Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On New Year's Resolutions...

New Isn't So Shiny

Eccl. 1.9  What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun. 

Although you might not know it, what with all the religious boosterism on the American religious market these days, but actually most religious traditions, including my own, include an incredibly healthy dose of skepticism. Nowhere is that more apparent in the scriptures Christians and other traditions hold sacred, than in the writings of Qoheleth, the main speaker in that beautiful book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes. 

In fact, if you are struggling today to wrestle your out of control list of New Year's resolutions to the ground, let me suggest this ancient text above all others as sweet antidote to the poisonous notion that really, this year, you are finally going to "become a better you." No need to spend a ton of money on self-help manuals. Translations of Ecclesiastes are readily available for free on-line.


Hoping to write a book in 2012? Here's Qoheleth: Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl. 12.12)

Plan to take a class, and grow in wisdom and knowledge? Qoheleth reminds us:  I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”  And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow 
(Eccl. 1:16-18). 

Planning home improvements and more entertainment in the new year? Consider: Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Eccl. 2:10-11).

Are you hoping to get along better with your co-workers. Just remember: Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another (Eccl. 4:4).

Hoping God will make you rich and prosperous? Ecclesiastes reminds us:  The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? (Eccl. 5:10-11)

Planning to diet and lose weight? Once again Qoheleth offers countervailing wisdom: Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do (Eccl. 9:7). 


Students of the bible will probably want to argue with these selective quotations, given that Ecclesiastes is actually more theologically rich and complicated than these few quotes indicate. It's a book that is as faithful as it is realistic about the human condition. I pull these quotes, however, to indicate that people of faith do well to begin the year not with overly ambitious aspirations for how this year, against all odds, will be a break-out year, but instead remember that true wisdom comes in looking reality straight in the face, and then remaining faithful, resolute, and hopeful even, and especially, in the face of the truth.

I prefer this approach to the new year because I think it is more honest, and honestly, is less likely to result in despair over failed resolutions. I think it also evokes the spirit of another honest preacher, who wrote, " We aren't like so many people who hustle the word of God to make a profit. We are speaking through Christ in the presence of God, as those who are sincere and as those who are sent from God" (2 Corinthians 2:17, Common English Bible translation).


  1. Anonymous11:34 PM

    I dwell in Possibility--
    A fairer House than Prose--
    More numerous of Windows--
    Superior--for Doors--

    Of Chambers as the Cedars--
    Impregnable of Eye--
    And for an Everlasting Roof
    The Gambrels of the Sky--

    Of Visitors--the fairest--
    For Occupation--This--
    The spreading wide my narrow Hands
    To gather Paradise--

    Emily Dickinson

    To counter the all is vanity, nothing new under the sun - perhaps to resolve to see that same reality with fresh eyes and poetic sensibility, with God's grace and my being open to that is a fine place to be for Christmas moving into Epiphany season. Is not God always making all things new, and so I will resolve to dwell in possibility, of peace, of shalom, of being part of the spiritual harmony that underlies the selfish vanity...


  2. Nice response, Janet. :)