Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide?

The U.S. Department of the Treasury maintains three gift funds, one of which is known as the “Conscience Fund,” established in 1811. The name stuck after the Civil War when a former Army quartermaster who had misappropriated funds sent a check along with a note that read: “Suppose we call this a contribution to the conscience fund and get it announced in the newspapers, and perhaps we will get some more.”

Most contributions to the fund have come through people who cheated on their taxes. The interesting thing is that gifts to the fund have been declining rapidly. In 2014, people gave over a million dollars to the fund. In 2015, that amount was cut by more than half. In 2016, just $23,000 was given. According to Business Insider, halfway through 2017, only one gift of $1,600 had been given.

What is behind this sharp decline? Some have speculated that people believe it is no longer possible to hide their identities from Big Brother. A darker explanation is that the decline in giving to the Conscience Fund follows a decline in efficiently operating consciences.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote: “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” One can only hope the reduction in giving to the Conscience Fund is due to the former possibility, and not the latter.

Conscience is not a static system. It can evolve or devolve in the lives of individuals and societies, become more sensitive or less sensitive. It can respond vigorously to certain stimuli in one period, and not at all in another because conscience must be informed, if it is to work. There needs to be, as it were, software as well as hardware.

The software running the conscience regularly receives updates. This happens, when we are children, through interaction with parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and a host of other sources. As adults, the sources may change, but the conscience continues to update. It runs on the psychological equivalent of continuously modified open source software.

One suspects that the conscience code is now being generated by different sources than it was thirty or forty years ago. Parents and teachers have been largely replaced by media. Pastors have been discarded and not replaced. Books are less influential than movies and television. And it must be remembered that parents and teachers and pastors are also continuously receiving conscience code updates from all these sources as well.

An influential source in history has been the Bible. Its message has informed and updated the consciences of individuals and societies for millennia. Its writers also understood the nature of the conscience and how it functions. For example, the New Testament authors understood that the conscience can exist in a variety of states: it can be a good or bad conscience, one that functions effectively or one that doesn’t; a clear or guilty conscience; a weak conscience or a strong one. Some of these states can overlap.

St. Paul writes that he has a clear conscience but admits that does not make him innocent, since a conscience can be clear for one more than one reason. It may be clear because it is innocent, or because it lacks sensitivity and no longer functions efficiently.

A weak conscience, like a weak circuit breaker, may activate unnecessarily. A person with a weak conscience feels guilty for no good reason. Every little thing sets him off. According to the Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier. that sort of “diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality.” So one can feel guilt when innocent, or feel innocent when guilty.

St. Paul further suggests that the conscience can stop working entirely, can be, as he strikingly pictured it, “seared as with a hot iron.” This happens when a person repeatedly ignores the alarm of conscience until he or she effectively has, as Ogden Nash might say, “no conscience at all.”

We need trusted sources for updating the conscience. Such sources can be found in our traditions, rituals, and shared history. These include what might be the most influential shaper of conscience in the history of the world: the richly layered, compelling message of the Bible.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/3/2018


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Churches as Contempt-free and Condemnation-free Zones

It is generally acknowledged that our society has become increasingly mean-spirited. Unless today’s politician is chronically incensed and habitually scornful, no one will take him or her seriously. The so-called “liberal elite” are famously contemptuous: that conservatives are morally-challenged dimwits is for them a matter of orthodoxy. I, who have expressed thoughtful opposition to gay marriage, have been repeatedly belittled and insulted.

But the contempt of the irreligious for Christians has been frequently matched by Christians’ condemnation of the irreligious. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a research and communication company that explores cultural and religious trends, reported in his book UnChristian that 87 percent of unchurched people born between 1966 and 2002 believe present-day Christians are “judgmental”.

That perception is not limited to people outside the church, either. When Philip Eaton was president of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, he asked: “Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?” and went on to speak of a “meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture.”

