I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing about New Year’s Resolutions at this point — I am! Half my friends are resolving to lose weight, eat healthier, watch less TV, quite Facebook, spend more time with their families, read the Bible more, bring up their GPA, pay off debt — the list goes on and on. And you’re probably also tired of hearing about how people rarely keep their New Year’s Resolutions, how most people don’t lose the weight or waste less time.
This year, I’m not making any resolutions. I know, I know, it’s very trendy to say that you don’t make New Year’s Resolutions because it’s faddish and it doesn’t mean anything. But what should we do instead? This year, I’ve chosen a theme verse that I’ll be using as a mantra to guide my efforts throughout the year. Yes, I have specific goals that I hope to achieve, and they sound like those traditional New Year’s Resolutions, but they’re not the substance of my ambition for the year, just the specifics.
It’s a well-documented fact that as Americans, we get really, really caught up in the specifics. We love numbers and statistics and graphs and charts and progress reports that justify our efforts, proving that we’ve done what we set out to do or even more. And that’s easy to fall into because the numbers that describe our lives can seem so all-important, and they’re so pervasive. As students, our performance is quantified by our GPA and our transcripts. As employees, by our resume and performance reports. In the modern era, social media offers us a new yardstick to measure ourselves by, the friends and followers and likes that we achieve.
For one thing, it’s just easy to quantify our performance when it’s, well, quantified. It’s pretty simple to count how many dollars we make or exams we ace or Instagram followers we have. It’s much more difficult to decide if our learning is meaningful, our income is wisely stewarded, and our relationships are fulfilling and authentic.
Plus, everyone else is doing it. The world around us measures success by external facts. I knew this in high school, but it really came home to me in college, when everyone was talking about their grades and applying for scholarships based on transcripts and all the professors and counselors hammered into us that we need to polish LinkedIn profiles and develop vast “networks” — not because relationships are meaningful, but because every person we meet might be the one to land us a job or give us a job.
There’s a better way for us to evaluate ourselves.
But is that how we, as Christians, should be evaluating the successes of our labors? Obviously, to some extent, comparison and counting are necessary and good. If we didn’t compare our job performance to our coworkers, we probably wouldn’t notice if we were falling behind, or realize that we’re putting in too many hours and we should scale back for the sake of our health and relationships. If we didn’t observe that we have more financial means than someone else, we might not realize that we’re in a position to help someone who really doesn’t have a lot.
But where counting and keeping track become harmful is when they become the primary or the only way that we evaluate ourselves. Professor, author, and editor Nancy Pearcey, in her tremendous book Total Truth, encapsulates this idea eloquently.
The principle of dying to worldly systems applies beyond obvious sins. In a culture that measures everything in terms of size, success, and influence, we have to say no to these worldly values as well. … In a culture that judges people by reputation and achievements, we have to resist the lure of living for professional recognition and advancement. Not that these things are wrong in themselves. But when they fill our hearts and define our motivations, then they become barriers to our relationship with God — which means they become sin for us. As Paul says, anything not of faith is sin, because it blocks our singleminded devotion to God and hinders our growth in holiness.
The thesis of the final section of Pearcey’s book (which I highly recommend to anyone who’s interested in American history and worldview) is that we have to lay our efforts on the altar and let God be the judge of whether we’ve been successful or not. This is true for everything from personal ministry to “church work” to academics to the professional world. Oftentimes, we might not get results that are impressive in a worldly, numbers-oriented sense, but if we’re prayerfully following what we read in the World, that’s what will really please God, and ultimately yield the best results.
Here’s a real life example. My freshman year at N.C. State, I joined a Bible study through Cru. Two older girls, Becky and Elizabeth, were leading it, and there were maybe 20-25 girls at the first couple of meetings. But as the first few weeks of the semester went by, the numbers dwindled, and group participation wasn’t really high, although the few that came each week always had a good discussion. Most of the girls drifted away to other activities or groups, leaving about 5 who came regularly. Sometimes there were only 3 or 4. The second semester, Elizabeth was studying abroad, so Becky was running point all on her own. It was a tiny, not especially organized group, and. we really didn’t have much turnout for the entire second semester. After that semester, Becky decided not to lead it anymore because she was involved with other things, and that was the end of that. I might have led the group, but I had an internship and wasn’t at State to take over.
So it pretty much sounds like a failure, right? A big group dwindled to nothing and basically the group just ended for lack of leadership. From a numbers standpoint, I’ll be honest, things were not good. But here’s the thing: It was one of the best parts of my freshman year. I made a couple really good friends, Becky and Elizabeth inspired me, we had some wonderful conversations, I learned, I felt refreshed after each meeting, I really looked forward to it every week. I’m still in contact with a couple of the girls (in fact I’m going on a double date with one next week), and I spent an awesome weekend at the beach with that same girl last summer, not to mention all the lunches and coffee breaks I had with those girls. Our group didn’t do anything big or impressive, and in fact it barely lasted a year, but it made a huge difference to me, it sparked some great conversations, it fostered a handful of friendships, it soothed a lot of stressed out freshman. And I’d say, most importantly, it glorified God. Not in a big way or an impressive way, but in a relational, interpersonal way. I’ll never forget the difference that it made to me.
It’s actually pretty freeing to realize that you don’t have to measure your successes in the same way that the world does. None of us are putting that group on our resume, but I think it touched a few hearts, and to me, that’s huge! It’s a huge weight off my shoulders to know that I’m not responsible for the results of my personal ministry efforts, I’m just responsible for the efforts themselves and the attitude that I have about them.
Skip the resolutions and choose a theme instead.
So back to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions and themes and mantras and guiding Scriptures. I’m not saying to chuck out the resolutions — maybe you really do need to eat more fresh veggies or spend more time with your family or worry less or whatever specific thing that you might resolve. But I really encourage you to consider choosing a theme verse or idea or motto for the year, and spending a moment mediating on it every day. My verse for the year is Matthew 6:33.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
In 2018, I’m striving to make not just the finite, earthly, specific goals (although believe me, I have quite a few of those!), but to focus on the spiritual, unseen goals that God has in mind for me.
If you’re doing the same, (and I hope you are!), you might want to try these ideas that I’ll be using to help me keep my theme verse on my mind all the time. It’s so easy to forget an intention in the hustle bustle of life, especially this time of year with the holidays over and the winter slog ahead of us. First, write down your theme verse (or mantra or whatever you’ve decided to use) in a bunch of places you’ll see it every day. I’m jotting mine down on sticky notes in my bedroom and office. The bathroom mirror and fridge are other great places. Second, spend the first few days or weeks of the year making a few minutes every day to study your theme verse (or if it’s not a verse, scriptures that are relevant). This will help get the ball rolling and cement your verse in your mind. Third, pray over your verse or motto every day. It might be helpful to set a reminder on your phone or computer so you don’t forget. I plan to use a prayer journal to jot down my prayers around my theme for the year so at the end of the year I can look over them and see how God has spoken to me on that topic over the course of the year. (And also just because I love prayer journaling — wrote a whole how-to post here if you’re new to it.)
May God bless your efforts this year, however you choose to seek out His inspiration!