Welcome to 2016! We have entered a “new year,” a phenomenon our culture infuses with making resolutions to change our behavior, to set goals, or to otherwise become a better person. I have to be honest with you, I have never appreciated the whole New Year’s resolution thing. If it works, then good, but the research is clear: most New Year’s resolutions don’t succeed.
According to Dr. John Norcross, a preeminent researcher on the psychology of behavioral change, about 45% of us make resolutions each year and of those who do make them, about 60% have given up six months into the year. By the end of the year as few as 8% are successful in their resolution. Commonly, the top ten resolutions are:
- Lose weight
- Getting organized
- Spend less, save more
- Enjoy life to the fullest
- Staying fit and healthy
- Learn something exciting
- Quit smoking
- Help others in their dreams
- Fall in love
- Spend more time with family
As you can tell from the list, resolutions are almost entirely about self-improvement. They vary dramatically in their scope (“getting organized” to “fall in love”). The power of habituation to overcome is wide-ranging (“spend less, save more” to “quit smoking”). If you’ve been smoking for decades, it’s a lot harder to quit than the behavioral change needed to spend more time with the family.
Dr. Norcross reports that resolvers who maintained their change over a two-year period (19%) report an average of 14 slips. The main causes of the initial slip were feeling a lack of personal control, excessive stress, negative emotions, social pressure, and interpersonal conflict.
According to researchers at Stanford University, the “Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change” are:
- Relying on willpower for long-term change
- Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps
- Ignoring how environment shapes behavior
- Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones
- Blaming failures on lack of motivation
- Underestimating the power of triggers
- Believing that information leads to action
- Focusing on abstract goals instead of concrete behaviors
- Seeking to change a behavior forever, not for a short time
- Assuming that behavior change is difficult
Why do we make New Year’s resolutions in the first place? Or any resolutions at any time? If I resolve to lose 30 pounds this year and actually do it, then so what? Does the weight loss actually change who I am? Of course not. It may change how I physically feel, how I mentally feel about my self-image, and how others perceive me, but the weight loss in and of itself does not change who I am fundamentally.
I believe there is something deeper underlying our culture’s relationship with the New Year’s resolution phenomenon than mere behavioral change: the desired outcome of a resolution is to have a more enlivened encounter with myself. We want to experience an epiphany. We want to feel more uplifted, gladdened, animated, stimulated, exhilarated, in a word … enlivened. But even deeper than feeling enlivened we want to actually be enlivened; we want to have a new life.
The desired outcome of a resolution is to have a more enlivened encounter with myself.
The Stanford researcher BJ Fogg has a website called tinyhabits.com. His “Tiny Habits® program can create new behaviors in your life,” he claims. In his own words he says on his website:
I’ve studied human behavior for 20 years, mostly at Stanford University. Here’s what I’ve learned: only three things will change behavior in the long term.
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
Creating an epiphany is difficult. You should rule out Option A unless you have mystical powers (I don’t).
But here’s the good news: the other two options are practical. And they can lead to lasting change if you follow the right program. However, few winning programs exist.
“Creating an epiphany is difficult.”
Um, yes, it is difficult, but not impossible. What is an “epiphany” anyway? In theological terms epiphany refers to a manifestation of the divine or supernatural. In specifically Christian usage epiphany refers to the manifestation of God in Christ Jesus, for example in the visitation of the Christ child by the Magi from the East or in the baptism of Jesus. As the word relates to human experience, epiphany refers to a striking realization, an “aha!” moment, for example in a moment of inspiration while inventing something or an insight of scientific discovery.
Thomas Edison famously quipped, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Edison’s philosophy and that of his star employee Henry Ford epitomized the American ethos of working hard to achieve the “American Dream.” Sure, inspiration / epiphany play a role, but hard work dominates the path to achievement. Edison, Ford, and the vast leaps in technological progress since the Industrial Revolution have demystified the world around us. If anything like an epiphany exists any longer in our world it arrives in the discoveries of abstract science, such as particle physics and quantum theory, or of insights gained of faraway places like Mars and Pluto or even beyond our solar system.
Look at the image on the cover of the bulletin. This is the “Flammarion engraving.” Not included is the caption from Flammarion’s book, “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet.” You can see the missionary sticking his head through the dome of the medieval heavens to see the workings of the supernatural heavens. Is this the kind of encounter we expect when we think of religious epiphany? That we want to see what’s actually behind it all? What’s making everything live and move? We may think of biblical epiphanies like the descending of the Holy Spirit as a dove upon Jesus in his baptism, the burning bush with Moses, Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot of fire.
There is no hard work implied in those stories.
