Philippians 3: 12-14

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to
take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Fitzgerald’s final line of The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous in American literature, and serves  as a sort of epitaph for both Gatsby and the novel as a whole: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The reason why that line attracted so much attention is the fact that many identify with feeling tethered to the past, swimming upstream, never being able to break free into the future. Each new year people seize the opportunity to make a fresh start, open new calendars, and set new goals, especially with the old tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Among the most popular are to lose weight, to exercise more, and be better in school, work, or home. These resolutions are helpful as they propel us forward, but many keep us steeped in the failures of the past. Sometimes the answer is not in focusing on improving a past failure, but reaching toward a future goal. History is vital, especially since it repeats itself, as we were taught in school, but being future oriented is equally important.

One friend told another about a friend who has a terrible memory. “Forgets everything?” “No,“ said the first, “Remembers everything!” The Apostle Paul knew there are certain things we need to forget. That is why he wrote “…one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” If there was someone who had a past that could have ruined him, Paul was that person. Had he allowed the past to live in his mind, his life would have been imprisoned and confined to despair. But he put away all memory of former things and set his life anew. Failures of the past tie our lives in knots, but so can successes. It’s fun to re-live past moments of achievement. To some extent, we all like to do that. However, basking in the glow of past successes can make us complacent about the tasks at hand. We cannot rest on past accomplishments. Paul knew that. He knew there were new challenges and new opportunities ahead. And he summons us to forget what liesbehind and to press on into the future. Will Rogers put it well when he said, “Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today!” We need to forget past successes and past hurts. Let us keep that in mind as we consider resolutions. I love this quote from Mark Twain about this time of the year: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving the road to hell with them as usual.”

A recent book agrees with Mark Twain. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, shows that making resolutions is a losing battle: “Don’t make a list of new year’s resolutions. Each January, millions of people drag themselves out of bed full of hope or hangover, resolved to eat less, exercise more, spend less money, work harder at the office, keep the home cleaner, and still miraculously have more time for romantic dinners and long walks on the beach. By February 1st they’re embarrassed to even look at the list. But instead of lamenting their lack of willpower, they should put the blame where it belongs, on the list. A better plan is to make one resolution and stick to it.” This book shows current research that demonstrates focusing on several resolutions works against itself. The willpower or self control with which we govern life’s choices all comes from a single reservoir. All of them, no matter what decisions we make, whether it is what clothes to wear, what to eat or not eat, or what to do in business, they all deplete the central willpower source in our brains. If the day is filled with decisions, by the end of the day we are less likely to exercise self control or make the best decisions.

A marriage counselor recognized this as he counseled a couple. Each evening they would come home from work and begin arguing about trivial matters. He counseled them to come home earlier. That would seem like poor advice, giving them more time to argue, but he wanted them to be together before they felt depleted. They “gave at the office” and their home life suffered. Each of our days are filled with decisions. So how are we to keep our willpower strong? How do we focus our self control? As the Apostle Paul said, we need to focus upon one thing. What is the one thing in your life that you need to focus upon, or need to keep out of your view? A good way to visualize this might be the 17th century classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. Imagine a pilgrim on the road walking toward the celestial city, watching its golden spires in the distance. There is a small pub at a bend in the road on the way there. There are many pilgrims who could stop in for a drink on the way and leave, but this particular pilgrim was an alcoholic, so even one drink meant certain demise. As the pilgrim gets nearer to the city, the pub also gets nearer, and eventually the pub blocks out the city altogether, and the pilgrim ends up inside and soon on the floor passed out. Let us imagine this pilgrim to be the musician Eric Clapton.

If you read Eric Clapton’s autobiography or know anything about this famous musician, you know that his life has been plagued by alcoholism. It took complete control of his life. He wrote in his autobiography, Clapton, “I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.” One day at Hazelden Clinic he surrenders to the higher power: “I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with, then I remembered something about surrender, something I knew I thought I could never do, my pride wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”Something amazing happened to him that was beyond making a resolution. He gained willpower, and self control, from God. Even when he had to identify the body of his son in New York City, who had fallen 53 stories to his death, Clapton did not seriously consider taking a drink. He was able to walk past that pub on the way to the celestial city the next time it came into view.

Whatever that pub symbolizes in our lives, we can decide in advance that when we encounter it, that particular temptation, that particular obstacle, we will walk right by. This is a strategy that psychologists call implementation intention, which is a way to reduce the amount of time and effort you spend controlling your thoughts. In the beginning of the day, we visual this particular challenge and decide in advance not to succumb to it. It sounds as if we are turning ourselves into automatons, and no one wants to lose the spontaneity of life and become more robotic, but in fact it is a strategy that has worked for many who have resolved to change life for the better. Making that decision in advance puts us less at risk than if we must decide in the moment, especially if the decision comes at the end of a stress-filled day of decisions when we are literally weaker and not truly ourselves.

In making the decision in advance, we must surrender as Clapton did and trust that God’s power is involved. Returning to the image of the pilgrim, instead of the pilgrim standing in front of the pub, the view of the celestial city blocked, the pilgrim calls on the help of God, and in effect is figuratively “lifted up” to a new perspective that sees the road, the pub, and the celestial city with more of a God perspective. God’s power enables us to see the big picture, reminding us of the bigger goal. The pub is only a challenge on that road, not a road block or an ending point. When Eric Clapton surrendered to God, he gained strength that was not his own, because he knew that he could not do it on his own.

This is the power of prayer. We try to catch a vision of what life could be like if we could change ourselves for the better. With God’s help, that vision can become a reality. The New Year can bring new hope as we realize that our past failures, and successes are behind us, and we move forward to be more of who God wants us to be. Nobody is bound to the past like that final line of the Great Gatsby. We are moving forward with a reservoir of willpower that is strong, as Paul said, focused on one goal, trusting that with God’s help on the journey we will steadily move in the right direction into the future.

Monday our nation celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone who had a profound impact upon Dr. King was Howard Thurman who grew up in poverty in Florida and was raised by his grandmother who was a former slave. Thurman’s commitment to non-violence had a profound impact on Dr. King. The following poem was a mainstay of Thurman’s life and is a fitting challenge for us this new year as we contemplate living our resolution with courage and strength from God:

“Give me the courage to live!
Really live—not merely exist.
Live dangerously,-Scorning risk!
Live honestly,-Daring the truth—
Particularly the truth of myself!
Live resiliently—Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change
As though ‘twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success,
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!
Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail—
Going eagerly, joyously on.
And paying my way as I go,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Head high, spirit winged, like a god—
On…on…till the shadows draw close.
Then even when darkness shuts down,
And I go out alone, as I came,
Naked and blind as I came—
Even then, gracious God, hear my prayer:
Give me the courage to live.”