Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age by Bob Cutillo, Free for CAPC Members
Dr. Cutillo seeks to engage readers in rethinking, and re-engaging, health and care from a redemptive approach.
It’s that time of year again. Time to get jazzed up about making life changes. Time to set one, two, or twelve personal improvement goals which will be progressively abandoned over the next month.
Maybe that’s not you, but it’s definitely been me in the past. Even if you’re not one of the 40% who will make New Year’s resolutions this year, you’ve probably made one before. And like me, you’ve probably failed to keep one as well. If that’s so, you might find yourself asking, “does anything good come out of New Year’s resolutions?” Though they seem to always start with the best of intentions, they rarely turn into positive life change. In fact, one study estimates that less than 50% of people who make New Year’s resolutions will have kept up with them 6 months later. With such a high failure rate, why bother?When our resolutions are aimed at stewardship instead of salvation, we are in a better place not to feel crushed by guilt when we fail to keep them.
I am not writing to motivate you to make or keep New Year’s resolutions. Personally, I think it’s a good practice. If you’re looking for advice for resolving well, then read this instead. What I’d like to do is think for a minute about the whole enterprise of New Year’s resolutions. In general, resolutions are a good impulse to have. Our habits matter and resolutions are often focused on putting to death bad habits or giving life to good ones. New Year’s resolutions don’t get far without harnessing the power of habit. Consciously reflecting on and adjusting our habits for the better is a good thing.
Additionally, before resolving to change a habit, many spend time in self-examination. True, some people make New Year’s resolutions on a whim. But for many, realizing a change needs to be made often comes by reflecting on the self. This practice illustrates the maxim that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. And if personal examination is a precursor to all movement toward growth and change, it is something we should be quick to commend.
If only self-examination and habits were the crux of resolutions! But as with most things human, life is complicated. The social dimension of resolutions can provide some motivation, but with it often comes eventual guilt.
Consider resolutions as redemption-oriented. For some people, New Year’s resolutions can be motivated by a kind of salvation through self-effort. What one is being saved from varies, but let’s focus on habits of health. By having a healthier lifestyle, one is hoping to escape diseases and extend life. On its own, this is not that problematic.
However, healthy habits often morph into needing social validation in the court of public opinion. Our culture values skinny bodies, not necessarily healthy ones. If the results do not show outwardly, one can feel that they haven’t adequately “atoned” for sins in the past in order to stand justified in their present habits of health. Because the individual is both sinner and savior, the weight of causing the problem and failing to fix it is unbearable.
In this example, the goal of having a healthier lifestyle is hijacked by the need for social acceptance. A New Year’s resolution like this may actually cause more harm than good. Wanting to look good is one thing. Being obsessed with what other people think of you is another. The latter is not healthy–even if it gets you into the gym more frequently.
Remember that New Year’s resolutions are entirely optional. You’re not a bad person if you don’t make them, and perhaps more importantly, if you don’t keep them. I imagine many people have good motivations for making resolutions, have thought through a plan for keeping them, but then fail miserably. Failure can be instructive, but it can also be tempting to despair of guilt when this happens.
Such guilt is well-placed if your New Year’s resolutions are attempts to be your own Lord and Savior. If that really were the case, you would bear the sole responsibility of becoming a better you. Do more. Try harder. Resolutions become a means to an end. It may be too easy to get stuck in this cycle, longing for a verdict of “righteous” that never comes.
Thankfully, the gospel proclaims that our justification before God is grounded not in what we can do but in what God in Christ did. As we are constantly reminded of this, we should reorient our own resolutions away from self and social pressure to resolve from a place where we enjoy the justification that matters most.
We can glorify God in whatever we do, and New Years can be a time to examine if our life habits are doing just that and make adjustments accordingly. For me, this has led to New Year’s resolutions aimed at being a better steward rather than a better savior. When it comes to habits of health, if I’m approaching them as steward instead of savior, I’ll likely be more realistic about what I can accomplish. In addition, I’ll revisit my habits on a regular basis instead of only once a year (or even less).
Stewardship itself is a disposition, almost verging on a kind of habit. If that’s the case, New Year’s resolutions are part of a lifestyle that evaluates, changes, and repeats. Within that lifestyle, failure is not only acceptable, it may even be part of the growing experience. Ultimately, when our resolutions are aimed at stewardship instead of salvation, we are in a better place not to feel crushed by guilt when we fail to keep them.
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