My Dear Wormwood,
The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Thus begins the 14th letter from Screwtape to his nephew in C.S. Lewis’ satirical look at the nature of temptation. Screwtape is of course speaking here about spiritual progress in the Christian life. However, his quip could just as well apply to many of the resolutions we make at the start of the year.
With characteristic disdain, Screwtape notes the “lavish promises of perpetual virtue” that do indeed mark the conversion experience of many believers. But such promises are also made at other times of life, and not solely by Christians.
There’s the classic crisis response, expressed in the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Faced with mortality or some other personal catastrophe, individuals will often begin to bargain. If God will only spare my life, my health, my loved one, then I promise I’ll do better, be better, try harder, whatever it takes.
And then there are those New Year’s resolutions: Last year wasn’t great and I really need to improve in certain areas. So this is the year to buckle down, turn over a new leaf, pull up the bootstraps, and whatever other clichés I can muster. This year will be different.
Guilt is a poor motivator for change
All of these experiences share one thing in common: to one extent or another, they’re all fuelled by a certain amount of guilt. This guilt points to our past failures and prods us to make up for them with future successes. Even genuine spiritual awakening, in its earliest stages, often betrays a level of low-grade guilt behind the profession of faith.
But such guilt, whether low-grade or fully formed, is never a good motivator for change. It’s like spiritual junk food that promises much but delivers little, if anything, of lasting value. It’s also hazardous to our spiritual health. Its successes inflate our sense of pride, while its failures drive us toward dejected resignation. Most crucially, it is contrary to the teaching of the Gospel, which calls us to change not out of guilt-driven efforts at self-improvement, but out of grateful reliance on Christ, who has secured our standing with God.
Identifying motives, methods and criteria of success
This is not to suggest resolutions are a bad idea. It’s always wise to take purposeful steps toward change where needed. But to do that well, it’s vital to consider a few questions.
What is the motive? Whether the goal is to get in shape, read more, embark on a new project or be a better neighbour, this question lies at the heart of them all. Am I pursuing this out of vanity, for the approval of others, or for self-improvement as an end in itself? Or am I seeking to please God by using the resources he’s given me to become more like his Son?
What is the method? It goes without saying that a successful resolution needs a plan. It must incorporate realistic strategies, incentives and measurable goals. It will require discipline and effort to carry out. At the same time, it has to submit all of that to the will and power of God. If the goal is to honour him, then the plan must rely on his grace to accomplish his purpose in my life.
What is the criterion of success? Although realistic, measurable goals are important, they can also lead to an all-or-nothing, pass-or-fail mentality. Did I hit that target weight? Did I make it through that entire reading list? Did I bring that new project to a full and satisfying completion? It may be more helpful to ask different questions: Has my level of fitness improved? Am I learning new things and growing spiritually? Am I a better steward of the time and talents God has given me?
Total and continual reliance on grace
Screwtape would have us believe the best way to begin a year is with ambitious plans to do better than last time around. But he’d be wrong. In fact, he himself hands us the key – quite unintentionally – for true progress in every area of life. Having made realistic plans and committed to them, we rely on God for the daily and hourly grace to carry them out.
From Screwtape’s perspective, that’s very bad. But from ours – and most significantly from God’s – it’s very good.