Tomorrow is Hogmanay and many will be making resolutions for the new year. The problem with making resolutions is not that we inevitably fail to keep them and end up with a feeling of failure and lowered self worth. The problem with new year’s resolutions is that we make them in the first place.
We embrace the fallacy that if we set goals, work out a plan and commit ourselves to achieving it then we are likely to succeed. “To fail to plan is to plan to fail” goes the trite mantra. Unfortunately planning doesn’t work.
Here, in one of the most deprived parishes in the country, our local library is not particularly well stocked. There are, however, two types of book well represented. Escapist literature, and self-help books of the How To Become A Millionaire In A Month type. These are well used yet the condition of the parish and its people force me to conclude that either the books are exceptionally useful and all the new millionaires and successful entrepreneurs have moved out which is why there are so many boarded up tenements; or, and this is more likely, the books and the principles behind them are crap.
Detailed planning doesn’t work in international politics or national economies, just think of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, on second thoughts just think of the EU. Detailed planning especially doesn’t work in the lives of individuals. As any military man will tell you, the best made plans fly out the window as soon as contact is made with the enemy. Reality insists on intruding.
Resolutions don’t work because they go against our created nature. Kant and Grotius both pointed to a more feasible method of facing the future. Grotius spoke of natural law and Kant of the categorical imperative; rather than laying down goals which our actions must achieve and the steps by which we reach them, both approaches establish constraints upon our actions.
Knowingly or unknowingly they recognised a principle revealed in Scripture. God does not lay down a detailed plan, and despite the interpretations of lazy preachers, He does not lay down a set of steps by which we can achieve His goals for us. Instead God gives us a set of moral standards by which to live and sets us on our way to make responsible choices in the midst of that life. Any guidance beyond Scripture which we do receive comes one step at a time.
There are reasons why spontaneous responses to a given situation are shunned. Spontaneity demands knowledge of self, this is invariably uncomfortable. Spontaneity demands on the spot decision making which can only happen successfully when you have a clear moral framework already in place. Spontaneity demands taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, which is counter-cultural in a society divorced from its biblical roots.
In the new year what we require are fewer resolutions, goals and plans, and greater wisdom. As Calvin told us “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”