By Bob Setzer
One week into the New Year, much Jan. 1 resolve is flagging fast. What seemed so easy when greeting the New Year has now turned into the daily grind of fighting temptation. The reservoirs of willpower are draining at an alarming rate. It won’t be long before the healthy, svelte New You — so clear in the mind’s eye — will perish in the greedy grab for another donut. Or the heartfelt promise to rise early and knock out 30 minutes on the treadmill will be squashed with one thump of the alarm’s snooze button.
Some people have wised up and learned to “win” the game of New Year’s resolutions by never making any. At least they don’t have to face the looming spectacle of failure. And a few people succeed in making needed changes: They go cold turkey and quit smoking or drinking, or begin a diet/exercise regimen that keeps the pounds off for good. But in early January, most of us find ourselves stranded in the netherworld of dreams. We can imagine a new, improved self, but seem powerless to create one. Why does this have to be so hard?
In his new book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, science writer Gary Taubes argues that the battle of the bulge is won or lost at the cellular level. When the body is assailed by a diet heavy in processed carbohydrates, the fat cells go crazy. Like tumor cells that live only for themselves, they start gobbling up food and nutrients needed elsewhere. As a result, one becomes hungry and tired and moves less and eats more. Thus, the cycle is reinforced and the dilemma deepens.
While I am no expert in diet and nutrition, much of what Taubes says resonates with my experience — that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is not so simple as flipping a switch that says “Don’t eat that!” There are powerful forces on the inside arrayed against the effort to change.
The same is true in making any much-needed but challenging change. Willpower alone cannot overcome the deep-seated resistance that dwells within us — some of it known, but much of it hidden and mysterious. As the Apostle Paul confesses in Romans 7, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”
Thus, real change — profound, systemic, deeply spiritual change — arises from two sources. At the level of the will, to be sure, where we say “Yes” to Jesus’ call of “Follow me.” But the real work is done, or perhaps better said, unfolds, as we follow him. And in the company of his living Presence, and his Word, and his People, the church, we are slowly transformed from the inside out.
In striving to become a new person, it’s not that the will is unimportant. But according to the Good News of Jesus, the will is not enough. We need something more. We need him. We need fellow pilgrims who will hold us precious and hold us accountable. We need honesty with ourselves, with God, and people we trust. We need much prayer and reflection. We need patience and hope and love.
In short, in a culture enamored with the power of The Will (and his alias, “Self Help”), we need a good dose of God-sized humility, meaning a need in your life only God can fill. That’s why this Sunday, Christians will gather for worship on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and meet Jesus in the waters of his baptism (Matt. 3:13-17). His baptism is not for him; it is for us. Because he knew how badly we would need him.
Especially after yet another slew of New Year’s resolutions lie slain upon the shore.