Of Resolutions and Getting Past Frustration

Several years ago I wrote the following about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t despair about how yours are going, or even if you have not made any.

Not to discourage you from making New Year’s resolutions, but how are your 2012 resolutions coming? Are you still on track? Given up on them? Thinking about it? They can drive you nuts.

The problem is not so much with making resolutions at the start of the year. Psychologically, a new beginning that is tied to a new beginning of the calendar can be a good motivator, particularly to get started. Neither is there a problem with choosing to change something or do something for the better. Given a minute or less, every honest person can identify a habit in need of change or a practice in need of adoption. The problem is usually not even that the aim is too high, the goal too unrealistic, the resolution too ambitious.

If anything, the real problem is that the resolution is too narrow, too small, too unimportant, particularly if taken without a greater context. Each of us should be self aware enough to recognize plenty of material to work with to create a depressingly long “needs improvement” list. The question of where to begin—if we persist—may soon be overwhelmed by the question, where does it end? There are too many for any one to hold our attention. We need to look beyond the individual sin or foible, on to why we are willing to sin.

Martin Luther was in large measure driven away from the Catholic Church because of its emphasis on specifically repenting of each and every sin, correcting every personal flaw, large and small, with particularity. There was no apparent end in this life to the correcting, no bottom to the list of sins, especially with a list being added to each day. Repenting of each and every sin, he never made enough progress on his own list.

Fortunately for Luther and for everyone else, the God of Heaven has never called upon us to repent of each of our sins seriatim. Neither have His prophets. That is a man-made idea, and one that is sure to lead to deep moral frustration.

To be sure, God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). Heaven is the ultimate “white room;” not a speck of evil can be tolerated there, no room for anything unclean in the least degree (see 3 Nephi 27:19).

God does not require us to repent of each sin. He requires that we repent of all sins. There is a difference, all of the difference in the world. The first suggests that we can repent of sins in some kind of order, working on some sins while still playing with some of our favorites, even if only temporarily. The true doctrine is more demanding and more liberating: God wants us to give up sinning, the willingness to do evil. The focus on individual sins is misplaced, as if the source of the problem is in the act itself, what we do, whereas the real source is found in why we do what we do. God wants us to change our hearts (and will help us to do so), knowing that with the change in their nature of our actions will then take care of themselves.

Carefully search all Christian scriptures, ancient and modern, and you will find God consistently calling upon His children to repent of all of their sins. He does not ask for or condone a selective repentance that focuses on this or that individual sin or ever ask us to work down our personal list of evil. He asks us to give it up, all of it. What the Lord requires of His children to be acceptable to live with Him again is a change of life. The ancient American prophet Alma described this repentance, this change of heart, as a man who has “desired righteousness until the end of his days” (Alma 41:6). John, the Apostle of ancient times, referred to this change as walking “in the light” (see 1 John 1:5-10).

This change of heart comes from belief in Christ, a powerful wholehearted belief that manifests itself in our actions. Another ancient American prophet, Samuel, declared it with these words:

And if ye believe on his [Christ’s] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits. (Helaman 14:13)

Notice that it is true, vitalizing belief that brings about the change of action. A modern prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, explained true repentance in this way:

In connection with repentance, the scriptures use the phrase, ‘with all his heart’ . . . Obviously, this rules out any reservations. Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.203)

One last point: note that perfection is not required to enter into the light. As the Apostle John taught, those who enter into the light are in the process of making themselves pure (1 John 3:3), Christ giving them the power to do so through the soul-enriching influence of the Holy Spirit.

Make your resolutions and do them now, but put them in the context of changing your heart and thereby your whole life. Aim for the highest of all. Then we know where to begin and where it all ends. And keep in mind, Christ allows you to start over when you slip up.

(First published January 1, 2012)