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The Most Important Resolution
Many of us are familiar with the ages-old "tradition" of making, and almost inevitably breaking, New Year's Resolutions. Most studies suggest that the majority of people are not successful: they set unrealistic expectations for themselves, don't keep track or stay conscious of their resolution, get overwhelmed with attempting to keep up with too many, and so on. Nonetheless, making resolutions at the start of a new year tends to be more effective than starting it at a different time of year, so perhaps there is merit to this idea.
Yet, first and foremost, if we wish to avoid failure in such resolutions, we ought to reflect, first, on what a resolution is. A resolution isn't a wishlist item. It’s not a vague self-improvement goal. A resolution is a firm decision to do something. And the reason why so many people fail in their resolutions, therefore, is because they are not resolved. They have not made a resolution. They made a wishlist, a to-do list, a “best version of me” self-improvement model. These are not resolutions.
No, a resolution is far more. A resolution in law is a decision of the court, or a firm assurance of some action or authorization, or (by a technicality) a binding law in and of itself. When translated to the personal sense of the word, we ought to understand a resolution as a strong, firm, clear decision. Though a resolution is not the same as a promise, it holds great force: if you have resolved to do something, then you have committed to it.
When approached from this angle, resolutions are far too important for us to make many, and to make them carelessly. Since a resolution is a decision and a commitment, whenever we make one, we should treat it as a serious matter, not to be made or tossed aside lightly.
This firmness, this commitment, is required of us as Catholic Christians. We are all, in fact, called to make an interior (and if possible, exterior) resolution in the sacrament of Penance. On our end, in order to receive the Sacrament worthily, we must examine our conscience, be sorry for our sins, firmly intend not to sin again, confess our sins, and be willing to do the penance we are given (Baltimore Catechism). These requirements are reflected in one of the more common acts of contrition today:
I firmly intend, with Your help,
to do penance, to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
The firm intent is not simply a “desire” not to sin again. We can want all sorts of things without really intending to do anything about them. No, the sort of intention we ought to have in Confession is more like a decision, a resolution, such as is reflected in another traditional act of contrition:
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more
and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
There is, I believe, a tendency for Confession to become like New Year’s “Resolutions.” We vaguely know that we must be different, but often enough, we do not truly resolve to change. We express the desire to change, but that desire fades away when it becomes to difficult to follow through. We lose determination, we forget. We make the same “resolutions” again and again, but we change nothing about ourselves, or we do very little and then give up. Or we expect too much of our own abilities, depending on ourselves and aiming for our own standards of goodness, intelligence, or even holiness. Our resolution, in every case, is weak. It is not a firm decision. And it is missing the most important component for success, besides: dependence upon God!
Our resolution in the sacrament of Penance ought to acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, that we require grace to follow through with our decision. Simply wanting to be without sin is much easier than following through with a decision not to sin. Thus, when we make an act of contrition, the sense is not so much the “New Year’s Resolution” of “I can and will do better.” Rather, when we express contrition, we ought to intend that: “I will do better, not because I am strong and powerful, but because I have faith that You, God, give me the graces not to sin again, even though I am weak.”
Part of the requirement of the sacrament is that we truly regret our sins, and because we truly regret them, we will strive to change, not simply just say “sorry.” Even if one’s act of contrition greatly differs from the wording above, valid sacramental confession still requires the resolution not to sin again, as the Council of Trent said: “Contrition is… a sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more.” This is the most difficult of the four requirements, though, because contrition in itself is impossible without grace. We can know we did wrong, but our intent to change could be weak (imperfect contrition). So to keep our resolution in the sacrament, we need grace: we need to desire it, ask for it, accept it, and strive thus to fulfill the commitment not to sin.
In fact, every resolution we make–of every kind–ought to hold the same intentions as we ought to have in Confession. For what would be more important to our life and our future than to remain in a state of grace, free of sin? And Who could strengthen us to keep such a resolution save God Himself, the Conqueror of all Vice and Sin, the Source of all grace? “Self-improvement” is a laudable goal. But it is a goal that is only good and right when it pertains to the glory of God and to eternal life; and it is only truly possible, and permanent, when it is God Who fills us with His goodness.
Perhaps we can try to view our “resolutions” in the light of eternity. For example, losing weight is a common New Year’s Resolution. What has this to do with grace, and sin, and God? Perhaps the person who wishes to lose weight suffers from gluttony, or sloth. Or perhaps they struggle with patiently bearing poor health, which may be no direct fault of their own. In which case, is poundage the true issue?
No: it is far more important to be patient, temperate, and diligent, than good-looking, or even simply physically healthy… in the eternal scheme of things. Thus, if I have gluttony as my vice, then “losing weight” is not the resolution for me to adopt. No, rather, as a Christian, I instead resolve to be a glutton no more, by the grace of God. Or if my vice is impatience, then I resolve to practice patient suffering, by the grace of God. And so on.
A New Year’s Resolution may not last long. But a true resolution, a true and firm decision to live in virtue by the grace of God, will echo into eternity.