Pursuing Hope, Faith, and Purpose in 2021

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.

Photo by Negative Space from Pexels



What Does Dignifying Politics Look Like?

Political tension in America is not new. Polarization, anger, and hostility have, to some extent, been part of our politics and culture for centuries. In the presidential election of 1800, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters accused John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adam’s advocates responded just as vulgarly, calling Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” However, the state of our public discourse seems particularly poor today. Overwhelmed by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, many Americans—including some Christians—aren’t sure how they should navigate the treacherous political waters of our time. This begs the question: What does Christlike political engagement look like? How can we dialogue with others in a way that honors God? Read More



When Will Your Church Be Back to Normal?

As I type this, my teenage sons are in the next room, and I can hear them laughing and talking. They are on Zoom calls with their youth group from our church. In the midst of this Coronavirus pandemic, they are finding a way to connect, to hear the Word of God, to be discipled together. I am wiping away tears from my eyes, but I don’t quite know why. Partly it’s because this reality is unbelievably sad. And partly it’s because the despite-of-it-all nature of the church is unbelievably beautiful.

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5 Ways to Care for Minority Team Members

As a Black person, working alongside a majority white staff at a majority white church with a white supervisor can sometimes be extremely difficult. This can be due to a number of things, including a general lack of awareness about the Black experience in America or neglecting to ask for Black people’s perspectives. There are also personal pressures—the cranking out of excellent work in a season of collective trauma for the Black community can be exhausting.

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Leading Teams Through Crises

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
— Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

When we talk about Christian leadership, we look to Jesus, specifically, His example of servant leadership. He did not lord His authority over others; He served, washing feet, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick. We also turn to Paul, who teaches us that Christians ought to “count others more significant” than themselves. Read More



Eyes Wide Open: Searching for the Right View of Stewardship

“Dad, what is 365 times 8 times 24?” my oldest son asked from the backseat of our car, about as nonchalantly as if he were asking for the time of day or what was on the menu for dinner.

“I don’t know buddy, let me see,” I replied as I reached for my phone/calculator.

“Looks like 70,080. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just curious how many minutes I have been alive. Dad, how many minutes have you been alive?”

“Ugh, a lot more, buddy … (punching numbers in the calculator) … looks like 324,120 minutes.”

“Dad! That is a lot of minutes. What are you going to do with the rest of them?”

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Remembering Our Hope

God, give me the courage to walk through this. Give me the faith to rely on you. I can’t do this on my own. I need you.

Those words appeared in my journal almost eight years ago today. I am also certain I prayed these same words yesterday, as I cried out to God for the umpteenth time during this coronavirus quarantine.

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Sanctity of Life in the Workplace

 

In many Christian circles, conversations about the sanctity of life wend toward abortion and the pro-life movement. That application of the sanctity of life isn’t wrong. God cares about all life, including the lives of the unborn. It is, however, limited. Sanctity of life refers to more than the unborn. It covers the expanse of human life, from the baby arriving in four months time to the woman with dementia. It concerns men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian, White and Black. Sanctity of life includes every human, because every human receives inherent dignity and worth from being made in the image of God. His image sanctifies life, every heartbreaking and heart-lifting moment of it.

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ASI Seminar Recap: Kindred Allies

The Austin Stone Institute’s (ASI) 2019 “Learning to Listen” seminar series is designed to encourage us to consider other people’s perspectives, to give us a theological foundation for speaking with grace and truth about topics such as gender, race, and politics, and to empower us to engage with people who are not like us.

Our first seminar “Kindred Allies” with author and Bible teacher Jen Wilkin occurred on September 12 at our West campus. We were delighted by how many people came—we saw nearly 200 people gather in the auditorium.

Men and Women Are More Alike than Different

The seminar featured two teaching components and one Q&A panel. During the first teaching, Jen explored how men and women are more similar than different. She started by debunking the idea that men and women cannot be platonic friends. Jen undergirded her position with Genesis 1 and 2, saying that God did not provide Eve because Adam felt the lack of a sexual partner. Rather, God provided Eve because Adam was lonely and needed a companion who shared his language and abilities. God made them to “image” Him together, not separately. 

Jen then turned to the New Testament and discussed how Jesus redefines and expands the definition for “family.” She referenced Mark 3, which says: 

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In the family of God, relationships between men and women are not based on husband and wife, but on brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. And, Jen continued, this family of brothers and sisters is told to “one another” over and over in the New Testament. Men and women are to love one another (1 John 4:7), serve one another (1 Peter 4:10), encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32), etc. Men and women are not to divide by gender, with men in the living room and women in the kitchen, but to pursue friendship and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

But that is not how life typically plays out in the church or the larger culture. Men and women fear each other—a natural state of affairs considering humanity’s sin and a hyper-sexualized culture. Relationships between genders become fraught with tension. And yet, some relationships transcend it: the bond between a father and daughter, for instance, or a brother and sister who defend each other no matter what. Such relationships give a glimpse of what friendships between men and women can look like. It is possible to be friends with the opposite sex without sexual temptation running rampant.

