By Pastor Graham Cooke
It’s the 5th January- how are those New Year resolutions going? Perhaps one of your resolutions was to read more books and watch less screen. Not a bad idea maybe. But let me talk about something that I have both read and watched (oh… and heard!)
If you’re looking for expressions of intense, constrained passion then you can’t beat 19th century Russian literature. There’s a famous poem or ‘novel in verse’ by Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (or as the Russians say, Yevgeniy Onegin), first published in full in 1833, and turned into an opera by Tchaikovsky. Highly charged, deeply moving. Much more recently, there was an excellent film version, released in 1999, starring Ralph ‘Voldemort’ Fiennes and Liv ‘Arwen’ Tyler, which I watched for the second time between Christmas and New Year, this time with my daughter. It’s not often I find myself so captivated by an adaptation, so they must have done something right, especially as it was no less moving the second time around. Though in truth, it’s mostly the memorable final scene that got to me.
The story tells of Onegin, a dissolute and debauched young man, selfish, cynical and world-weary. We meet him bored by St Petersburg society, ensnared in debts and dodgy relationships. However, when he inherits his uncle’s estate, he settles in the country. At first bored, then somewhat amused by the surrounding provincial society, he finds himself flirting with a neighbour’s daughter, Tatiana, carelessly igniting in her a deep passion for him. She declares her feelings in a letter, to which he doesn’t reply, though later he acknowledges it, saying there could not ever be more than friendship, and lectures her to keep her feelings more under control in the future. Then… disaster strikes, the result of Onegin’s careless flippancy. There’s a duel, someone is killed and Onegin disappears.
After six years he surfaces once more in St Petersburg. His eye is caught by a beautiful married woman- none other than Tatiana herself. Onegin becomes consumed with love for her, to the point of obsession. Now it’s his turn to write a letter and to receive no reply. When they meet, she responds coldly, until finally he confronts her passionately, begging her forgiveness for his past behaviour, and asking whether she can honestly say she doesn’t still have feelings for him. Finally, her reserve breaks; yes, she falteringly admits, she still loves him!
Now if we could pause there, in that exquisite, teetering moment, we might ask, “In any contemporary story, be it film, novel or TV series, what would happen next?” I think we all know the answer; the only question would be how explicit the following scene would be, as the protagonists express their mutual passion. The narrative would lead us to believe that this is really the only possible outcome, if they are to remain ‘true to themselves’. But not Tatiana. Yes, she admits she still loves him, but then, stutteringly, amongst tears and anguish, declares her determination to remain faithful to her husband. It is a divine moment, though Onegin is left regretting his bitter destiny.
I say it is a divine moment. That’s absolutely right, because that decision to honour her marriage vows is truly godly, as in truly God-like. Because this is what the One True God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does; he keeps his promises. He maintains his covenant. He does not break his word.
Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.Deuteronomy 7:9
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?Numbers 23:19
Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations…Psalm 119:89-90
The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.1 Thessalonians 5:24
And all this in the face of our stubbornness, half-heartedness, and yes, even our faithlessness:
If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.2 Timothy 2:13
He is so patient with us. His commitment to his people is absolute, even though he knows exactly what and who he is taking on. He knows the cost of his faithfulness in advance and is willing to pay it. Which he does via his ultimate commitment to us; his Son, sent to repair the damage done by our faithlessness, thus enabling God to be faithful both to his justice and to his steadfast love.
For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.2 Corinthians 1:20
Therefore, when we are faithful to our promises, when we keep our word, even when it hurts to do so, even when it’s much easier not to, even when every emotion and instinct would lead us in the other direction, then we are most God-like, most godly.
So what about new year resolutions? For what it’s worth, here’s my advice. Rather than rashly making new promises, how about we concentrate on keeping the commitments we have already made? To our spouses, to our children, to others around us, and most of all, to God himself.