It’s a good bet that 2021 is the most eagerly-anticipated year in this young century. I don’t know a single person who is sad to see 2020 become a memory. It was a hard year, and I daresay none of us want to relive it. But as the calendar changes and we enter a new year, we must face the challenge of moving beyond 2020 and stepping into 2021 with a renewed sense of hope, faith, and purpose. I’d like to suggest three steps that may help us prepare for the coming year.
Reflect on the Past
One of the most profitable tasks any person can undertake when beginning something new—be it a new year, a new venture, or anything else—is sober reflection on what came before. The writer of Eccelesiastes instructs his readers to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV). These words are the fruit of the writer’s long reflection on his efforts to find pleasure and satisfaction in wealth, wisdom, and work. After his journey, the writer understood that God’s wisdom was better than his own, and that his satisfaction could not be found in creation. It could only be found in the Creator alone.
Similarly, prayerful reflection can help us understand the wisdom of God and ourselves more clearly. Some people find journalling an excellent way to begin reflecting on their experience. For others, conversations with spouses, friends, roommates, or coworkers can be equally revealing. Whatever form is best for you, consider using it and spending some time this month reflecting on the previous year.
If you have trouble getting started, here is a list of questions I’ve found to be helpful over the years:
- What am I proud of, or not, in the past year?
- Where has God been faithful to His promises in the last year?
- Where have I been faithful to God in the last year? Where have I been unfaithful?
- In what roles of life (employee, parent, friend, etc.) have I been successful this year, and why? Where I have not been successful?
After reflecting, summarize your observations in a short list of conclusions. These conclusions do not need to be long or elaborate. Simple statements like, “I’m thankful that I spent more intentional time with my family this year,” or “I wish we had been more generous last year,” can be very powerful when we see them in our own handwriting.
Next, take your thoughts and/or conclusions to those closest to you and ask that they consider them. I have done this for years with my boss, accountability partners, and my wife. Every single time God uses these discussions to give me fresh insight into who I am and how God is growing me through the circumstances of my life.
Finally, pray through what you have learned. Confess where you have failed to God and ask Him to change your heart. Where you have succeeded, thank God for His grace and power in your life. If you experience any confusion, or lack of clarity, ask Him to show you the truth. Remind yourself that the God of the universe, Creator of all things seen and unseen, has guided your steps over the last year. Praise Him for that.
Plan for the Future
As we look to the future, we must acknowledge we do not know what it holds. Think back to January 2020. None of the major challenges we’ve faced this year were known. That is just as true in January 2021. As finite beings, we are limited in our ability to plan because we do not know the future. That, however, does not excuse us from making wise and prudential plans for the future.
But what kind of planning is best? There is a growing consensus that focusing on habits is a better path. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (27). Instead of traditional goal (or resolution) setting, Clear advocates creating a system that comprises small, independent habits which work together to help us achieve our desired outcomes.
Clear’s work provides a strong framework of proven techniques for building these habits, and it resonates with what the Bible tells us about how God changes our hearts over time. The spiritual disciplines (reading the Word, prayer, worship, fasting, etc.) are the daily and habitual means that God uses to shape people into the image of His Son. The disciplines work through the compounding effects of small, incremental changes day after day, year after year. Through building a system of habits informed by God’s means of shaping us, we can create fertile ground so that the Holy Spirit may cultivate real, lasting, heart change.
One of the best ways to begin thinking about the habits that shape your life (good and bad) is to examine the conclusions you reached in your reflection on the last year. Some additional questions can also help to identify areas where we can fight for holiness or press deeper into our relationships with Christ. Consider:
- What places, people, and situations help me treasure Jesus more? Which ones pull me further from Him?
- What behaviors and habits do I have that help me see Jesus more clearly? Which ones cloud my vision of who God is and what He’s done for me?
Through these questions and our reflection, we can begin to see the habits and patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior helping us grow in Christlikeness, and the ones that foster the rebellion of sin in our hearts. These, in turn, help us identify specific, measurable habits we want to start, stop, or change in the new year, and incorporate them into a plan to grow.
A plan to build effective habits does not have to be long and detailed. In fact, simplicity is often best. Think about a hypothetical person who doesn’t read their Bible as often as they’d like, wants to improve their most important relationships, and would like to lose a few pounds. An effective plan could be as simple as:
- I will read one chapter from the Bible and pray after my morning coffee each day.
- Once a week, I will plan intentional time with my spouse/family/roommates.
- I will stop eating late-night snacks after 8pm.
A plan for the new year can really be that simple. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to make big plans that are too much of a stretch from where we start. Let’s consider our hypothetical person. If they currently read their Bible for 30 minutes once every other week, reading the whole Bible in a single year may not be the next best step. Simply reading one chapter every day for 10 minutes would be a vast improvement. Instead of reading 60 minutes every month, they would spend around 300 minutes reading their Bible. We would expect this amount of time spent reading and praying about the Word of God to produce significant spiritual growth. Small investments made consistently over time produce outstanding results.
Once we have a list of habits we want to cultivate and negative habits we want to break, we have the shape of a basic plan, which we can share with those closest to us for feedback and accountability. This plan alone won’t address all of the changes you would like to make, but there is now a course of action to pursue. More importantly, you have something to take to Jesus.
Trust God and His Goodness
If only accomplishing everything that mattered was as simple as having a plan. Of course, we all know it’s not. But the good news for believers is that God loves us, He is sovereign over our lives, and He is working for our good. Our plans and efforts may be small and unable to save us, but that does not mean they do not matter. We should strive to glorify God in the same manner that Paul instructs Timothy:
Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:7b–10)
Our toil and striving is not to clean ourselves up to be acceptable to God, to make up for past mistakes, or to prove we are good enough. Not at all. Instead, this toil and work is a response to the love of God by which He has declared we are righteous and blameless because of the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul says, we work because we have the hope of Christ.
This third step is the most important one: We ask God to bless our efforts to obey and serve Him. We ask Him to change our hearts and our plans where we are mistaken. And we ask Him to help us see more clearly and love Him more deeply. Then we step out in faith and act, trusting God will keep His promises. Because He always has, and always will.