These two issues, contempt and condemnation, devaluing others and damning them, are clearly addressed in the Bible. Jesus spoke to both issues in the celebrated Sermon on the Mount. He saw contempt and condemnation as so destructive that he prohibited his students from engaging in either.

Jesus warned his followers that contempt, expressed in invective and insult, would place them “in danger of the fires of hell.” He knew that contempt opens the door to abuses that could not otherwise happen. Sexual harassment, gay-bashing, racial discrimination, and every other crime of hate begins with contempt.

The Nazis are the ultimate example. They turned contempt into a science. When Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and people with disabilities has been transformed by propaganda into something subhuman, the population was able to ignore, and in some cases even applaud, the atrocities committed against them.

Jesus also warned his followers, in no uncertain terms, against adopting a posture of condemnation. He told them, point-blank: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged…”

Contempt and condemnation are analogous to two poles of an electromagnetic field. It is possible to distinguish between them, but they come from the same source. In the case of contempt and condemnation, that source is self-righteousness. When people enter a contempt-condemnation field, they can feel it. Some will be attracted by it and others, good people, will be repelled by it.

No one should ever enter one of these contempt-condemnation fields by going to church. Churches ought to be contempt-free, condemnation-free zones. This does not mean that appropriate rebuke and correction cannot take place. It can, and sometimes ought to take place, but it must be performed in a manner like that of St. Dominic. He was said to reprimand “so affectionately that no one was ever upset by his correction and punishment.”

Of course, churches are not condemnation-free, contempt-free zones. (Just ask 87 percent of young, unchurched people—or ask churched people, for that matter). If they are ever to become condemnation and contempt-free, it will not be because they implemented diversity training or held communication workshops, however valuable these may be. It will be because they took seriously their commitment to Jesus and put his instruction into practice.

In the absence of a strong commitment to live Jesus’s way, our differences with each other will produce contempt and condemnation. Indifference to the lordship of Jesus virtually guarantees our differences will divide us. But it is right here that the genius of the church is most apparent: when we share a commitment to Jesus as our leader, our differences make us stronger.

That shared commitment does not lead us to value diversity in the abstract, but to value each another – in all our diversity. This is such a rare feature in contemporary society that when people see it – even the 87 percent of young, unchurched people – they stand up and take notice. Jesus clearly foresaw this when he told his followers, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Really, who else lives like that?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/27/18

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More Links Do Not Make a Stronger Chain

A fellow-juror once told me, at the conclusion of a trial, that he really enjoyed jury duty. I could see how he might say he appreciated the American system of justice, or how he counted it an honor to serve, but how he could enjoy serving on a jury was beyond me.

I’ve served on two juries, the second time as a foreman, and in neither case did I enjoy myself. I and my fellow-jurors were tasked with making a decision that had the potential of changing the course of a human life. That was a heavy burden to bear.

I can remember the judge explaining to the jury the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” but the line between reasonable and unreasonable doubt is notoriously hard to fix. And it seems to be placed differently for different jurors.

This became clear to me when a defense attorney told the jury he was going to present us with twenty-six reasons to find his client “Not-Guilty.” He began with the letter “A” and worked his way through the alphabet. It was a dog and pony show. Many of his twenty-six reasons were ludicrous, and most had no bearing on his client’s innocence. After the prosecution presented its case, I had little doubt of the defendant’s guilt. By the time the defense attorney reached the letter E, I had no doubt at all.

In the afternoon, a witness inadvertently presented evidence that had been previously ruled inadmissible. The judge immediately halted the case, and sent us to the jury room. A few minutes later, a bailiff told us we could discuss the case. To my amazement, several of my fellow-jurors spoke about how convincing the defense attorney’s argument had been. “He had twenty-six reasons!” one of them said, obviously impressed.

The lawyer piled up twenty-six “reasons,” and committed about that many logical fallacies in the process. The number of reasons proves nothing: piling up fallacies remains fallacious, no matter how many there are.

