A Catholic guide to making—and sticking to—your New Year’s resolution
A priest I knew used to counsel against making New Year’s resolutions. He said that the first of January was an artificial deadline for starting new habits, and that, as Catholics, we shouldn’t feel the need to wait for that day. Do you want to repent and change your life? Why tie your plans to a date on the calendar? Now is the acceptable time.
I get the point, but I think he missed the boat with this advice. It’s very natural to want a nice, bright line for a starting point, and it’s very common to do better when we have plenty of people starting fresh on January first. If misery loves company, so does hope.
But there is something to be said for looking closely at both the secular view of “changing one’s life” with a New Year’s resolution and the sacred view. There is a lot of overlap, but also some gaps in each—at least on the surface.
I have been seeing a therapist for just over a year. She is thoroughly secular but extremely interested in and respectful of my Catholic worldview, and she wants to help me be a healthy and whole person. Our conversations help me clarify what it is I believe: Which ideas are helpful and healing and from the Lord (even if they look secular from the outside)? Which are terrible (even though they have always been mislabeled “Catholic” in my head)?
We talk about the phenomenon of people repeating undesirable behaviors over and over again. This is what she calls “rinse and repeat.” We talk about what it looks like when people start to make those small, uncomfortable changes toward their stated goals. This is what she calls “moving the needle.” We talk a lot about how to tell the difference between these two phenomena because when you’re in the middle of either, they can look and feel similar.
There is something to be said for looking closely at both the secular view of “changing one’s life” with a New Year’s resolution and the sacred view.
It is common to make the same resolutions over and over again. This is the year, we may say to ourselves. This is the year I am finally going to stop eating compulsively or smoking or using porn or lying around all the time while my body falls apart.
Secular and spiritual advisors would agree that is a good idea! These things you say you want to give up are bad for you, and they are probably bad for people you care about.
The basic Catholic advice for making a change is: Go to confession and confess anything you’ve done that’s sinful and make a firm intention to stop doing those things. Listen to absolution and your penance. Boom, done. A brand new person walks out of the confessional.
But if you took these issues to a therapist, they would probably say: O.K., awesome. What’s the plan? What are you going to do differently from what you have done before? Let’s figure out why you do the thing that you’ve been doing over and over, that you say you want to stop doing. What are you getting from it? And if it’s something you need, where else can you get that thing?
if you’re making New Year’s resolutions, that’s great! It’s a good idea. But while you’re at it, pick up your local bulletin and find out when confession is.
The basic Catholic advice is not meant to be everything you need. In some ways, it is just a starting point. A good confessor, who has the time and the expertise, will tell you almost exactly the same things as a good therapist. A good confessor will say, I absolve you, but what’s your plan? What are you going to do differently than what you have done before? Let’s take a hard look at why you’re committing the sin you’re committing. What are you getting from it, where else can you get that thing?
Most priests are not trained therapists and aren’t qualified to lead you through detailed analysis. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing for them to at least suggest that these questions are relevant and worth pondering. A good confessor will also answer that last question. The answer is: Everything you need, you can get from Jesus. But you’re a lot more likely to get it if you understand what you’re asking for. And this is where all those other questions come in.
This is how you will get from a pattern of “rinse and repeat” to “moving the needle” (as my therapist calls it) and eventually to “supreme happiness that comes with the union with God and the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings” (as the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it): by tearing out sin from the place where it has taken root in your life and desires and history and psyche, and by laying it at the feet of God and asking him to burn it up in the furnace of his love.
Simply making New Year’s resolutions will probably not get you very far. It is also true that just going to confession may not get you very far. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! Either one is good, but you might need both. You need a specific starting point; you need self-knowledge, which begins but does not end with the acknowledgment of your sins; you need the grace of the sacrament that strengthens you and gives you courage; you need the humility to accept that you are likely to fail in the future, and that doesn’t mean you should give up; you need the humility to understand that failure may be common and unavoidable, but it’s not something to be content with. You need the company of other people struggling through the same thing (which is the entire human race, except for Jesus and Mary). And you need the forgiveness of God because when you are a healthy, whole Catholic, you understand that you cannot truly live unless you are united with him.
God is endlessly, unfathomably loving, forgiving and merciful. But he doesn’t want you to just flit through the confessional, go right back to hurting yourself and others, and then just flit right back in again. He has the water that will become in us a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life. It’s so much better than “rinse and repeat.”
So if you’re making New Year’s resolutions, that’s great! It’s a good idea. But while you’re at it, pick up your local bulletin, find out when confession is, and do an uncomfortably thorough examination of conscience with the intention of moving the needle. Now is the acceptable time.