Men and Women Should Consider the Other’s Perspective

But for that possibility to become a reality, Jen suggested men and women needed to do some reconditioning in terms of not only how they saw each other but also how they recollected stories in the Bible. She addressed the former in the first session of the seminar and worked through the latter in the second. In it, Jen walked seminar attendees through the example of David and Bathsheba. 

Many readings (and commentaries) of the text depict Bathsheba as a “loose” woman delighted to capture King David’s attention. A close textual reading, though, offers something different. It displays an unequal and unbreachable power dynamic, with David having all the agency and Bathsheba all the vulnerability. Reading the text with that viewpoint can be uncomfortable but ultimately healthful; it teaches people to reconsider their assumptions about both the Bible and the opposite gender, to reexamine their understanding of situations, and in some cases, to initiate conversations with men and women about their experiences.  

Jen ended her teaching with a panel. Todd Engstrom, Executive Pastor of Ministry Strategies, John Murchison, Managing Director of The Austin Stone Institute, and Lindsay Funkhouser, Program Manager of ASI’s Writer Development Program, joined her. They answered questions from the audience regarding how men and women can be “kindred allies” and gave advice on how men and women can relate to and support one another. For example, Jen and Lindsay said men can open up opportunities to women, while women can remind men that emotions are not weaknesses. Men can also encourage women toward speaking up for themselves, and women offer insights into men’s communication styles.

God designed men and women complementary. Each gender has something the other lacks. By coming together as friends, they can discover how the qualities that seem to separate them enrich each other’s lives and unite them as one body in Christ. 

 

Join us for our upcoming seminar with Dr. Gregg Allison on October 25. He’ll be answering the question, “Are you your body?”



Five Ways to Fight Perfectionism

I was nine years old when I first tangled with perfectionism. (At least, it’s my first remembered encounter. My mom probably recalls something different.) I got a “C” on a grammar test. While most kids would accept that grade with delighted relief, I didn’t. I felt like a failure. To me, a “bad” grade wasn’t a letter grade; it was a mark against my moral fiber. I spent the next week berating myself and dedicating hours to understanding the laws of verbs and diagrams. I was determined not to suffer anything less than an “A” going forward. 

As far as I know, I didn’t. I established and maintained a pristine honor roll status. But the achievement did nothing to combat perfectionism. Perfectionism lingered, a constant presence needling me with the thought that I wasn’t good enough and would never be good enough. To fight that idea, I would need succor other than achievement and determination. I would need God and His grace and wisdom. 

Throughout the years, God has not only provided wisdom and grace but also proven Himself a much more faithful and kind companion than perfectionism. Perfectionism belittles. God lifts me up. He gives me, as one of our new songs from Austin Stone Worship says, “a better word.” God reminds of the better way. That way encompasses a lot of things, but the following five came to mind during a recent bout of perfectionism.

Decide Whether to Create or Be Perfect

Perfectionism cripples. It puts the act of creation at a towering height. Every word, brushstroke, string of code has to be perfect at their inception. If they’re not, the artist/writer/insert other maker topples headlong into perfectionism and its downward spiral of doubt, guilt, and self-inflicted railery. Rather than confront the perils of creation, the maker refuses the climb. They choose safety and comfort over the risk and danger inherent to the creative process. 

But safety and security are poor comforts, especially to the person called to create—and I mean “create” in the broadest sense, from architectural drawings, business plans, and mathematical theorems to murals, choreography, and memoirs. I realized that truth as I sought to put thoughts into words and drawings as an undergraduate. It came with a complimentary epiphany: I could create, or I could be perfect. I could not, however, be both. I could either accept the messiness of creation, along with its risk of failure, or never attempt anything ever again for fear of it being “imperfect.” I decided on the former. The act of making, despite its risks and dangers, was and is infinitely more satisfying than the pursuit of perfection. 

I like how Neil Gaimain juxtaposes perfectionism and creation. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Gaiman says, “What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.” Exactly. My first draft, whether it be writing or art, may be a wreck. But it’s something. I can work with it, mold it into shape.

Choose Humility or Pride

Perfectionism produces pride, too. The perfectionism, though, may not appear as blatant self-promotion, as in the statement, “Look what I did.” Instead it hides beneath a mask of false humility by deflecting praise.

The deflection works a strange magic. It feels right to acknowledge other writers, artists, and creators as more skilled or gifted. And maybe it is. It’s good to recognize and celebrate other people and their gifts. And yet—something about the deflection remains off-kilter, wrong. A friend helped me realize one part of the issue; he told me deflecting a compliment was like trampling on a person’s gift. If he went to the time and trouble to recognize my talent, I should accept his compliment as I would any other thoughtfully given gift, with gratitude and grace. To do otherwise was to hurt the gift-giver and to deny them the opportunity of engaging with me and the thing I created.   

