Resolutions Old and New
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
That’s Shakespeare’s take (from “Julius Caesar”) on how the things we do in this life either stay or fade away. The Bard makes the argument via the character of Mark Antony that the good a person does is less likely to be remembered than the bad. That argument can be roundly debated, but when it comes to making New Year’s resolutions, I’m certain the opposite is true. The things I resolve to do and complete are remembered. The things left unfinished are interred with my bones.
New Year’s resolutions are often a cliché unto themselves. If you want to buy a treadmill, just wait until March or April, when all those people whose resolutions weren’t so resolute after all tire of the unused monstrous contraption in their spare room and take to Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to offload their guilt. Every single gym I’ve frequented has been insufferably crowded during January and February, but becomes surprisingly spare when March rolls around. Likewise, I’ve known many a well-intended Christian who sets out in January to read through the Bible in a year, but begins to slow when they hit the arcane laws of Leviticus and end up mired in the genealogies that greet them at the beginning of Numbers.
That last part may or may not have been biographical. The point is that at one point or another we’ve all — whether at New Year’s or not — set out to achieve a big goal and somehow failed to do it. If our resolution is a positive one (as in, we’re starting a new action), the things we don’t achieve are forgotten. If it’s a negative resolution (e.g., I resolve to stop making my sentences so long…), we may live with the consequences of our failure until the consequences either consume us or become inconsequential.
Why do we have such a hard time with making resolutions? Why does our resolve evaporate more quickly than a stain treated with Resolve® carpet cleaner? I suspect that often it’s because our resolutions — even if they’re good resolutions — are made for our own sake. Enter Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was one of America’s most foundational figures. He was a pastor, a philosopher, a theologian, a biographer, the third president of Princeton, and the grandfather of U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, who by the way killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. I first read Edwards in an American literature class at my very public state university. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was published right there in my Norton Anthology of American Literature. The man got around.
Edwards published many works, but among his earliest efforts were a list of 70 personal resolutions that he wrote for himself over the course of a couple of years. His preface was simple. He said, “Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him by his grace to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.”
Here’s a sample of Edwards’s resolutions, just to help you get the flavor:
- Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.
- Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
- Resolved, if I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.
- Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the 4th Resolution.
44. Resolved, that no other end but religion, shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it. Jan.12, 1723.
In a new episode of The Washington Stand’s “Outstanding” podcast, Edwards scholar Stephen J. Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College, told host Joseph Backholm regarding the preamble to Edwards’s resolutions:
“‘So I’m going to make these resolutions,’ he says. ‘And I’m going to make them to the best of my ability and discernment.’ But then he adds this caveat, ‘so far as they are agreeable to God’s will.’ So, ‘what if one of these resolutions is actually not good for me? Or contrary to what’s good for me?’ Then he’s basically saying, ‘God’s not going to enable me to do it.’ So there’s just a great posture of humility and dependence and submission here.”
Edwards knew well that many of his resolutions wouldn’t always work out. As you can see from the sampling above, most of these are in a category far loftier than the standard new year resolution to cut sugar consumption in half. But Edwards resolved himself anyway, because he was resolved unto something — someone — bigger than himself.
No matter what you resolve to do this year, whether it be miles on the road, calories cut, or a life well-lived, take a page out of Jonathan Edwards’s book, knowing that you’re unable to do anything without God’s help. Only he can enable us to keep our resolutions, and only he is worthy of our resolve.
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.