This kind of argument is often used to prove a doctrinal point in Christian circles. A person will amass biblical verses in support of some ecclesiastical or social position, then triumphantly declare, “You can’t argue with Scripture,” or “This is God’s word, not human opinion!” But each proof must be considered on its own merits. Fifty unsuccessful proofs are less convincing than a single successful one.

Not long before the turn of the millennium, a friend brought me a video of a well-known Christian teacher, and asked for my opinion. The teacher claimed that Jesus would return in or around the year 2,000, and he had dozens of biblical proofs to support his claim. He committed one logical fallacy after another in the application of his “proofs.” I remember telling my friend, “Jesus may return in 2,000, but it sure won’t be because this guy said so!”

A hundred prooftexts do not a sound argument make. Each text must be examined for relevance and consistency. Some time ago, another friend asked me to watch a teaching video, which he enthusiastically endorsed as “biblical,” since the teacher’s material came exclusively from the Bible. Indeed, the teacher constantly quoted the Bible, but that did not make his instruction biblical. He wrenched one text after another out of its context, and entirely ignored verses that undermined his point. Yet he maintained that the number of texts he had amassed proved him right. His argument was as faulty as the alphabet lawyer’s, and for the same reasons.

I have noticed that people who argue this way usually place considerable stress on the idea that their idea is biblical – how can it not be with a hundred proof texts? – thereby implying that anyone who disagrees with them is, de facto, unbiblical. But this is to assume the very point that remains to be proven: the argument’s faithfulness to the biblical witness.

A chain, whether forged from steel or logic, is not stronger because it has more links. The links must really connect with each other and with a premise that is true. This is something to remember the next time someone claims biblical support for a position based on the quantity of texts presented.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/20/2018

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Is There Still a Place for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in the Hymnal?

Thirty years ago, there was a ruckus in the United Methodist Church over its hymnody. The hymnal revision committee had recommended the removal of two well-known gospel songs with militaristic overtones: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christians Soldiers.” Because of protests, the hymns were retained, but the issue has resurfaced periodically.

The hymnal committees’ sensitivity to the lyrics of these songs is understandable. The spread of Christianity has been regrettably associated with British and American imperialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not only the cross of Christ that won the day but the capitalism of the West. Christian missionaries smuggled Western values into other cultures, sometimes unwittingly, under the guise of gospel truth.

So, for the hymnal committees of the Methodist denomination and others, the idea of singing militaristic songs in the name of the Prince of Peace was incongruous at best. At worst, it undermined biblical values and militated against (irony intended) the proper spiritual mindset of those who sang them. It conjured up images of the Crusades, and promoted an “if you can’t convert them, conquer them” mentality.

The desire to avoid songs with martial overtones is understandable, in the light of Western imperialism and our own shameful history of using empty promises and loaded guns to deprive Native Americans of their lands. If these hymns link Christians with ethnocentrism in the minds of others – or worse, in Christians’ own minds – they are doing considerable harm.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there is still a place in our hymnody for hymns and gospel songs that make use of military metaphors, like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” The ample use of military metaphors by the inspired biblical writers supports the continued use of such language in our hymns.

Take, for example, the Apostle Paul. He repeatedly chose military metaphors to make important points regarding Christian living. He referred to his co-workers as fellow-soldiers, and in so doing evoked an image of the kind of all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie that is characteristic on the battlefield, and ought to be in the churches.

He used military metaphors to make clear the need for Christians to be properly outfitted and supplied. He further used such images to remind Christians that they are in a battle – not to subdue members of another culture or religion, but to “vanquish evil with good.” His military metaphors point out the need for courage and endurance among Jesus-loyalists. He does not want his readers to mistake the life of faith for a walk in the park; he knows it is more like a march through a minefield.

The military metaphors in the New Testament call Christians to be alert, strong, prepared, smart, and loyal. They emphasize the need for discipline and self-restraint, virtues which have fallen out of favor in contemporary society. But it should be remembered that these military images are never used, in any context, to call Christians to perpetrate physical violence or to attempt the subjugation of people from other cultures or religions. The very idea contradicts the gospel and would have been condemned by Jesus, who told his people to be as “harmless as doves.” Obviously, military metaphors are not the only kind in the Bible.