The other part of the issue resides in a denial, conscious or unconscious, of God’s handiwork. Deflecting a compliment is, at best, a diminishment of God’s gifts to me. It downplays my abilities, says they’re of little importance. But they matter a great deal for God gave them to me, and He gave them to me for a reason. At worst, the deflection conveys a wish for other talents, to be made in a different way. It suggests I know better than God, which is both prideful and hurtful. How would I feel if one of my creations stepped off the page and asked, “Why did you make me thus?” I would feel hurt and betrayed, and if I, with my flawed love and incomplete knowledge, feel that way, how much more would God feel, the One who made me in faithful loving kindness and perfect knowledge?

Remember the Source of Confidence

Perfectionism often produces crippling fear and pride. It also frequently suggests people “control their destinies.” Everything, from the smallest, most trivial decision (Should I have avocado toast or granola for breakfast?) to the largest, most transformative one (Should I accept this job or marry this person?), depends on the individual. They are the captains of their ships, and when it comes to their work, they are the sources of inspiration and confidence.

But such sources are finite and fallible. Confidence crumbles for all sorts of reasons—failure, sure, but the size or scope of project, fatigue, and doubt, too. And inspiration? Inspiration is a fickle friend. It snubs invitations to visit, no matter how the person strains. When either confidence or inspiration dissipates, the illusion of control shatters. The world will not conform or perform to the maker’s perfect equations. Life proves more complicated than they ever anticipated. 

Here, the difference between what the world says and what the Bible says becomes vivid. The world says to wrest control back by planning harder, working longer hours, taking a retreat—to do whatever it takes to achieve the picture-perfect career, lifestyle, etc. The Bible says different. It says God is in control of everything, including me and the ins and outs of my days. He, not me, strengthens and sustains when disorder—imperfection—descends. He is my ultimate source of confidence and inspiration, and a never-ever running out one at that. God is and always will be my source of sustenance, confidence, and inspiration whether the work comes easy or hard. He remains constant, a perfect, fixed point upon whom I can rely. 

Decide to Rest Instead of Perform

Perfectionism also says I am the sum of my work. It’s an easy lie to believe, particularly in a culture that urges me to be the best, to pull myself up by my bootstraps, to work and work and work, demand my rights, break through the ceiling, etc. When I believe those things, I shoulder a burden I was never meant to. Rest becomes a distant memory or merely the means of greater efficiency and productivity. It no longer restores, for it is no longer connected to God, the One who conceived of and instituted rest in the first place. 

The longer rest remains disconnected from God, the harder it becomes to cease from toil and strife. Josef Pieper, in his essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” offers an explanation. He says, “We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence … The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”(1)

To correct the lie, I have to remember the truth. In Christ, I am God’s daughter. God made me for more than work, even if that work makes His name great. He made me to know Him, to so enjoy being His daughter that I can’t help but make Him known to others. He made me to reflect Him. He also gave me unique talents and skills, not so that I would be consumed by them, but so that I could enjoy them and use them for His glory and other people’s good. And—He gave me rest and play and wonder, things I have to receive as the gifts they are. I do not work for those things; they come unbidden, without effort, a means of grace, not ability.

Embrace Community

Finally, perfectionism isolates. How can it not? Its chief goal is to be, not the best, but the most perfect. It dismisses collaboration and community because the successful perfectionist should be entire to themselves. They shouldn’t need help or desire to be known as a real person, a person with struggles and flaws and yes, imperfections. 

If that posture doesn’t produce isolation, perfectionists’ unrealistic standards should. Some perfectionists manage to keep their standards under control and apply them only to themselves. But even then, they can be difficult to bear. No one wants to spend time with a self-righteous prig whose aim in life is perfection. In other cases, the perfectionists assume their standards should be everybody’s standards. But that’s not fair. No one can live up to a perfectionist’s standards. Even if they could, they shouldn’t. They were made in a unique way, and they should use that uniqueness to grow into the person God created them to be, not the person the perfectionist says they should be. (Which, let’s face it, is basically a mini-me of the perfectionist. Who wants that?)

But the reality, according to the Bible, is that humans were made for community. God embedded it in humanity’s design. Admitting I need help and other people is not some great moral failure; it is good, right, and true. When I welcome people into my work or join them in theirs, beauty results—and I’m not talking about the end product, although it almost always improves with other people’s input. No, what I speak of has to do with the people of God. I see them as God sees them. I witness how He knits us together, the same way He knits me. The sight fills me with awe, and in seeing it, I respond by turning away from isolating perfectionism and toward a community where I belong. 

Over the years, I’ve discovered many truths to counter perfectionism’s lies. But the most convicting, life-shattering one is that God has entrusted me with a certain amount of time, with certain talents and gifts. That means I am not an owner but a steward, a humble servant, a recipient of God’s manifold grace. My gifts are not for me and my benefit but for God’s glory and people’s good. When I keep that truth in mind, perfectionism loosens its grip. I step into a space brimming with possibility and create with the joy and confidence my Father and King so abundantly and graciously supplies.

 

(1) Josef Pieper, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1948)