“And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
Now that we are past the halfway point of January, it’s time to check in on the status of those New Year’s resolutions. How is that new diet or workout routine progressing? How are you saving more money, praying more fervently, reading more, and spending less time on social media? If you still remember and are persevering in your goals for 2022, great work! However, if you’ve already forgotten or wavered in your lofty resolutions, you are certainly not alone.
But wait…Let me guess. You might be one of those “enlightened ones” who know that New Year’s resolutions are for the naïve. You’ve come to see that such resolutions are childishly and impulsively made (perhaps while not entirely sober) by those who want to better themselves immediately after experiencing the pang of remorse from over-indulgence in food, drink, and shopping during the holidays.
You recognize all of this through your incredible perspicuous reflection, and your sage wisdom and foresight leads you to conclude that you are far superior to such trite conventions. You can’t fail a resolution you never made. Oh, you crafty one – you’ve outwitted the system!
Forgive my facetiousness. Regardless of which camp you might sympathize with— Pro-Resolution or Enlightened-Super-Cynic-Anti-Resolution Party — I think it’s worth reflecting on this cultural practice from a new vantage point – from the perspective offered by our Faith as Catholics.
While making resolutions at the beginning of a calendar year is itself a secular custom, the practice of making resolutions is entirely Christian. Whenever we conduct our daily examination of conscience or go to confession and pray the act of contrition, we are inwardly choosing and through our words expressing the desire to amend our life. A contrite spirit necessarily forms a resolve to flee from and renounce what is evil and to desire and turn toward what is good.
But if you are like me (that is, a human being affected by original sin), you’ve likely experienced the discouraging experience of failing at resolutions more times than you can count (and I bet you can count pretty high). There seems to be a cynical joke among Catholics that says we might save time in confession if the priest just kept our “regular file” on hand. St. Paul the Apostle laments his own experience of feeling powerless as he states: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Hence, it is apparent that resolutions are indeed tricky things. On the one hand, it appears we are powerless in our ability to make ourselves better. On the other hand, it seems as if God has intended for us to exercise our own free agency in following Him. He in fact commands, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Our Church’s history and tradition have shown us that there are two tempting paths at this juncture that should be avoided. First, is the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. First, no, Pelagians are not those lazy students who copied from the smart kid’s essay.
Rather, this heresy is the idea that humans are equipped by their own nature with the necessary resources (natural powers) to follow God’s commandments with perfection and avoid sin. In other words, Pelagianism suggests that you can “earn heaven” without God’s help or grace – simply by your own good works.
The problem here is that Pelagianism fails to account for what St. Paul and all of human experience attest to – man’s fallen nature, or what the Church calls, “concupiscence.” Because of our concupiscence, our tendency is to sin and to fail, and therefore, when it comes to our salvation, God’s grace is not merely a nice bonus or luxury item – it’s an absolute necessity.
But this leads us to the other extreme. The truth of our absolute dependence upon God’s grace sometimes brings with it another cluster of popular heresies that emphasized the opposite notion. These suggested that man’s nature is entirely corrupted (Here’s lookin’ at you, Martin Luther!) and therefore incapable of performing good actions. Thus, it concludes God alone “does the work,” and man must only surrender himself entirely to God’s action of grace. In this way, man’s role is entirely passive.
Notice how each of these heresies gets close to the truth yet fails on a fundamental point. On the one hand, Christ does indeed call us to a life of holiness and perfection, and this entails we properly direct our freedom to the good and cultivate Christian virtue. However, if we are to avoid the Pelagian error, we must recognize the inadequacy of our human nature to accomplish this goal.
Thus, it is critical that we acknowledge our need for God’s assistance and open our hearts to receive His grace. Any effort we undertake without Him will be futile. But then, again, we must avoid the error that fails to acknowledge how we are called to respond to this grace through our works as the epistle of St. James makes abundantly clear: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
In his work of the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul also seeks to carefully acknowledge this dynamic relationship that exists between God and man, and he defends man’s moral character and actions should come about as a response to the Holy Spirit’s outpouring of grace. He states:
“…[B]ehind each of these realizations [the fruit of the Spirit], these moral virtues, stands a specific choice, that is, an effort of the will, a fruit of the human spirit permeated by the Spirit of God, which manifests itself in choosing the good” (TOB 51:6) (emphases his).
Now, we are ready to look again at how we should understand resolutions. First, the “enlightened cynics” can feel vindicated for a moment. It’s true that an impulsive New Year’s resolution that seeks to “white knuckle” one’s journey toward perfection will inevitably result in failure.
But the cynics are in no better position should they remain smugly aloof from any project to form new resolutions. Holiness and virtue do not come about from mere passivity.
If we want to experience authentic growth and renewal, we must recognize the truth of our human nature. As created in God’s image, we are granted some genuine freedom, and we, therefore, have some real responsibility for our choices and the formation of our character.
But contrary to the “do it yourself,” Pelagian spirit, we must recognize the reality of our limits and our relational dependence. That is, we must recognize that our source of strength or power is not something buried deep within us, but is found from God, and is further supported through our life in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.
I find that this image of renewal is poignantly shown through a scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There, when Christ is walking to Calvary, He meets His mother shortly after falling from the crushing burden of the cross. In their brief encounter, He says to her: “See, Mother, I make all things new!” He then immediately embraces His cross, picks Himself up, and continues forward.
In this moment, the meaning of Christ’s words is obscured by His physical brokenness and approaching death – all signs that would seem to indicate destruction and despair. But as Christians, we know the rest of the story. The paradox is that the Cross – which includes suffering and death – is the necessary path to redemption and New Life.
It is no wonder so many of us shy away from resolutions; we know that actual renewal involves facing the weight and pain of the Cross. But we must remember that we cannot carry it alone, nor are we meant to. Rather, we must turn to the source of our hope and salvation – the victorious Lamb of God.
Yet, as Christ Himself taught us, we are not called to remain passive bystanders. Rather we must respond by taking up our own crosses daily and following Him. We will certainly fall at times, and it is then, that we must resolve, no matter how many times we stumble, to turn back to our Savior, embrace our cross again, and follow Him.
Such is the beautiful paradox of the Christian life – for it is through the Cross that God’s glory becomes fully manifest. And then we shall understand St. Paul’s insight: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.