The principal reason to continue using hymns with militaristic images and language, though, goes beyond biblical proof texts to take in the larger biblical narrative. Christians need to be reminded that they are part of something bigger, the advanced guard of a kingdom that is coming but has not yet been established. They are on duty. The Christian life is not a walk in the park with the savior but a mission for the king. It calls for alertness, determination, cooperation, endurance, and strength.

When Christians forget they are part of something bigger – a kingdom that is strongly resisted by the existing powers of the world – they begin to value comfort above usefulness and security above courage. The Christians who have made a difference in the world – who have cured diseases, cared for the poor, freed slaves, and ended wars – were not people who valued comfort above kingdom. Nor are they today.

That’s why those old hymns still have a place.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/13/2018

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Common Ways – and One Uncommon Way – to Handle Conflict

The beginning of a new year can serve as a catalyst for dealing with old problems, including long-standing relational conflicts. Every family – every person – experiences conflict. Two people are all that it takes to set the stage and for the drama to begin. When it was just Adam and Eve, with no ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, or mothers-in-law, they probably argued over whether to go with the trim-fit fig leaf or the loose-fit sycamore.

Everyone experiences conflict, and we all have our own ways of responding to it. One way is with anger. The psychologist Neil Warren, who founded eHarmony, identified four common ways people express anger in conflict. Some people blow up, and there are shrapnel wounds all around. One never has to guess what is wrong with this kind of person. When the top of his head comes off you can see what is on his mind. He erupts like a volcano, and you know what’s bothering him.

There are other people who don’t blow up; they burn up. They don’t explode, they smolder. If asked, they will probably say that nothing is wrong. They even tell themselves that nothing is wrong. As far as externals go, everything is cool. But there is internal combustion going on, and it is eating them up. If nothing changes, their insides will eventually turn to ash.

Then there are people who pout. Their weapon in conflict is not explosive anger, but corrosive guilt. They suffer terribly, and yet, oddly enough, it is everyone else who is miserable. A good example is the older brother in Jesus’s famous parable of the prodigal son. He is conspicuously missing from the family celebration, demanding attention by his absence, and yet spurning it when it is given. His father asks him to join the others, but he lays on the guilt: “You give him, the bad son, a party. You never gave me a stupid party. You always loved him best.”

The fourth way people deal angrily with conflict is with payback, frequently delivered on the deferred payment plan. They slowly torture their victims, using words to injure, but often under the guise of humor. They won’t admit they’re angry, but they won’t be satisfied until they see their victims squirm – again and again.

The way conflict is handled can intensify it rather than quell it. The initial disagreement, handled appropriately, might have been resolved with relative ease but, dealt with in the wrong way, ratchets up the anger. One sees this often in troubled, long-term relationships, both at home and at work. The principals in the conflict can provide a long and specific list of complaints, but can’t remember where the trouble started.

At this point, a good counselor can be helpful. He or she can clarify the steps needed to resolve the conflict. But knowing the steps will not help much if the desire for a better relationship is missing. I have asked people point-blank, “Do you want a better relationship?” only to hear the response, “Yes, but…” followed by a list of accusations. Until the emphasis is on the “yes” and not on the accusations, real progress will be rare.

In conflict, people become profoundly adversarial, even when they compromise, concede, or withdraw. It’s been my experience, both as an observer and a participant in conflict, that the most important and most difficult step in healing a relationship is to stop thinking of the other person as the enemy and instead think of the unresolved issue as the enemy.

If people can do this, the conflict will often be resolved very quickly. But who can do this – who can think of the person who has injured (or is injuring) them as anything but an adversary? It is not what normal people do.

