Bishop’s January Reflection: Make Small Commitments for Big Changes
by Bishop Michael G. Duca
As you receive this Catholic Connection, I suppose we are all well into our New Yearâ€™s resolutions. Changes are tricky things because we often have a strong beginning, but in the end give up because we realize how hard it is to change. We give in to the old ways because we were not perfect in our resolve. And yet the Gospel messages call us to conversion and change as a means of reshaping of our lives ultimately in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. We are continually trying, and should be trying, to conform our lives with the teaching of the Church as it reflects what it means to love and to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. If this is so central to our Christian faith, how can we be more successful in shaping our lives, as St. Paul says, so that we might â€śtake on the mind of Christ?â€ť
I have a few suggestions that might guide our decisions based on a few passages of scripture.
In the Gospel we hear, â€śso be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect.â€ť (Matthew 5:48) While this passage may seem to put the achievement bar fairly high, okay, impossibly high, it is a good place to start. The truth is, and we know this deep in our hearts, that we will never be perfect as God is perfect. But that doesnâ€™t mean that the perfect goal is wrong or that we should not set our hopes high. The goal that guides our change is as important as the bad habit or action we want to change. In fact, this goal should be the first consideration because in our striving for a particular ideal we are shaping the person we are becoming. If our desire to lose weight is really about vanity, for example, the more we strive to reach our goal the more vain we will become.
We should always seek a higher goal that reflects the perfect ideal that God has given us in the example of Jesus, which we discover in our spiritual lives through prayerful reflection on the witness of Jesus Christ, the teachings of the Church and the understanding we have of the scriptures. Those ideals guide us and, even though we will never be perfect, we keep striving for perfection because these are the values that will rightly shape our lives. We should understand that we become virtuous not in achieving the goal perfectly, but in the striving for holiness.
The words of St. James take us a little deeper into this mystery of conversion: â€śand let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and completely lacking in nothing.â€ť James 1:4
Saint Paul says from a different point of view: â€śI have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.â€ť (2 Timothy 4:7)
Once we have the spiritual ideal that will guide us, it is important to keep trying to reach our goal. First, be honest. To make a real change we are not talking about a sprint to the finish as in a quick race. We are talking about a marathon because it will usually take a long time to affect a serious change in our lives.
As St. James says, our â€śperseverance should be perfect.â€ť We must put our emphasis not on being perfect, but on the grace of God. So each day as we examine how we are doing, we should accept that each day it is not about how perfect we are in achieving our goals, but how perfectly we continue to begin over and over again to seek the mind and the heart of Christ in our lives and call upon the grace of God to help us.
In the end it is more about faithfulness than perfection. And so if you have begun your New Yearâ€™s resolution and you have already blown it â€“ smoked a cigarette, had too much drink or cheated on your diet â€“ the answer is not to give up and say, â€śwell, I blew it this year, so I wonâ€™t have to start again until next year,â€ť but rather to simply say, â€śI blew it yesterday, but today I begin again.â€ť It is that faithful decision each day to pick up our cross and to follow Christ that causes us to grow in virtue.
My last humble insight is that we should take small changes except where serious sin is involved. If our spiritual need is to change our behavior and avoid serious sin, then we must make a complete break no matter how big the commitment is and depend on the mercy and love of God who will provide what we need. In other areas of our lives we should take really small steps. One of the things we often try to do is change our whole life at once. To change our life means to change more than one little behavior. A small commitment done faithfully will often have the effect of making big changes in our lives and lead us to deep spiritual insights.
It is my prayer that this New Year will be a time of conversion and holy change in your life. May we say next year that this was a good year, a year of grace and conversion.