In and of itself, making New Year’s resolutions is not a bad thing. What Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 1840’s is still true today: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
Paraphrased, Thoreau was saying people can change and nothing under the sun is more awesome than that. At the dawn of 2017, a year unimaginably far into the future for Mr. Thoreau, I could not agree more.
New Year’s is indeed an appropriate time to think of personal change. Many of us prefer the traditional New Year’s resolutions. This year I
will keep better track of my keys. This year I will floss. This year I will catch up on my resolutions from 2016. (And 2015. And 2014…)
But what would happen if, instead of only listing things we resolve to do, we would also focus on becoming a certain kind of people? More specifically, what if we would resolve to become people of action? People who seek out new knowledge and understanding. People who avoid the tired script of the rat race.
Passivity plagues far too many people from our time—perhaps more than at any other time in history. Before you marathon runners dispute that statement, I remind us all that passiveness shows up in many personality types. Here are just a few.
Three groups of passive people
The victims. While Esther and I were living in Poland, Wiesiek, the Naturalist came down from Gdansk one weekend for a visit. At the time I was feeling a great deal of self-pity and injustice because of some relational difficulties. I decided to ask our friend for counsel.
If you’ve ever met Wiesiek the Naturalist, you know he cares for people. I had learned this, and that’s why I was unburdening myself to him. Yet when I finished, he was silent for a while. When he finally did speak, it was only this one maddening phrase:
“Don’t be a victim, Gideon.”
Wiesiek the Naturalist, a man in tune with the very plants. A man whose country is familiar with suffering and where people have the right, if anyone does, to a victim mentality. (The historian Norman Davies once described Poland, which is situated squarely between the superpowers of Germany and Russia, as “God’s playground.”) I could take it from Wiesiek the Naturalist: I was being a victim.
Once his words sank in, once my immobilizing victim-mentality was identified and exorcised, I felt ready to take action over my problems.
The lemmings. Here I do not refer to squat rodents with short tails that follow each other off cliffs in the Arctic tundra. I refer instead to squat human beings with short attention spans who spend their waking hours taking in various forms of media.
Entertainment bombards us. No, it oppresses us. It numbs us. Granted, it can be harmless; it usually doesn’t include blood baths in a Roman colosseum. Nor would it be accurate to say that today’s entertainment is devoid of creativity or that all of its producers lack talent. In fact, in too many cases, that is precisely the problem: The makers of entertainment use creativity (substandard though it may be) but the masses of consumers do not.
Perhaps the greatest sin in today’s gluttonous intake of entertainment is not that we violate Psalm 101:3—I will set no wicked thing before my eyes—but that we violate Genesis 1:28, where God tells us to co-create with Him.
If we expect to live actively, we must free ourselves of entertainment-ism. In the spirit of Genesis 1:28, we must learn skills, seek out new knowledge, and, in general, rediscover the enthrallment of using our God-given abilities to create. Lemmings will never be active, creative people.
The perfectionists. Finally, some people tend to take action only when they think it possible to do so perfectly, which is never. They have ideas for creating things and engaging in life, yet the timing and feasibility are never quite right. The end of such people is identical to that of the lemmings: they pass through life without contributing.
Passive People Anonymous
What then is to be our strategy for becoming more active people in 2017? The answer is hardly to make Energizer Bunny-style resolution lists such as going to the gym three evenings per week or becoming fluent in Hungarian. Rather we should pray that the North American church would experience a renaissance in practicing St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15.16, ESV).
A major cause of passiveness is forgetting the importance of persistence. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery (perfectionists shouldn’t be allowed to read it). His emphasis on persistence aligns with many scriptural writings, such as Jude 1:12 which instructs us to build ourselves up in the faith. For Christ’s beautiful nature to become our second nature, we must practice, not for 10,000 hours but for the rest of our lives. Practicing Christian virtues over carnal vices does not come automatically. “Character is formed by a thousand little choices,” says N.T. Wright.
N.T. Wright holds up the now-famous Captain Chesley Sullenberger as an example. When Sullenberger landed a commercial airliner on the Hudson River in 2009, he was able to do so only because he had maximized his years as a pilot to learn and grow. On that chilly January day, 154 passengers and crew were thankful that their pilot had not, in any point of his career, become passive. Here is what Captain Sullenberger said about the incident: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years [more than 20,000 hours of flying and gliding instructing] I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training.” Practicing the 10,000 hour rule allowed him to make a colossal emergency withdrawal.
The other major cause of passiveness is failing to get started. In a recent talk, a writer named Josh Kaufman responded to the 10,000.hour rule. He points out that, while Gladwell was onto something, some people’s downfall is that they never start. What is needed for them is the 20-hour rule: the amount of time needed for most people to learn the basics of a skill. For Kingdom Citizens, Kaufman’s rule holds great promise. Consider this short list of what we could accomplish in 20 hours:
- Memorize the Sermon on the Mount.
- Learn a unique skill such as unicycling or stargazing (non-Hollywood ones) which will help us connect with more people, including people who don’t know Christ.
- Read a formative book.
- Spend an hour and a half alone each month journaling and listing potential areas of trials and temptations, thereby gaining an edge with an early offensive position.
Zig Ziglar, one of the least passive people of our times, had a saying: “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” Whether our problem is getting started or sticking it out, we ought to consider Ziglar’s words.
A caveat—being active does not equal constant activity
There are times in life when it best to pause and take stock. Sometimes we may feel as though our noble desire for action has us thrashing wildly and spinning our wheels. Then is the time for healthy introspection. After making occasional adjustments, we should always gird up our loins and re-enter the fray.
Finally, 2017 should be a year for setting attainable, measurable goals as we continue serving our Lord in His Kingdom. But let us also use this year to become people of character— to become more like the Perfect Man, Jesus Christ.
As we follow Jesus, lemming-like behavior is for once entirely appropriate. The ancient Greek poets, although unlikely theologians, were right on target when they spoke of God as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” If we allow God to saturate our lives in this way, passivity will quickly become a receding memory. A life of inaction will be replaced with a life of using each moment to lay up treasures in Heaven. This most wondrous of metamorphoses can be ours if we resolve to abide in Him.
And that would be a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.