Perhaps not, but it is what spiritual people do. When I have had the privilege of seeing it happen, there has always been a spiritual dynamic present. The people who love enemies and do good to them, as Jesus instructed his followers to do, are conscious of God’s presence and confident of his help. Because God is real to them, they can risk being vulnerable to others.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/6/2017

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Prequels and Sequels: Christmas in Retrospect

“You better watch out, you better not cry; Better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is comin’ to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is comin’ to town  He sees you when you’re sleepin’. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”[1]

If that isn’t the most blatant example of propaganda ever, I don’t know what is. It is mind-control – plain and simple. St. Nicholas could sue for libel. St. Paul would decry it as a theology of works. Yet it plays on a thousand radio stations every December, and parents have it on their iTunes and Apple Music playlists. And when their kids start to act up, they just remind them that Santa is watching. Mind control. You ask me how I know this? I know this because that’s what my mother did. If my brother and I were getting a little rambunctious, it was: “Are you on the naughty or nice list right now?” When we were supposed to be sleeping but were instead goofing around, we were reminded that “Santa is watching.”

And my dad made things worse by putting candy canes on our window sills – it never occurred to us that they were the same candy canes he gave away in the barbershop at Christmastime – and made us think that Santa had been spying on us, peeking us through the windows. That’s creepy, isn’t it? A peeping Santa. I mean, how was a five-year-old supposed to think about that? I can remember going outside when I was little, and tracking Santa’s big boots – which were, suspiciously, size 10 and ½, just like my dad’s – with my pop gun at the ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I caught up with hi, but I was hot on his trail. And then I lost him when his boot prints looped back around the house and became confused in the myriad of other prints around our back porch. He was clever!

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Bad or good, that was the question at Christmas time. Get in a fight with your brother, even when you didn’t start it, and your mother was saying: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” It was paralyzing. For the month before Christmas, we couldn’t get away with a thing.

But listen: Bad or good is not the issue, and Christmas is not a tool to make children grow up into responsible citizens and reliable tax payers. Christmas is more than you or I realize.

I’m sure many of you have gone to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the past week or so. (And before you ask me what I thought of it, I haven’t seen it yet. You know, I’m more of a Star Trek guy, but that’s probably because the resident adviser in my dorm almost ordered me to go and see the first Star Wars movie. He kept telling me (and everybody else), “There is a guy in the movie that looks exactly like Looper. Exactly. You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.” (My hair and beard were a little longer back then.)

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know the story now in theaters is part of a much grander narrative. Even that first movie I went to see in the ’70s was part of a much bigger story, though most of us didn’t realize it at the time. It had a backstory – a prequel – and would have a fore-story – a sequel.

That’s the way it is with Christmas. It is a satisfying story in itself – this tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, of an angel messenger and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story – or even knowing there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we can’t really understand it, not until we know how Christmas fits into the larger narrative. Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and we’ll only understand it within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from all others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. This story is interactive: we have a role.

What is the prequel to the Christmas story? It would take more time than we have available to give much detail – you can get a lot of it from the Old Testament – but I’ll summarize. The backstory is that a superior intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet – as it turns out, our planet. The creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.

Unlike the other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered the humans with a high degree of autonomy: they can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of the creation.

But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are co-opted by a dark power and drawn away from their creator and the result is disastrous. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as physical-spiritual hybrids, underwent catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans became like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensued: injustice, greed, hatred, and foolishness invaded human society.

The creator, though, does not give up on his human creatures. He rather communicates with the humans that are capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to take humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures. Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. His plan is to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to save humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.

Once we are aware of the prequel, we realize that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue, the story of an invasion. It is a bittersweet story, because when the creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his creatures did not know him. So St. John writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to His own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Of course, in the tale we know as the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement: there is a tyrannical ruler who serves an Empire which is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the Empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.

But here is the thing we need to understand about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. And it is full of surprises. Instead of the creator going to war against the rebels, as we might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have impressed them with his vast power, or intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness – the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set something more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside; to change us from the inside.

