New Year: Resolutions, Shrine Visits, and the Gospel of Grace

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!’

Actually, no.

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 (^_^)

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8 thoughts on “New Year: Resolutions, Shrine Visits, and the Gospel of Grace

  1. GJ

    Thanks Levi for your posts, always inspiring / thought-provoking. I am a big fan of NY resolutions so the title of this post intrigued me. I agree resolutions, if kept, are not a means to an end but they are a great platform on which to build. They are most often for the benefit of me, even if the output may bless someone else.

    With regards to the Micah passage, I don’t see that as much of a resolution but more of a way of life, in which, as you say, we often fall short, and the benefit will always be for others (though not a bad thing if we get blessed too, which I think more often than not we would). God’s grace is pivotal, because we will never reach that end goal, so really I would ask, is that the goal?

    I often feel ‘my’ NY resolutions, though they are for my benefit, would ultimately help in this ongoing quest for living like we should as Christians. Label it NY resolutions, self-development or whatever.

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  2. Sando

    Thanks, I enjoyed this. Plenty of thoughts coming through my head now!

    I’m not a NYR fan but I’m not against them either. I’m okay with them but would sometimes prefer it if we didn’t “christianise” the concept too much… I mean I’m not convinced that everytime someone makes a NYR they are saying to God “I don’t trust you for salvation” and should reflect deeply on stuff. Unless perhaps their res has to do with deep spiritual stuff. But even if (from my Christian viewpoint) people making NYR have a high failure rate without God’s help, should we discourage them from trying to make things better for themselves? I’m not sure how my non-Christian brother would react if I told him “Err, getting a permanent job for 2014 in order to support your family? That’s your resolution? Tsk, Tsk, think of God’s grace first!” Of course I’m exaggerating slightly but youknowhaddamean… (I think/hope). What thinks you?

    ~~ Now, about the Micah verse. Warning: I may be going off on a tangent here (hear hear the wannabe-theologian speaking!)… but I wonder if it’s appropriate to say that Micah 6:8 is God’s idea of success for 2014? Please correct me if I’m wrong but those final chapters are mainly about the Deliverer aren’t they? Rewind to verse 7, the people are *this close* to giving up on the covenant : no offering seems good enough for God. So God’s immediate response is to remind them how salvation works = a fruitful relationship [walk humbly with your God, justice etc] + Messiah [forgiveness- other verse you quoted 17:18].

    you said: ” 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.” It’s beautiful 🙂 but the people back then didn’t have Christ yet, so how did that work for them? Are you sure we can link this verse (6:8) to Christ? And not just God specifically calling those people back then back to the covenant?

    Anywhoo… that was me taking a break from my apologetics essay by writing non-sensical and very possibly heretical stuff on your blog….! In my defence, you did ask for comments. You’re welcome. Feel free to throw a stone or two back.

    “n_n

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    1. levibooth Post author

      Hey Sandra,

      Yeah, I think I may have sacrificed clarity for the sake of brevity in this post. I’m not saying that I think resolutions are a bad thing. In fact I have a couple of resolutions this year: practice piano for 30 minutes a day, read through the Bible in Japanese, write 2 blog posts a week (hence why this one was posted about 11pm Saturday!). I think goals are good – whether they be personal or corporate. ‘Getting a permanent job’ is a good goal. My point is that we shouldn’t use the attainment, or not, of those goals to decide whether a year was a success or not. Make sense?

      I agree with you about Micah 6:8 being a way of life. That’s why I think personal resolutions and/or nationwide co-operation are subordinate to it. If someone says to me, “2013 was brilliant: I married my soulmate, got a great job and lost 30lbs” I want to say, “That’s great for you, but what did you do with it?” And if someone says, “2013 was terrible: my wife left me, I lost my job, and I gained 30lbs” I want to say, “That does suck, but that doesn’t make you a failure.”

      So I do think that the justice, kindness, humility combo is the goal for 2014. I think it’s another way of saying, “Love God and love your neighbour” which I think should be our goal for every year. Sure we won’t do it perfectly. But I think we can aim towards it.

      And seriously, the “How much did Old Testament folk understand about Jesus?” question – are you kidding me? 😉 But, yeah I think Micah didn’t know loads of the details (unless he was just holding some stuff back for the second edition) but he did understand that God was going to do something a bit awesome. Otherwise he wouldn’t have said, “He will again have compassion on us. He will tread our iniquities underfoot.” I’m pretty sure that Micah didn’t think that ‘treading underfoot’ meant ‘brush under the rug.’ He knew that in some way God would have to bring His justice and His kindness together. And he trusted in that. I can’t remember if he specifically mentions Micah, but ‘The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses’ by Vern S. Poythress is probably a good one to add to your reading list (^_^)

      OK, I accidentally blurred your and GJ’s comments in my head. Hopefully you can both work out what I’m replying to…

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      1. Sando

        Nooooo,.. I don’t have time to read more theology books! Any chance you may have written/kept a summary somewhere that you could email me? 😛

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      2. levibooth Post author

        Not that I’m aware of….

        OK, you’re a Doctor Who fan, right? Now my experience of the show is limited, but from what I’ve seen most episodes have the Doctor coming against an unstoppable enemy and/or an insolvable problem. Now you don’t know how he’s going to overcome it, but you know he will somehow. And the same is true for his sidekick, friends, etc. They trust the Doctor and do what he says to, even though they don’t know exactly what he’s planning. You could say, they have faith in him to save them.

        And I think that’s sorta what’s happening with Micah and Jesus.

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