Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and truth: and put away the gods
which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve the
Lord. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve;
whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or
the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living: but as for me and my house, we
will serve the Lord.
It has been said of free will that all reason argues against it and all experience argues
for it, and the opposite might be said for New Year's resolutions--that all reason argues
for them, and all experience argues against them. The new year would seem to be an ideal
time for a fresh start. It feels right. We have a kind of ceremony of saying good bye to
the old and welcoming the new, and along with this comes a kind of conviction that this
new year can be better than the past one. At the same time, there could probably be a book
of jokes and cartoons about New Year's resolutions. Their ineffectiveness is proverbial.
Our Old Testament reading comes from a point in Israel's history when the nascent nation
was saying good bye to the old and greeting the new. The conquest was over, such as it
was, their great general Joshua was retiring, and they were about to settle down to a very
different kind of life. They were through being nomads, they were through being an army.
They were about to become farmers and herdsmen and potters and everyday citizens of town
It was wholly appropriate for Joshua to use the occasion as he did, for the making of new
resolutions. The chapter goes on to describe the reading of the law and the people's
binding promise to abide by it. They must have felt much as we do at the beginning of a
new year, that they could do better than they had in the past, so their confidence is not
at all surprising. A clean slate invites us to write on it, and in our imaginations we can
write some very inspiring ideals.
Not many pages after these solemn promises, though, we find a very familiar story. The
second chapter of Judges tells us that the people served the Lord faithfully as long a
Joshua and his contemporaries lived. These, it notes, were the people who had seen what
the Lord had done for them. But then, we are told, "there arose another generation after
them, which did not know the Lord or the works which he had done for Israel."
Predictably, the faithful service deteriorated, in this instance into idolatry, and we
enter a period of living from crisis to crisis, of laxity as long as things went well
repentance only when things went painfully wrong.
What had happened? Were the promises insincere? Did Israel underestimate the difficulty of
the task, or overestimate her own moral and spiritual strength? Perhaps the most
productive way to describe the problem would be to say that the slate was not anywhere
near as clean as they thought. They were in fact carrying into the new situation many of
the failings that had betrayed them in the past. It illustrates the platitude that
changing our circumstances solves only those problems that are caused by our
circumstances. Many of our problems are caused by our own attitudes, and these we do not
leave behind. If one of these attitudes involves blaming all our troubles on our
circumstances, then obviously moving to a new situation is a symptom of the problem and
not a solution at all.
If we want the new year to be better than the old one, then, we need to look at what we
are carrying with us. The slate will not actually be cleaned by the stroke of the clock at
midnight. Somehow or other, we have to clean it.
That, I suggest, is what Joshua was trying to do with his recital of Israel's history. He
began with the promise to Abram, told of the patriarchs, of the deliverance from Egypt, of
the wilderness experience, and of the conquest. He made it clear that all this was the
Lord's work, that it was not accomplished by their sword and bow, that they were settling
in a land for which they had not labored, in cities which they had not built. The obvious
intent of this was to inspire loyalty out of gratitude; but we do not have to look far
beneath the surface to find another message, namely that this people needs a lot of help.
They have no reason to believe in their own moral or spiritual strength.
"Cleaning the slate," then, would be learning the lessons that are there on the slate to
be learned. This is a principle that is clearly reflected in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell.
In general, we are not punished for our past sins--punishment is inherent in the sin
itself, and not some kind of add-on. If we no longer incline to a particular failing, then
we have, so to speak, learned what that failing had to teach us about ourselves. The
unwelcome memories that are revived in the other life are the ones we have insisted on
distorting or denying (Cf. Heaven and Hell 509, 462b). These turn out to be recorded in
every detail and are recalled with full vividness precisely because we have not faced
The parallel to our own present lives seems quite clear. The only way we can lay a solid
foundation for change, for a truly better new year, is to learn what the old year has to
teach us. This means looking below the surface, beyond the obvious ups and downs of
events, to discover some of the whys. When has our own resolve been firm and adequate to
whatever challenged us? When has our own resolve wavered and failed? Can we see any
pattern to this, any pattern that would help us recognize the danger signals more promptly
than we have heretofore?
