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Smile at your New Year resolutions failures

04 January 2019

Willpower is not the path to freedom — it’s a trap, says Mark Vernon. St Paul showed a better way

ALREADY, no doubt, New Year resolutions are slipping. The good intentions are proving weak. The reality of eating less meat or taking more than 10,000 steps a day is overcoming the resolve to eat better and exercise more. It is the annual reminder of what St Paul famously articulated in his Letter to the Romans: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

He was highlighting a profound truth about the human psyche: we are at odds with ourselves. There is resolve, but there is also desire; there is love, but there is also loathing; there is kindness, but there is also jealousy. With the best will in the world, we are destined for failure.

Any religion or wisdom tradition must have a way of grappling with this predicament. And, in a way, the Christian approach has been to offer two.


THE first might be called the confessional. Sooner or later, each of us realises that we cannot reform ourselves and that we keep on making mistakes, for all that we seek to live a more godly, Christian life. We therefore find ourselves longing for forgiveness and release, which the Church offers in the rites of confession and absolution.

It is a practical solution that relieves many souls. But it has a downside: it risks leaving us basically unchanged, and, instead, perpetually dependent on ritual absolution. The predicament reveals itself in the way in which almost every service in church begins with an admission of sin. There are clearly good theological reasons for doing so, as it enacts the basic movement from being lost to being found. But, psychologically, it can leave people stuck in a never-ending round of feeling sorry and then feeling saved, before feeling sorry again and then feeling saved.

I suspect that St Paul felt something akin to this cycle when he was struggling with himself. His vision of Christ on the road to Damascus showed him that God and goodness cannot be defeated. He called it glorious, meaning that anyone could participate in this awareness.

And yet he also came to the conclusion that there was a deadly tendency within humanity called sin: a falling short. He knew that he had been given the free gift of eternal life in the Spirit, as he puts it in Romans. It can be acknowledged by faith, as the individual gradually tries to align his or her life to it. Only it often feels as if the opposite is still happening; hence his famous remark. He found himself locked in a battle that manifested itself in his character as well as in his choices.

The confessional solution to the repeated failure was one path to take. It seems that many of his fellow believers adopted it, as they stayed in Jerusalem and frequented the Temple, presumably making the sacrifices. But St Paul glimpsed another possibility. Rather than show himself to the priests, he turned towards a more radical freedom. He stopped worrying about himself.

He let his failures be. He accepted his weakness. He embraced his thorn in the flesh. He adopted the daily task of dying to himself so that he could be reliably open to an inflow of the deathless life of God.

It was an individual way of being crucified with Christ. It was an inner sacrifice that learnt to offer all that happened, moment by moment, to God. Rather than pray for his agonies to go, and for his suffering to cease, he discovered that they were occasions for leaning on grace, and could become a way of knowing that he was a co-worker with God.

He found a novel kind of spiritual freedom. It was based on the most profound liberty that God offers, and was also what was truest in him: that there is no Jew or Greek, that nothing could separate him from the love of God, that he could himself take on the mind of Christ.


IT IS a type of freedom that makes leaders nervous — and they are, in a way, right. It is a liberty that can become libertarian. St Paul spent time fighting the misunderstanding, and I suspect it was what made Peter and the others in Jerusalem so cautious. But it became the heart of the gospel, and brings us back to what New Year resolutions do not get quite right.

Willpower is not the path to freedom: it is actually a trap. What St Paul realised was that love is the way forward because it is liberating. As he said in another famous passage, love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful. It rejoices in the truth, but also bears all things, and endures all things.

Compassion is the key; so smile at your resolution failures. Paradoxically, they may be important, because it is by our letting go, and discovering the other side of the struggle, that things start to change.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2016).

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