The Problem with Resolutions

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Problem with Resolutions

Some verses of scripture are more popular.  For example, you’ve probably seen John 3:16 on a billboard somewhere, seen graduation cards featuring Jeremiah 29:11, and perhaps seen signs in home decoration stores with the words of Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path” (NRSV).  While I was in college, we often sang the song “Thy Word,” which is, in my opinion, a powerful and fitting adaptation of this verse, and so, among my classmates, it was commonly known and referenced.  I always found this verse (and the corresponding song) a source of great comfort.  In short, God will show you the way you need to go; just have faith, and it will all be revealed.

This was all well and good for me until I took a class my senior year entitled “Theology of the Spiritual Life,” and we started discussing this text as it related to discerning the movement of the spirit.  Our professor pointed out something that resonated but also troubled me: This passage promises a dimly lit path, not a floodlight.  Think of little solar lights lining a sidewalk at night rather than the bright morning sun.  One way to understand this verse is that God’s word provides us with enough light to take the next step, and that’s perhaps it.  At the time, I was struggling with my sense of call and vocation, and at the root of that struggle was an insatiable desire for certainty and stability – two values that often run contrary to Christian faithfulness, I might add.  As I left class that day, reflecting on what we had discussed, I felt a great unease with this new insight and a sense of comfort.  Maybe, I thought, maybe my problem was that I was trying to figure out all the steps when really I just needed to figure out what was next and go from there.  I decided that I would do one thing: apply to seminary.  The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s the first week of 2024, meaning New Year’s Resolutions are being made (and many are already broken).  As for me, a few years ago I made a resolution not to make any more New Year’s resolutions, and I’ll let you know that that is the first resolution I’ve ever been able to keep.  But have you ever stopped and wondered why we’re so bad at keeping resolutions?  Why can we, with the best of and sincere intent, decide to make a change and then fail to follow through and find ourselves right back in the same patterns and trappings we so badly want to leave behind?

Psychologists and other behavioral scientists spent their entire lives wrestling with that question, and I am not attempting to offer a complete answer. Still, I did figure something out a few years ago.  I found myself, once again, sitting in a class, this time a Coaching Certification class, on a cold and windy day in Chicago in January.  Our instructor was explaining that one of the core values of good coaching is a desire to move an individual toward one action step – the next step – and nothing more.  He pointed out that planning beyond that initial step often does two things: (1) It presupposes the outcomes of all the steps, and (2) It can make the journey feel overwhelming, even before we’ve begun.  We were time and time again, encouraged to actively keep those we were working with from over-planning and instead drive their focus toward their very first step.

At that moment, I was transported back to my college classroom, and the connection was made: If my professor’s understanding of Psalm 119:105 is correct, then it would seem that God intentionally only provides us enough light to take that next step – no more.  And perhaps this is with a good reason.

Think with me for a moment about a few of the characters from the Bible.  Can you imagine if the likes of Abram, Mary, and Peter were given the whole picture at the very outset of what their life journeys would look like?  Imagine if Gabriel told Mary: “Hi, nice to meet you… so you’re going to have a baby, and he’s the Son of God, and he’ll start his active ministry when he’s 30, teach people all kinds of cool stuff, but make the authorities mad so they’ll have his crucified so you’ll watch him die – but don’t worry, it all ends well a few days later.”  When you think about it this way, maybe there is wisdom in the idea of just figuring out (or telling people) their next step and just leaving it there.  If I’m honest, given some of the twists and turns of my own experience in ministry have brought my way, I’m grateful that God sought it fit to reveal the steps in my journey slowly – one at a time – rather than all at once.

As much as I love planning, all the steps, and all the details, I’ve come to accept the fact that more often faithfulness comes from taking things one step at a time.  As we enter a new year, and you reflect on what’s ahead for you, I encourage you to pray this simple prayer: God, show me my next step.  After all, that seems to be how God most likes to make things happen, and thank God for that.

In Christ,

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