Updated: Aug 21
Often, when talking to people about my spiritual practices, they don’t quite get it. They will say something that suggests they understand them as life-goals, or maybe a self-improvement plan. This is particularly the case around the beginning of the year- what I like to think of as the secular world’s “resolutions season.” Depressed that the last year wasn’t quite what was hoped for, and burdened by all that extra Christmas weight, many people resolve to “do things different in the New Year,” to “make a fresh start.” Hence, all those resolutions.
I used to make them, too, only to be depressed, guilty and frustrated by February or March- if I even made it that long. Gym memberships that went unused, determinations to be more kind thwarted by my all-too-human tongue, idealized visions of work or family life that I couldn’t force into reality- before long, they all condemned me. I felt worse, not better. So, I gave that up. Yet, I still have spiritual practices. Is this an inconsistency? Somehow intellectually dishonest, because practices are just resolutions hiding under a different name?
In this article, we will consider the different spirituality that is behind the concept of New Year’s Resolutions and intentionally keeping spiritual practices. Hopefully, along the way we can see why it is the case that while resolutions imprison us, a healthy practice of spiritual disciplines can actually set us free.
Janus, regret, and anxiety
January- the first month of the secular calendar- takes it’s name from the old Roman god Janus. He is associated with beginnings and endings, transitions, time, and duality. He is usually depicted as having two-faces: one looking back into the past and another looking forward into the future. It makes sense why such imagery would resonate with our idea of the first month of a new year, and with the desire to make resolutions to improve ourselves as well.
The problem is, it is not that easy. The two-faced god traps us. After all, is anyone that is “two-faced” really on our side? By focusing our attention on the past and the future, on how we wish things had been different or on how we hope to control what is coming, we find ourselves in a spiritual and psychological prison of regret (past) and anxiety (future).
We need to understand our past and to integrate it into our present lives, to be sure. That is a bedrock of good mental health and self-acceptance. That is not the same, however, as changing our past- we simply can’t. When we look at the past as something to be “fixed,” what we are really doing is allowing regret to predominate in our lives. Our resolutions essentially are ways to cry out, “I’ll be better.”
It’s also wise to prudently plan for the future. But that doesn’t mean we can control the outcomes of our planning. The most conscientious plans can be disrupted by an illness, a job loss, or even a global pandemic. Our resolutions can be driven by an anxiety to control an unpredictable fate. We can subtlety slide into the magical thinking that “if I just do this, this will automatically be the result.” No one who has lived into adulthood really believes that this is always the case, yet our anxiety about the future tempts us to pretend it is true, that good planning and sincere effort will always pay off.
We all have a past that needs to be understood, and perhaps celebrated or even grieved. We all have a future that we should be working towards. That’s not the spiritual issue here. The issue is that two-faced Janus and our modern culture tell us we can somehow fix the past and eliminate uncertainty about the future if we just work hard enough. Regret and anxiety become a cage, and resolutions are often the jailer. Rather than setting us free, they condemn us when we fail, and drive us right into heightened regret and anxiety even when we partially succeed. Most tragically, they also pull us out of enjoying the life right around us today. Families, friends and simple joys can get overlooked both by the one who is still living in the past, as well as by the one who is driven to seize the future. Janus, it turns out, is not our friend.
Life in the Present and Emmanuel
The only place we live experientially is in the present. As the Twelve-Step programs remind us, we live “one day at a time” and there are only “24 Hours a Day.” Whereas Janus would have us constantly gazing back into our past with either nostalgia or regret, and peering into our future with anxiety and a desire to control, all we can really do is live this day. It is the Present- complete with the double meaning of “today,” and of “a gift.” Today is the only place we can ever live in. And, mercifully, we are not alone here. In the Christmas season, we recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the messiah would be Emmanuel, literally “God-with-us.” With us here, with us now. Spiritual practices, properly understood, are grounded in that fact: my present relationship with Jesus, and my present experience of that relationship in my life today.
Healthy spiritual practices do not attempt to fix the past. We leave the past in Jesus’ hands, and he redeems it. Healthy spiritual practices do not attempt to control the future or constitute a self-improvement plan. As the old hymn goes, “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown? Jesus we know, and he is on the throne.” Because God redeems our past and promises the Kingdom as our ultimate destination, we are free to live with him here and now in the present. Spiritual practices, in effect, are the shape of our daily relationship with Jesus. They answer the question: Given that my past is redeemed and my future is secure, how do I want to be with Jesus and my neighbor today? Whereas resolutions are fear-driven and set us up for failure by moving us away from our present-day lives into fixing, striving, and struggling, healthy spiritual practices keep us in the here-and-now with God and with those he has put into our lives.
Performance and Failure
Let me say plainly what I have only hinted at: the major difference between healthy spiritual practices and resolutions centers around issues of performance and failure. Resolutions, which keep us hopelessly trapped between regret and anxiety, between trying to change the past and control the future, condemn us when we fall short. Think about it, do your resolutions and self-help plans work? When they ultimately fail, is that an experience of grace for you?
On the other hand, healthy spiritual practices, grounded in the present, do no such thing. We fail at them often, to be sure. However, as they are simply the way we are being with God and our neighbor today, the condemnation need not be there. We just begin again tomorrow (or even later in the day), as we aren’t trying to change anything, just live our Christian life in the present. What’s more, even when we do fail, it merely pushes us back in to the arms of Jesus, who is the source of our relationship anyway. It’s “Lord’s Prayer” living, where we trust Jesus for our daily bread, our forgiveness, and even our relationship. Rather than Janus giving us failing marks for all our striving, we are in relationship with a God who is a redeemer and savior- redeeming even the days when things didn’t go as we hoped.
I realize this may seem very abstract and theoretical, but I assure you the effects in our daily lives are not. Most of us, I think, long for peace and joy in our lives- such as the world cannot give. Most of us would like to show up “today”- for ourselves, for those around us, and in our relationship with God. Resolutions and striving often pulls us away from those desires, whereas good spiritual practices will anchor us in the here-and-now. The problem is getting clear about the difference between the two- and making sure our spiritual practices aren’t resolutions and self-improvement plans in disguise. In the next article, we will look at how the wisdom of Saint Benedict can help us clarify and refine our spiritual practices so that they bless us in the present, as opposed to trapping us between anxiety and regret. It is enough for today if this article has gotten you rethinking all those goals and resolutions that just might be imprisoning you . Let’s let Janus go in favor of Jesus. Old two-face is not our friend.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Is 7:14). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.  Perfect Peace, E.H. Bickersteth (1875), https://hymnary.org/text/peace_perfect_peace_in_this_dark_world_o. Accessed 1/2/2022.