Time and Resolution

Fr. Jonathan Tobias | 01 January 2017

It is probably a lot safer to make jokes about New Year’s Resolutions than to make them. Here are a few:

“My New Year’s resolution is to get better at pretending to know the words to Auld Lang Syne.”

“If you make a New Year’s resolution to eat a healthy diet, and you keep it, you might not actually live longer, but it will seem longer.”

Mark Twain poked fun at many things, and one of those things was the idea of making resolutions in the first place: “New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks and friendly calls for humbug resolutions.”

The comedian Joey Adams, in the same vein, offers this sentiment: “May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.”

This is the time of year when all sorts of resolutions are made.

I suggest you don’t.

Why? In general, Scripture and Tradition take a dim view of the custom of making resolutions. “Come now,” says St James in his Epistle, “you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas you do not know about tomorrow” (James 4.13-14).

Time is only God’s business, and the future is something that we cannot predict, much less control. Making resolutions or vows or swearing oaths all have one thing in common, and that is an attempt to wrestle the future into something less scary and more manageable.

Corporations (and governments) are in the business of making resolutions. They write up mission statements and budgets in an attempt to forecast success and to minimize risk. They speak the language of MBO – “management by objectives.”

Sometimes this works. Other times, it does not. There are bankrupt companies that possessed intelligent business plans. And there are wildly successful business ventures that did not have a budget at all.

More often than not, it is not the resolution that made the difference between success and failure in business. It was just plain, simple luck.

Of course, in the Church there is no such thing as luck. Remember the frightening story of Ananias and Sapphira, in the very early days of the Church after Pentecost (in Acts 5.1-11)? This married couple tried to appear generous when they really weren’t. When the truth came out and their hypocrisy was exposed, the couple was so overwhelmed with the guilt of their dishonesty that they literally fell over dead.

It is entirely possible that the Ananias and Sapphira made a public vow of donation to the community “where all things were held in common” (Acts 4.32). It was a showy “resolution,” in a manner of speaking, that probably got a great deal of notice.

As things turned out (as they usually do), Ananias and Sapphira did not fulfill their “best laid plans.” The consequence they suffered did not come so much from their failure to give a certain amount of money. It came mainly from their having made a vow in the first place: “While it remained unsold,” St Peter said, “did it not remain your own?” (Acts 5.4).

The Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ, is a culture of peace and gift-giving, not an institution of obligation. The obligatory sacrificial system of sin offerings required the making of vows and the swearing of oaths. This entire sense of “obligation” was necessary under the rubric of the “Law” (especially in its negative, mortifying sense).

But the Crucifixion made all these sin offerings, obligations and oaths obsolete, because every Old Testament offering was valuable only in the sense that each sacrifice pointed to and participated in the one sin offering that actually meant anything — the single, freewill and sinless offering of the High Priest Who offered Himself on the Cross: “Yours of Your Own, in behalf of all, and for all.”

No more swearing or resolving or making oaths, then, after the Cross. There is only freewill thank-offering in the Orthodox lifestyle. After all, that is precisely what “eucharist” means.

There is an opposition: thanksgiving, or swearing. That is all.

Therefore, “Do not swear at all,” the Lord said. That is, do not make vows or resolutions out of obligation (or guilt), for public display and applause, trying to double-down on a promise with a certainty about time that you never can possess. Instead, “let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5.34,37).

Speak simply, with meekness. Be immediate. Live in the here and now. Do not hold love at arm’s length and push off the needs of your life and the lives of those around you into a supposedly manageable future.

Rabbi Hillel lived and taught in Babylon in the century before the birth of Christ. He is famous for posing wise sayings that have to do with “immediacy,” as opposed to the delay of swearing and resolution: “If not here, then where? If not now, then when? If not you, then who?”

When you see something that needs done, then do it. When you see someone that needs love, then love. When you perceive that you are inside the love of the Trinity, which should be always, then pray.

The Good Samaritan (who understood Hillel quite well) and the Virgin Mary practiced meekness instead of making resolutions. They each one accepted time as a gift, in every moment, instead of trying to corral the future into a program or budget. They opened up their hearts enough to recognize God’s beauty in every moment (“heaven and earth are full of Your glory”), instead of wishing that things were different and stoking up their anger about the past. They turned their face to Christ and breathed His peace.

And because of that, the Good Samaritan was able to recognize the man who needed unction, and a lift on the donkey to the Inn of Healing.

And because of that, the Virgin Theotokos leads a Church that is not afraid of the future, but waits in humble joy in the Upper Room, “where we sit with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2.6).

We are God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2.10), not our own.

So …

… accept time as a gift (and not a curse). Make less resolutions. As someone once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Do prayer. Do love.

You, that is. In the here and now.

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