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 the greatest ever 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 true 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 will only inflate our sense of pride, while its failures drive us toward dejected resignation. Most crucially, it is inimical 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 the motive, method and criterion of success

This is not to suggest that resolutions are a bad idea. It’s always good to take ongoing, purposeful steps toward change where it may be needed. In order to do that well, though, 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 or for the approval of others, or even for self-improvement as an end in itself? Or am I genuinely 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 satisfactory completion? It may be more helpful to ask some 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 that the best way to begin a year is with ambitious plans to do better than the last time around. But he’d be wrong. In fact, he himself hands us the key – albeit quite unintentionally, to be sure – for true progress in every area of life. Having made our plans and set our faces toward 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 especially God’s – it’s very good.

Note: Focus on the Family Canada offers a Radio Theatre audio dramatization of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, available as a CD boxed set or download via our online bookstore.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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