A Spirituality of New Year’s Resolutions
New Year’s Resolutions expose the “holy discontent” with which most of us live our lives. It’s just part of what it means to be human. In fact, the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft goes so far as to say that this desire for “something more” is actually hardwired into us. We are all innately equipped with what he called “haunt detectors.” This world of ours is “haunted” by a sense of the divine, and an experience of divine absence. We carry around deep inside us the echoes of Eden, a memory of that intimacy and immediacy. And something sounds inside us when we get in its vicinity once again through music, art, literature, poetry, nature, and love, but they’re all just signposts of the divine rather that the divine itself. They are given to us to keep us moving in its direction.
The New Year provides us with a moment to recollect the journey so far. We are all given a chance to think about where we’ve been, and where we’re going. And this annual review provides us with the opportunity to “simplify” to use the category that Lewis Joseph Sherrill introduced me to in his book The Struggle of the Soul (1951). This is the essential spiritual assignment of the adult stage of the pilgrimage of our lives, he said, to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, and then to move what matters to the center of our daily existence while pushing to the margins of our lives the things that don’t.
As I did this myself last weekend, I found myself reflecting on the Gospel accounts of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John followed by His temptation in the wilderness by the devil (Matthew 3:13-4:11). I’m quite sure that it was my own experience of beginning this New Year that led me to a contemplation of these narratives about the beginning of Christ’s own public life and ministry. And what arose out of my time with these texts were a reminder of three of “the great rocky facts of (my) being” (Augustus Hopkins Strong) as a Christian that are especially relevant as this particular year with all of its peculiar challenges and widely heralded uncertainties begins.
- “You are My Beloved Child” (3:17)
The Baptism narrative describes the Spirit of God descending like a dove, coming upon Jesus as He came up out of the water, and a voice from the heavens saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” This is a unique event in salvation history – a Trinitarian moment of the disclosure of the Divine identity and intention. My baptism as a Christian did not have reference to this Gospel event of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as the Christ, but rather to the climactic Gospel event of His ministry as the Christ – His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). But my personal reception of Christ’s saving work on Calvary’s cross and out of the empty tomb by faith that found initial expression in my own baptism has given me the same assurance that Christ had when He came up out of the waters of His baptism. In Acts 2, after the Gospel had been preached for the very first time in the power of the Spirit, and people asked what they needed to do in order to be saved, Peter told them to be baptized for, or with reference to, the forgiveness of their sins, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). By faith I have the assurance that I am a forgiven child of God — “beloved” — and I have the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in me tethering me to all of the “precious and magnificent” promises that God has made to us, and to all of creation, in Christ and is, right now, in the process of fulfilling. As this year begins, I know that no matter what may come, nothing has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). In Christ I am already called, justified and glorified (Romans 8:30). I am a child of God, and if God is for me, then what can possibly be against me (Romans 8:31)?
2. “Driven” by the Spirit into the Wilderness to be “Tested” (4:1)
In this assurance, I don’t expect cloudless days or easy paths. After His baptism Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness where He was tested and tired by the adversary, and I personally recall this every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer with its petition not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil. In Luke 22:31, we are told that in the Upper Room Jesus told Peter –“Satan desires to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not: and when you are converted, you will strengthen your fellow believers.” Strikingly, Jesus did not tell Peter here that He was going to remove Him from the whole experience of sifting, but rather that He was going to strengthen him in the experience of his sifting so that his faith would not fail, and that he might then be an example of faithful endurance for others later. In the same way, in the classic New Testament text where we are assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we are not offered immunity from the possibilities of suffering that surround us. There’s “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword” (8:35). We’re like sheep being led to the slaughter all day long (8:36). But none of these potential treats to our physical well-being can touch the certainty of our eternal well-being in Christ. In fact, Paul told the Romans that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18). And so, as this year begins, while I don’t expect any exemptions from the vagaries of the human condition because of my faith in Christ, I do expect the peace of Christ that is bigger than any adverse circumstance that may come, and I do expect to be more than a conqueror over them through Him who loved me and gave Himself for me (8:37).
3. “Angels came and began to minister to Him” (4:11)
Finally, just as angels came to minister comfort and strength to Christ at the end of His testing in the wilderness, so I fully expect that God will supply all of the resources that I will need this year to be faithful. As the last two stanzas of the most theologically dense, and the most spiritually honest hymn that we sing puts it –
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.
So, what is this “one little word” that fells the devil and thwarts all the plans he has to “work us woe”? Well, it’s Jesus Christ, the name given to us under heaven by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). More than just the recitation of some kind of a magical formula or mystical incantation, the name of Jesus is a reference to our access to His person, His presence, His power and His provisions. There will be a fight with darkness this year, to be sure. There is one every year. But we need not fear the fight for in Christ we already have all of the resources we will need to triumph. As another hymn we sing puts it –
Rise up, O saints of God! The church for you doth wait, with strength unequal to her task; rise up, and make it great!
The Spirit and the gifts are ours. That’s what gives us the strength we need. And it is by our continuous reception and conscious reliance on them that Christ will triumph through us over all that is hostile or indifferent to God’s will.
So, here as a New Year begins, are three of the “great rocky facts of (my) being” that will shape the living of my days in the coming days: I am a beloved child of God, as are you; There will be adversity, days of real discouragement and defeat; and I have the resources of faith at my disposal to not merely endure those difficulties, but to actually triumph over them. Whatever resolutions I make for this coming year, these three great rocky facts will be their foundation. On my journey to wholeness – to being and doing what it is that God has always intended me to be and do – I know that I already belong to Him, an identity that is secure regardless of the struggles that may come, and that serves as the basis for my sure reliance upon Him to always come and help in the hour of my need. It is with these three “great rocky facts of (my) being” in mind,” that I step out into the New Year confident that no matter what may come, I am going to be fine because of whose I am.
Lead on, O King eternal; we follow, not with fears,
for gladness breaks like morning where’er your face appears.
Your cross is lifted o’er us, we journey in its light;
the crown awaits the conquest; lead on, O God of might.