Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
It’s a yearly rite for millions. Create a list of “resolutions” for the year ahead, then watch in horror as those New Year’s resolutions slip out of grasp. A recent study by the University of Scranton finds that a mere 8 to 9 percent of resolution makers keep their goals – a fact that possibly contributes to only 40 percent of Americans making New Year’s resolutions at all. (Marist Institute for Public Opinion)
In fact, the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 75 percent of resolution-makers would be successful for one week. Only 40 to 46 percent were still sticking to their resolutions six months into the year. Many had actually abandoned the effort totally by February. One is reminded of Sisyphus, a cruel Greek king, who was punished to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to find it rolling back on him again and again when he neared the top. Here we see the pain of deep frustration and failure at not attaining the goal that was set.
The practice of resolution-making has its origin in ancient pagan Rome, where worshippers would offer resolutions of good conduct to the god Janus (January), the two-faced deity looking backwards and forwards. Since then, it’s become a socially-sanctioned time where the plate is clean and everyone has a new opportunity. Why doesn’t making resolutions seem to work and, more pointedly, ought Orthodox Christians make New Year’s resolutions at all?
I offer that the problem with New Year’s resolutions is twofold. One is about the nature of our goals and the other is about our motivation; one speaks to what we seek and the other to what moves us to seek at all. What do resolution-makers seek? In a survey of nearly 1,200 U.S. adults taken December 8 to 11, 2017 for 2018 by Statista, the most common resolutions were: eat healthier (37%), get more exercise (37%), save more money (37%), focus on self-care like getting more sleep (24%), read more (18%), make new friends (15%), learn a new skill (15%), get a new job (14%), and take up a new hobby (13%). These results are consistent with previous years’ subjects with minor differences. We seem to relentlessly address our physical needs and wants – our bodies, our wealth, our work, our physical health, and our interests.
Conspicuously absent is anything to do with our spiritual life, the life of our soul, of the unseen and immeasurable, of our ultimate destiny. Our resolutions emphasize the human person as, in effect, one-dimensional, leaving unanswered the question: do we have an ultimate concern in our lives and does that spiritual concern deserve our attention and our care as the first priority of our existence? The resolutions we make reveal our priorities which, it seems, are decidedly lopsided.
The Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina (1934-1982) addresses this ultimate priority of the Orthodox Christian life: “Everything in this life passes away – only God remains, only He is worth struggling towards. We have a choice: to follow the way of this world, of the society that surrounds us, and thereby find ourselves outside of God; or to choose the way of life, to choose God who calls us and for whom our heart is searching.” While well-meaning resolutions are not, in and of themselves, unhealthy choices, unless we first look to our heart and soul, to our lives of Christian faith, to our prayer life with God, to our active participation in Divine Worship and the doing of the works of mercy – and honestly resolve to grow in these areas, to seek healing for any brokenness, to increasingly “become by grace what God is by nature” – we are buying into the notion that man is mere flesh, a one-dimensional creature who has no ultimate meaning or destiny.
We are willing to put untold hours into maintaining a healthy body while all the while it is our souls that slowly but steadily atrophy, become numb, and can lose life. THAT is what we are saying when our vision is earth-bound, when we fail to “lift up our eyes to the mountains whence cometh our salvation.” (Psalm 121:1)w. This is when we live hopelessly, anchored to the earth where everything ultimately passes. Yet, what we seek is only part of the problem with our resolutions. The greater concern is what is it that moves us to seek in the first place?
Part of the difficulty in keeping resolutions in our lives relates to our motivation. Why do we establish resolutions at all? What is it in us that compels us to do it? Moreover, what is the dynamism that keeps us moving forward or the flaw that causes us, in exasperation, to give up?
From the perspective of Orthodox Christian theology, we can expect our proposed resolutions to be frustrated if they are only self-imposed, self-willed, and self-propelled – in other words if ego is at the root and source of the effort. St. Augustine described this phenomenon as being curved in on the self (incurvatus in se). The ego takes over our emotions, our thoughts, and our consequent actions. Our energy seems inward directed, our concerns are designed to satisfy our cravings (passions) and the extreme thoughts of our mind (logismoi). Augustine sums it up: “It is like the entire world turns inward towards the self and man is not conscious of the fact that what he thinks is his greatest strength becomes his fatal weakness.” Missing from this entire process is the power and activity of God, the Divine Other, the only Self that makes ourselves whole.
No actual spiritual transformation or growth can occur in us without the presence and activity of God (grace) – therefore He must be our motivation and reason, we must live in the conviction that He has begun the good work in us and will bring it to completion. It is the Lord who must sit on the throne of our heart and we must make no pretense to it. It was this belief that moved the sinner, King David, to write in Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the guard keep vigil.”
Resolutions will fail unless we live each day as active Orthodox Christians, with Christ as the regent of our hearts, with egos (passions) kept under control, and with the awareness that, in the end, it is Christ who conquers, Christ who rules, and Christ who will see us through to success.
So before you craft your resolutions, seek out and identify your revelations. Look for God in your life. Is He there, can you feel Him, is He active? Do you regularly and honestly talk to Him every day in quality time? Do you identify your Christian faith as strong, weak, or sadly indifferent? Is your belief in God comfortable, like an old slipper, but without fervor, and fire, and faithful conviction? How much time do you spend at the Lord’s Table, how much effort do you make to organize your life around your faith rather than try to fit your faith into your “busy” life? Is your home a place of active faith and prayer? Do you read God’s Word together, pray together, expect the very best from each other? Do you invest yourself in the lives of the needy, the marginalized, and the hopeless? Do you reach out to members of our faith community who are in evident need?
Before losing weight, making more money, learning a new skill, improving your house, or getting more sleep – ask yourself the above questions first. Tend to your soul first to see if the Lord Jesus Christ is truly seated on the throne of your heart. If you search and find out that you are seated on that throne, all it takes is getting up and inviting Him to sit at the center of your life. May this new year bring you that amazing grace!
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