Someone who is not in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations observed that those who do not know
history are condemned to repeat it, and this is exactly the principle at work here. If we
fail to face what is happening in our lives, if we rationalize rather than examine, if we
practice self-justification rather than self-critique, then we carry all our liabilities
with us into the new year. We make our resolutions with wondrous confidence because we
have convinced ourselves that we are capable and trustworthy. Our slate has drawn on it a
picture of ourselves that differs significantly from the facts.
This is the state imaged by the Israel of our Old Testament reading. The twenty-fourth
chapter of Joshua goes on to tell how the assembled people promised obedience, and how
Joshua's immediate response was, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God." He was
right on both counts, but he was not heard. But what would have been Israel's response if
he had been heard? Would the nation have decided to "serve other gods?" I doubt it. At
this point, they were full of the awareness of how far they had been brought and how much
they owed to the Lord. They were intensely aware of the Lord's power, and not about to
Their response would probably have been much like Solomon's in the dream he had at the
beginning of his reign. He recognized the magnitude of the task ahead of him and the
limits of his own ability, and prayed for wisdom. So an Israel that heard what Joshua was
trying to convey would probably have answered with a will to be faithful and a plea for
help in doing so. In the words of the father of the possessed child in Mark, "Lord, I
believe: help my unbelief."
Again, the parallel to our lives seems quite clear. If all we take with us into the new
year is a resolve to "try harder" based on a radical overestimation of our spiritual
strength, the prospects of change are dim indeed. We have not identified the problem
because we do not know why we did not try harder before. It is like having a car that
won't start, and simply trying to turn the key harder. It may just be that the problem has
very little if anything to do with the amount of effort we are expending, and everything
to do with the focus of that effort. We may actually be using all the strength we have,
but using it on a problem that cannot be solved by strength.
In other words, if our new year's resolves prove ineffective, it may be because there are
some answers we do not have; and often as not, when we lack answers it is because we have
not asked questions. In all probability, the answers are there in the past year. If we
could see beneath the surface a little more clearly, we might begin to recognize what has
gone wrong. The first slate we have to wipe clean is the one that has written on it all
the answers that didn't work.
One of the more obvious characteristics of a clean slate is that it doesn't have any
information on it. Some traditions speak of the "beginner's mind," of coming at every new
situation with as few preconceptions as possible, and this is very much the same thing.
It involves a thorough and heartfelt acknowledgment of ignorance, saying those three
little words, "I don't know." This is exactly what Solomon said--"I do not know how to go
out and come in." This is exactly what Israel did not say at Shechem.
When we turn to our New Testament reading, the story of the two disciples on the road to
Emmaus, we find ourselves at another transition point. The years of the Lord's physical
presence had closed, and the years of his spiritual presence were beginning. In this
instance, though, the disciples knew only that one era had ended. They had no inkling of
what lay ahead.
The Lord's way of dealing with this was very much like that of his namesake Joshua--he
reviewed the past. "Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in all
the Scriptures the matters that concerned himself." He did this explicitly so that they
would understand the purpose behind all these events. All this had happened so that the
Messiah might "enter into his glory."
There is an intriguing detail involved that is very difficult to translate. The Authorized
Version has Jesus saying, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets
have spoken." The word translated "fools" is anoetoi, which basically means people who
lack discernment. It describes something very much like the blank slate we have been
talking about. The disciples were open to learn because they were bewildered. They had
been pushed beyond any tendency to pretend to understanding.
This is a recurrent theme in Paul's letters. "The foolishness of God is wiser than men,
and the weakness of God is stronger than men," he wrote to the Corinthians (I Cor. 1:25),
or again, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Cor 12:10). It is the foundation of
Swedenborg's "as if" principle, that we are to resist evils "as if" of ourselves, but are
to keep reminding ourselves that it is not really our strength at all.
If the main thrust of New Year's resolutions is simply that we will try harder, then, they
have failure built into them. They embody the same illusion that defeated Israel's
resolve, namely confidence in our own strength. They involve the pretense that the slate
has been wiped clean simply by the passage of time, when in fact it still has written on
it all the answers that have not worked in the past. If there is one all-purpose
resolution that might emerge from these thoughts, it would be a resolve to be quicker to
recognize when we need help and more faithful in reflecting on both our successes and our
failures. The Lord is at hand and can help us if we get our illusions out of the way.