New Year's resolutions don't fail; people who make resolutions do

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Why is it that so few New Year's resolutions make it even to the midpoint of the New Year's first month?

David DeSteno, who is professor of psychology at Northeastern University, in an article published in the New York Times on how to keep your resolutions, says that willpower is for chumps. To make a change, you don't have to feel miserable.


But anyone reading this article is likely to feel pretty miserable about the statistics. He tells us that by Jan. 8 about 25 percent of all resolutions made by people for the new year have fallen by the wayside. He then goes on to say that by the time the year ends less than one out of 10 of those resolutions is reported even by the resolvers to have been faithfully kept.

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal, another multipage article about resolutions appeared by Daniel Pink, a major essayist, who argues that if we’re going to try to keep our New Year's resolutions we need to take into effect and into our own thinking the kinds of insights that can come from science on how to back up willpower with certain kinds of practices and insights that might increase the odds of keeping those resolutions.


But what's really important about both of these articles from the Journal and the Times, and frankly pretty pervasive through the media, is the fact that what we see here is the failure of a humanistic understanding of human nature to survive conflict with reality. Reality is pretty tough, and it's especially tough on any kind of artificial understanding of humanity. That's an understanding of humanity devoid of the image of God and also stripped of any understanding of sin. What are you left with then? Well, the modern secular understanding of humanity is basically evolutionary. And, yes, that comes right out in the New York Times article.


DeSteno argues: “From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that exercising willpower doesn’t come naturally to us makes a lot of sense.”


He explains that for millennia what led to success wasn't the ability, for example, to study for exams, or save for retirement or go to the gym. But rather in terms of our evolutionary history, what mattered most was immediate action for survival. Now just think about this for a moment. Here you have a secular understanding of humanity explaining that evolution actually programmed us for an absence of willpower. If we are going to blame someone for the failure of our resolutions to survive the new year, we can just blame our ancestors and the process of evolution.



The modern secular humanistic understanding of humanity basically presents a very rosy picture of what it means to be human. But that rosy optimistic picture of humanity crashes in terms of reality. It simply doesn't work. It doesn't work in the crib. It doesn't work on the playground. It doesn't work in the mirror. It doesn't work with New Year's resolutions.


Now we have to blame something then for the failure of this optimistic, humanistic understanding of what it means to be human, so we’ll have to blame something like evolution. But that's also a problem because if it is indeed an evolutionary problem it’s not going to be one that we can deal with no matter how much willpower we might try to muster. We’re not going to overcome the impetus and the trajectory of evolution in a single generation. That's why those who try to hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity find it virtually impossible to hold to an optimistic view of humanity. It becomes inherently pessimistic because evolution according to the theory as it is propounded simply presents us with facts and the way things are. There's not much of an opportunity for change, not to mention redemption.


This explains why our secular neighbors based upon a very vague understanding of both human nature and evolution will insist that human beings are basically inclined to good. They'll deny the basic Christian insight of original sin, not to mention total depravity, and just argue that human beings are inclined to the good. They just sometimes do that which is wrong or fall short. But, of course, that doesn't explain the headlines. It also doesn't explain ourselves, our knowledge of ourselves. It doesn't explain why less than one out of 10 of our resolutions survives to the end of the year. And honestly, that's probably overly optimistic. We also need to understand that if you do hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity then human beings are just a cosmic accident, and given the way human beings behave, you're simply going to come to a very pessimistic understanding of the human reality and from the very beginning without any expectation or hope of redemption.

This is why the contradiction between biblical Christianity and the modern secular worldview is and always is a matter of direct collision and antithesis.

The biblical worldview explains full well why so few of our resolutions survive the new year. It's because of sin and the effects of the fall. But this doesn't leave us with a pessimistic understanding of humanity, but rather a realistic understanding of humanity. And, furthermore, the biblical worldview begins with the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God, not a cosmic accident. But every single human being is also a sinner bearing the full weight of what it means to be a sinner. And thus, the biblical worldview explains reality as we know it, reality as it is.


But the biblical worldview also points as far beyond the quandary of crashed resolutions by pointing us to the sure hope of our redemption. God has not left sinful humanity in our sin but has made provision for our redemption atonement for our salvation through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, and it also explains why if you are left with any other worldview you can't possibly explain humanity.

It really does tell us something profound that, even before the new year dawned, America's most influential newspapers were running multi-page articles on the fact that New Year's resolutions were destined to fail. But, of course, we have to correct that by saying that the resolutions don't fail; the resolver does. Our most basic human needs can't be met by greater resolution. It can only be met by redemption.
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Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

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