It’s not a bad idea, you know. Taking time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, reviewing the previous year, and making plans for the new one. The meditative rhythm of reflection on the last 12 months and envisioning a path forward may be exactly what you need to get more out of this mysterious year knocking at your front door right now. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time. Once, while planting a church in Northern California, I rented a cabin in the woods for three days for this very purpose. This extended exercise can teach us lessons from the past year and clarify where we need to head in the future.
Looking at the testimony of the Apostle Paul, we can see that while he had not yet fully arrived at his goal, he focused on “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14) In the exact context, Paul was not gearing up for a new calendar year but helping some early Christians journey from one way of doing life to another. On his part, Paul was moving from an old, self-righteous, religious mindset to a paradigm shift toward a grace-filled life driven by the kingdom of God worldview.
He remembered his old life as a legalist who based his eternal freedom on religious performance, set it aside, embraced the new life of freedom in Christ, and set his gaze toward becoming more like his Savior. He knew where he had been and identified the general direction where he was going.
None of us are like Paul, which is good for me. But we are all created in God’s image and, thanks to the grace of Christ, can all pick up and advance in a direction toward Jesus and all that He has in store for those who love him. Are you ready for the journey of 2024? Here are five quick exercises and practices you can begin right now and continue over the next 365 days.
1. Sing the Praises.
The tendency so often is to get caught up in the pressures of the moment, and before you know it, we’re mostly going to God with requests, pleas, and bargains. The reality is that God has done more for you this past year than you can imagine. In our reflection of the past 12 months, there is substantial value in recounting all God’s blessings and praising Him for that. The psalmist noted 3000 years ago, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. 12 I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:11-12)
Conversely, the sacred text illuminates the problem of failing to sing and praise God. In a dramatic image, Paul identifies the downward spiral toward depravity, which begins with a heart that refuses to thank God. (Romans 1:21)
What are the blessings, lessons, and praises of 2023? What can I learn from this year to empower me in the next?
2. Bury the Past.
We often associate this principle with adverse events, but the reality is the same even for good experiences. People, churches, and organizations can quickly get stuck on some significant event or enterprise from the past to the extent that they remain there while the world and history march by. So, Isaiah wisely teaches us to “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18) The objective is not literally to pretend that the past did not occur, but rather, the goal is not to fixate ourselves there. We can never 100% go forward while our hearts and minds are anchored in the past.
For the exemplary achievements of 2023, celebrate them, but once you’ve done this, set it on your fireplace mantel for encouragement, but push forward.
A good exercise for the negative experiences here is to write about some of the top pains of the past year and then finally deal with them instead of merely hiding them under the rug. Take time to grieve them authentically and then perhaps burn them in your backyard while you’re handing them off to God. In my book Confessions, I illustrated one trip to Colorado where I took a long list of issues that continued tormenting me up to Pike’s Peak and buried it in the ice under a bolder.
What about you? Is there something, not only from 2023 but even from your distant past, that continues to hound and haunt you? How can you leave that in your wake as you move forward?
3. Make the Plans.
I like the sound of Isaiah 32:8 where the prophet echoes down to our day, “But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds they stand.” It’s true; you can’t hit the target without aiming at it. Yes, there is some value in setting goals and making plans this year. What are some of yours?
To read through the Bible this year? To grow your spiritual legs by regularly gathering with the saints on Sunday morning and engaging in a systematic tithe of everything God gives you this year? What about lowering your debt, strengthening your body, learning a new skill, and prioritizing family relationships? The list can go on and on. Twelve months from now, where would you like to be on these fronts? Your plans will help you get there.
4. Roll with the Punches.
I remember working with an older man in Moscow, Russia when I first heard this phrase. It impacted me then, and it applies to us today as well. It’s the idea of a boxer who gets clobbered repeatedly but learns how to make them roll off and stay in the fight. Even though you may make the best plans, life will happen, and often, it will show up in undesirable ways. So what will you do when you’re knocked off balance, and your best-laid plans are thrown in the trash like last week’s junk mail?
In his final letter to the young evangelist, Timothy, Paul instructed him to “keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:5)
One thing is for sure: we live in a world that is losing its head every day and all day. In our growing maturity, we anticipate that life and plans will not always go as we’d like. There will be issues. Sometimes, the punch will come from someone else or circumstance. There are other times when our derailment will be self-inflicted. Often, it will simply just be life happening to us like it has for everyone else before us for thousands of years. Life happens.
The difference between 2023 and 2024 is that we can acknowledge that the punches will arrive, and when they do, we can pick up where we left off, get back in the saddle, and keep pushing the ball down the field, even if only one yard at a time.
I’m often reminded of a poem I had to learn in high school by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1910 to commemorate a British army engagement. The text is titled “IF,” and I believe the first and last lines paint the whole picture. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
5. Walk in His Path.
Now, here’s the linchpin. How do we put this all together? If you’re looking for a quick fix and life dichotomized in simple systems, I may be unable to help you beyond a few cheers and good luck. By a life of dichotomy, I mean the practice where many people put their days and nights into boxes such as work, family, money – and, of course, a God category. The error is in the thinking that God is separate from the rest, and the error is enormous.
On the surface, this business type of plan may and will work to some extent. But the greater power comes in realizing that God is interested in every aspect of our lives, not merely creative components in which He gets a few pieces of our time and attention. There is power in the statement of Jesus when he taught, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5)
When a person enters an authentic relationship with Christ, he is a new creation, and the Holy Spirit dwells within them as their friend, counselor, and guide. It is up to us then to follow Him. This relationship intersects every aspect of our lives, from what we do with money to married sex, how we vote, how we treat our fellow human beings, and how we engage our local church body. Everything belongs to Him, and His desire is for our growth and well-being. I love how an early 20th-century politician, Abraham Kuyper, put it, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, “This is Mine! This belongs to Me.'”
This relationship is why we read our Bibles, hang with the saints, and engage in eternal activity. These disciplines spill out to all other areas of our lives as we abide with Christ and follow him daily. This roadmap is how we ultimately make 2024 better than the previous year. When we do the New Year with Christ, we can then realize everything He has in store for us.