certain things are impossible. What has been will continue to be.
There is, it seems, and so says Qoheleth, nothing new under the sun. The case for the impossible is pretty strong, especially when the judge knows the history of failed resolutions.
That is where faith and the resurrection enter in. As the angel Gabriel tells Mary: “For with God nothing is impossible.” Somewhere, deep inside of us, in that place where we want to make New Year’s resolutions, we still carry that faith. In that place we still say the creed and still believe in the resurrection. Because of that belief, because of new year’s resolutions, God can still make something out of nothing!