They are all stories of magnificent, miraculous, and life-changing acts of God. But what happened next? In Matthew’s gospel after Jesus was baptized he was called into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and nights and then to struggle with the devil. At the burning bush God called Moses to go free his enslaved people from Pharaoh, a tyrannical dictator. After Elijah was taken his successor Elisha got mixed up in war, drought, famine, and political affairs at the highest levels. All of these things required hard work to accomplish, and they required the “heroes” to call upon others to help them in their hard work. The first thing Jesus did after the devil left him in the wilderness was to declare, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and to call his first disciples. Moses asked for his father-in-law Jethro’s permission to leave with his family; and they left for Egypt. The company of prophets rallied around Elisha when they saw he had the spirit of Elijah. Epiphany is followed by the emboldening and enlivening of God’s people.
This is Paul’s point in Ephesians. Paul has received the epiphany of his calling to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. The NIV says that “this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery.” Or, as the CEB puts it, “God sent me to reveal the secret plan.” What follows from Paul to the Ephesians is one of the greatest motivational addresses in the New Testament, which includes plans, practices, and purposes for the early church.
Biblical epiphanies share a pattern: God reveals God’s self to an individual, the individual’s life is changed, and then that individual rallies a multitude to do God’s work of kingdom building. We may describe this epiphany plan of action as “inside-out.” New Year’s resolutions, on the other hand, follow the reverse pattern of “outside-in.” Work hard or in baby steps or through whatever plan you choose to change outside behavior, appearance, lifestyle, whatever, and then assume the inside life will be changed. Possible? Yes. Likely? No.
One of my favorite comedies is What About Bob? with Bill Murray playing the obsessive-compulsive hypochondriac Bob Wiley determined to get healthy through the therapy of Richard Dreyfuss’s Dr. Leo Marvin. When Dr. Marvin and family leave the big city to go to their vacation home on a lake, Bob finds out where they are and mayhem ensues. Dr. Marvin’s bestselling book is Baby Steps: A Guide to Living Life One Step at a Time. In the movie we get a real sense of Dr. Marvin as a self-centered, know-it-all. He has knowledge. He’s put in the hard work. He’s incredibly successful. He has a great family. But he is spiritually shallow, to say the least. Bob is an absolute wreck. He can barely get out the house. He has no family. But Bob finds change. How? Not because of the baby steps process itself but because Bob receives love from Dr. Marvin’s family. As the epiphanies pile up for Bob and create in him more and more change, Dr. Marvin goes crazy because he can’t handle Bob’s personal transformation because it undermines his professional integrity, his boundaries, and his obsessive control of his own family.
Of course Dr. Marvin and Bob are comedic characters of the extremes. We find ourselves like both of them, to varying degrees. Like Dr. Marvin we are concerned with our own self-image. We may be dispensers of wisdom but not practitioners. Like Bob we have odd personal hurts, habits, and hangups. We may practice the baby steps of life halfway decently, but we’re not full of knowledge and public respect.
None of this is to say that we should not try to change our behavior or make resolutions. What I am saying is, however, that deep spiritual change can and does happen as a result of epiphany, and it’s not as rare as you may think. Psalm 72 is the perfect example of what epiphanies can look like all around us. For millennia both Jews and Christians have interpreted Psalm 72 as a messianic psalm, depicting what the righteous messiah king would look like. The king would enliven God’s plans to …
… judge people with righteousness, and poor people with justice.
… defend the cause of poor people, give deliverance to needy people.
… be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
… deliver those who have no helper.
… have pity on weak and needy people and save their lives.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life.
Any time you see those things being done know that you are witnessing divine epiphany.
The question then becomes not about how or will God reveal God’s self to me, to give me my own special epiphany, though that can happen,
but rather the question becomes are we blind to common, everyday epiphanies of defending the cause of poor people? Freeing people from oppression and violence?
And then, more important, are we changed by these epiphanies? And if we are changed, what is our plan for “the administration of this mystery?” When Edison invented electric lighting that was a global epiphany of the scientific and technological kind. The same is true of Ford inventing the mass-production of cars. But now our world is so overrun by the power production of lights and cars it’s literally suffocating the planet. Global climate change is yet another scientific epiphany, and now we’re collectively pledged to do something about it as a result of the Paris climate conference agreement. Scientific epiphany can come first, second, people and plans, third, action. But does any of that scientific progression change who we actually are? Does it change our nature?
Dr. Fogg says we should rule out the “epiphany” option to behavioral change. Christians can’t do that because we are already “Epiphany People.” We’ve already been changed by Jesus Christ; we’ve already received our inspiration. The Message translates verse ten of Ephesians 3 this way: “Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!”
Christians are already “Epiphany People.”
Are angels talking about the plans of Plainfield United Methodist Church? About us? If we need to make new plans, then maybe we can take a play from the playbook of someone like Dr. Fogg, or Bob Wiley, for that matter, and take baby steps and change the environment. That’s how Jesus started … with baby steps. Amen.