To that end, the creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and rising again. That is the climax of the story, and you can read about in the New Testament Gospels.

It is the climax of the story, but it is not the end of the story. The story continued on, as chronicled in the book known as The Acts of the Apostles. And the same story is going on still, and still being chronicled. (Remember what St. John wrote: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now, and have a role to play in it.

Think of it! We’re in the same story as Mary, only at a different point in the plot. What happened to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi – that’s the prequel to our part of the story. But while ours is a sequel, it is not the final installment. That is still to come, when the king who came comes again; this time, not a baby, but a hero; not in weakness, but in strength; not in poverty, but in glory.

And that final installment of that story is the beginning of the great story that goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the last (Lewis). We join the heroes of the faith – Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know. And we join them because of God’s grace delivered through the baby, the man, the king.

Preached on Christmas Eve at Lockwood Church, Coldwater, MI

[1]  Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots

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Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

People who make New Year’s resolutions overwhelmingly fail to keep them. Dan Diamond, writing in Forbes, reports that researchers at the University of Scranton found that only 8 percent of people actually keep their resolutions. A failure rate that exceeds 90 percent can only be considered catastrophic.

Presumably, people who make New Year’s resolutions really want to keep them. It’s not like anyone is holding a gun to their heads. So why do nine out of ten of us fail to do what we ourselves have chosen to do?

Experts have offered valuable suggestions. They explain that our expectations are too often unrealistic. We bite off more than we can chew. Additionally, they say our resolutions fail because we do not plan to succeed. We have a goal, but no strategy for achieving it. Or our New Year’s resolutions die from starvation: we neglect to feed them with the necessary time and money they need to survive, believing our good intentions are enough to carry them through.

The reasons for failure can be summarized under three headings: vision, intention, and means. These terms come from Dallas Willard’s insightful book, “The Renovation of the Heart,” which is a helpful resource on how people change, written from a Christian perspective. Failures in these areas will usually lead to fruitless – and soon-forgotten – resolutions.

Vision is foundational to success. A while back, a friend told me that he would like to learn a difficult (for Westerners) foreign language. I asked him how learning that language would improve his life and benefit him in the future. He gave a predictable reply – it would help him in his work – and we moved on to other things. When we met again a month later, I asked him what he had decided about learning the language. He wisely responded that he had given it up for now. I was glad: his vision at this point in his life was inadequate to sustain his desire.

We keep resolutions when we have envisioned the benefits that will accrue to us and desire them more than the life we are currently living. When we have seen our future in this light, keeping resolutions is not difficult because the resolutions keep us. If we constantly struggle to keep a grip on our resolutions, it could be that no compelling vision of the future has gripped us.

When failure is caused by lack of vision, it is necessary to spend time praying, researching, and thinking about what our future could be. Distraction is the danger here. It prevents people from envisioning the future God has for them, and resolving to attain it.

The second main reason people fail to keep resolutions falls under the heading “Intention.” They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the road unpaved by intentions is even worse; it leads nowhere. At least the road to hell has interchanges that lead in the other direction.

When our failure to keep resolutions is caused by a lack of intention, it is important to state what we want to achieve in specific terms. We must decide to do it, and share that decision with others. Willard writes about people who “may have wished that what they supposedly intend would happen, and perhaps they even wanted to do it (or for it to be done); but they did not decide to do it, and their intention—which well may have begun to develop—aborted and never really formed.”

The third primary reason for failure falls under the heading of “Means.” When vision and intention are in place, the means will usually become apparent. Still, it can be helpful to identify the thoughts, feelings, habits and relationships that might prevent us from keeping our resolution. When this has been thoughtfully done, a strategy can be developed for dealing with obstacles. This will clarify the “means” for keeping our resolve.

One thing every resolution-maker should know is that will-power alone will not sustain a resolution. Will-power is more like an ignition switch than the engine it starts. Will-power can get us going, but the engine that will keep us going runs on vision, intention, and means.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/30/2017

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