2014 has started. A new year, and that means… New Years Resolutions. Go on, admit it. You may not have them printed out and pinned on your fridge (although it’s possible) but I bet you’ve got some kind of mental list of things you’d like to achieve this year. If not I reckon you’re quite unique. Or possibly you’re just cynical like me, with a past record of failing to keep resolutions going past February.
Because new years resolutions are part of the UK culture. We have an idea that we get to decide for ourselves, at the outset of a new year, what will constitute a successful year. Maybe it looks like a repeat performance of 2013. Or maybe a rerun of last year is the last thing you want. Either way, we are encouraged to think of goals that we set up as markers for ‘success’ – better body, more stable finances, or maybe just reaching 2015 without having your heart broken again. If we retain our resolve then we will end the year having met our goals: success.
I probably won’t surprise you at this point if I compare this with Japan. Which is good, because that’s what I’m going to do.
Now as I mentioned previously I’m only a one-year-expert on Japan so I can’t really make sweeping generalizations. But to my knowledge there is not much of a culture of making New Years Resolutions. If people do then they keep it to themselves.
A few years back I had the privilege of spending new years with a friend and his family in Akita – a city in the North of Japan. My experience that year was that going into the new year was much more of a community affair. Everyone visited the local Shinto shrines to pray for prosperity in the coming year, but also to share a cup of sake with the village elders. And if you were a certain age – I think 20 – then you got to take part in this,
Yes, there is a desire to have a successful year. But the idea of what constitutes success, and whether success is achieved, is not down to the individual. Rather it depends on the community and co-operation.
Now you might think my punchline is, ‘The UK should be more like Japan!’
I get that when I go on about how awesome Japan is it sometimes sounds like I think that way. And as far as canned coffee is concerned that is definitely what I’m saying. But for the most part my concern is not that us in the UK should act more like Japan, but that we act more like Jesus.
(If you’re not a huge fan of religion then be warned, in a minute I am going to quote from the Bible. I get that might weird you out. I just ask that you postpone judgement until you’ve read to the end of the post. Deal?)
As I understand it, here’s what the situation looks like.
In the UK we place value on having the freedom to go after our dreams. A good year is one where we manage to achieve those goals. A bad year is when we fail. And the biggest injustice you can do to someone is in any way prevent them from achieving their personal goals. A determined will is key here. We each personally decide what we want to do/be/achieve in 2014 and we each personally determine whether we will realize those resolutions.
In Japan the picture is slightly different. As a collective culture, personal happiness does not have quite the premium that it does in the UK. A good year is one where Japan as a nation prospers. A bad year is when it flounders. The worst thing you can do in this case is to hamper the nation from achieving maximum prosperity. A united nation is key here. We collectively decide what we want to do/be/achieve in 2014 and we collectively determine whether we will realize those resolutions.
Compare that with God’s idea of ’success’ in 2014, as expressed by the prophet Micah,
“What does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (The book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6 verse 8)
Here both the UK and Japanese culture fall short. Not because the things we (individually, or collectively) resolve to achieve are necessarily bad, but because our resolutions are means, not ends. Health, wealth and freedom does not equal success. They are the platform from which we can aim for success – doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
The second difference is in the ‘how’ – the factor that determines whether these goals are reached. The title of this post placed new years resolutions and shrine visits against ‘the gospel of grace.’ Gospel means ‘good news’ but why is it good news that God demands we ‘do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly’ with Him? That is an impossible demand. It seems almost designed to make us all fail in some way or another. We need to make sure people get the justice they deserve, and the kindness they don’t deserve. And we’re not even allowed to brag when we do occasionally manage to do it! Good news? Really? Yes, I do believe so.
Because the entirety of Christianity is not contained in this command, or any command.
If we fail with our own resolutions then we don’t have many options. Resolve again – but with more resolve – to do them the next year. Lower our expectations. Give up.
But with God’s commands, the determining factor is the grace of God, not our efforts (singular or combined). We are to work towards these goals of justice, kindness and humility, by the justice, kindness and humility of God – specifically that He demonstrated at the cross of Christ. This is where we get the strength to do what God requires of us. And it is where we get the grace for when we fail.
The book of the prophet Micah ends, not with condemnation because failure to keep God’s standards of success, but with a declaration of the grace God offers to those who fail to keep the standard,
“He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us. He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7v18-19)
So this then is the punchline, we should determine ‘success’ this year by how much we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. To that end resolutions and co-operation are good. But the crucial thing is God’s grace.
I’m aware that was a provocative post. I genuinely would love to hear what you think (seriously it sucks to write 1,200 words and hear nothing back!) . But please remember to show mercy (^_^)