It’s the beginning of another year; a time when we often look back at the year just gone and look ahead to the new year just begun. And despite the tendency of people to make New Year’s resolutions which they then totally fail to keep, it seems to me to be a very healthy thing for us as Christians to set times to regularly review what has gone before, to make plans and to set aims for what lies ahead.
Think for a moment about the way God has made us and how he has put so many structures in our lives to help us to do that:
1. Days and nights
We live our lives not as a stream of continuous activity but in days and nights. We are forced to sleep because our bodies cannot function without regular periods of rest. So we are tied to a regular pattern of bedtimes and risings, of work and rest. The world we live in ties us to that same pattern with its cycle of darkness and light, morning and evening. Because this pattern exists, it becomes very natural for us to build reviews of our lives into each day.
Jesus taught us to pray: ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ If in the Lord’s Prayer we are to ask our Father every day for what we need, surely Jesus also expects us to be asking him to ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us’ every day. And to ask him every day to ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’. Each day we should set aside time to consider how we have failed God and to repent and ask for forgiveness. Each day we need to be asking him for guidance and strength for the day ahead. If we are not to let the sun go down while we are still angry and give the devil a foothold (Eph 4:26-27) then we need to have stopped and checked ourselves before the end of the day.
So use the pattern of the day to help you maintain regular review of your life before God – whether getting up at the same time each morning to have your quiet time, or having a time of family worship after tea, or praying with your husband/wife before you sleep. We see this in the Bible in men like Daniel who prayed towards Jerusalem three times a day (Dan 6:10), in Jesus rising early to pray (Mk 1:35) and in the command God gave to the Israelites to make sacrifices every morning and evening – a constant reminder to them that life cannot be lived without constant reference to the LORD.
God could have made us like our cars or boa constrictors – we fill our car’s huge fuel tank once a month and it travels 600 miles without needing any more diesel. A boa constrictor can swallow a deer and sleep for weeks without another meal. But we humans are not made like that. We have to eat to survive but there is a limit to how much we can digest and process at one go. Most of us need to eat three times a day. That is a healthy thing – it forces us to pause on a regular basis.
Breakfast time means I see my daughters most days before going out to work. In the middle of a busy day it’s good to be forced to pause and give thanks to God for food, even if you only have ten minutes to eat it. It’s a lovely thing for a family to sit and eat an evening meal together and find out what’s happened to each of them during the day. It’s no accident that we find Jesus in the gospels so often sitting down to eat with people – it gave opportunities to spend extended time with individuals and to say things which couldn’t be said in a crowd or in public. So why not deliberately use your meals this year to remind yourself of God’s presence, to spend time with your family or to invite other people to spend time talking with you.
It’s easy to understand why we are affected by days, months (lunar months at least) and years – these cycles are built into nature. But people all over the world also work in seven-day weeks and it’s difficult to understand why human beings are so tied to a seven day cycle until we see that again, that is how God has made us: ‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.’ When God created the world he used a seven-day pattern and we, as his image-bearers, are made to imitate him in this as in everything else.
Humans work best when we divide our lives into chunks of seven days and use one day in seven to rest and especially to worship God. So for us Sundays are an ideal day to look back and review the week just passed, then to turn aside from the affairs of the week and concentrate on the worship and meditation of God and finally to think ahead and plan the coming week in the light of our responsibilities to God.
The Israelites used lunar months – blowing trumpets every new moon. But although we have 12 rather than 13 months in a year, we still find that periods of around 4 weeks are sensible lengths of time to divide a whole year into. At work we have various monthly meetings to check up on the progress of different projects, at church we publish our bulletin on a monthly basis and meet together to pray for missionaries once every month. If you have planned long-term aims, aims for the whole year, then you need check-points when you review overall progress.
Why not set aside one evening a month or one Sunday afternoon a month and look at the plans you made for the year before God? Am I making progress? Do my aims need to be changed? Have I failed in particular responsibilities? Should I be spending more time with that person who I wanted to befriend this year?
5. Seasons and festivals
When God brought the nation of Israel into being he gave them different feasts – times to stop and remember different things that he had done for them. The Passover feast where they remembered their deliverance from Egypt. First-fruits, where they remembered his bringing them into the land. And the great Harvest Festival, where they gave thanks for all the abundance that the LORD had poured out on them. The feasts fitted in with the seasons – when crops were planted, when the early and late rains came, when the harvest was finally gathered. And each feast concentrated the mind on a different aspect of God’s mercy and kindness towards them.
Well, we have the privilege of living in a land of very varied seasons and it is a good thing for us to use them to remind us of God’s goodness to us in so many ways. The cold and gloom of winter needs to remind us of how God keeps us through so many dangers and to remind us to be grateful for warmth and light and happiness. Spring is a reminder of new life and renewal. The long days of summer can point us to the eternal day of the new heavens and earth. Beautiful autumn colours should shout God’s beauty and variety to us.
The different festivals Israel celebrated each happened once a year – marking out annual patterns as especially important. In our country the beginning of the year tends to be a time for holidays and time away from normal routines. It is for many of us an ideal time to step back and look at the big picture of our lives, to think about our relationship with Christ, to identify sins or habits which need to be changed, to set aims and targets for ourselves for the coming year. There’s no rule about it: if now is not a good time for you because you are very busy or you can’t think straight when on holiday then choose a different time: perhaps your birthday or a wedding anniversary. But the arrangement of our lives into years, with the changing patterns of seasons bringing us back to the same point again and again, was a good thing for the Israelites to receive from God.
So make sure you have plenty of annual markers – whether those are Christmas, Easter and Harvest or a holiday you always spend with the same friends or family members the same week each year. As New Testament Christians we are free to choose these for ourselves but we surely need such patterns.
Those are inescapable patterns, woven into the fabric of our world and our lives – for very good reasons. So let’s make full use of them. For the Israelites God also appointed longer cycles – seven year patterns and Jubilee years every fifty years – which would normally only happen once in any adult’s lifetime. So maybe it would be wise for us to think even more carefully about our lives every few years. It may not be time for a change, or possible for you to change, but sometimes a sabbatical or a change of role is exactly what we need to refresh our zeal and love for God, to restore vigour into our spiritual lives. For some people a career change or early retirement has revitalised their lives and made them far more useful in the work of the Kingdom.
But whether repenting every day or changing the whole course of our lives, let’s be thinking Christians, making every use of the opportunities God has given us to check up on ourselves and each other rather than trundling along unthinkingly day by day.
On a personal level
So trying to do that for myself at the beginning of 2013, what is on my mind as I look back and look forward? On a personal level, last year while far from perfect, was in many ways a happy year. When I sat down to write our family Christmas letter we had many positives to report, there were many ways in which God has been kind to us over the past 12 months. In the church we’ve enjoyed real stability and unity even if we cannot report dramatic progress and many conversions. So I need to be giving thanks to God for his kindnesses. I need to be asking him to give us that same stability and unity within the church this year. But I also need to be thinking and praying about possible ways to try and develop and progress.
At the same time, looking back at 2012 for many people that I know and love it was a horribly painful and difficult year: serious illness, depression and bereavement, painful situations within families and churches, difficulties with work and within relationships. In any year I guess that would be true of a few of the people you know but last year seemed a constant stream of painful circumstances. So I need to be praying for those people and thinking whether there are practical ways that I can help them. And I need to make sure that I am prepared if God sends such painful circumstances into my own life this year.
Above all we must be fixing our eyes once again on Christ, looking forward to the world to come, and asking for grace to follow him whatever 2013 brings.
Whatever else happens, may we all in this year ahead come to know and love Christ better.