By / Dec 29

Can one day really make that big of a difference? The calendar turns 365 times every year, but there’s something special when the last day of the year gives way to January 1. The New Year promises a fresh start. So we review, we dream, we plan, and finally, we resolve.

We do these things with the hope that the New Year will be better than the last one, but ultimately we don’t live for just one better year. Our purpose in life is not limited by time. God created time and placed us inside of it for now—but not forever. When time is no more, we will remain. So we live this moment, this day and this year with eternity in mind.

Annual goals are important, not because they are ultimate, but because they focus our lives on what is paramount. So with a timeless future in view, here are four suggestions for the New Year.

1. Make returning to Jesus a way of life.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he wasn’t asking his disciples for a one-time decision to put him on the top of their to-do list. Instead, he was inviting them to an ongoing relationship based on authenticity, intimacy and sacrifice. He was worth their lives, so he didn’t hesitate to ask for their full devotion.

For us, this devotion is expressed in a love relationship with Jesus where we communicate with him in daily Bible reading and prayer, where we respond to him through personal submission to his will, where we live in community with other believers and where we invite others to follow him through our witness and service. This relationship, however, does not come without a fight.

The world, the flesh and the devil war against us and attempt to siphon our affections away from God. The apostle Paul confessed this temptation in Romans 7. Daily victory required a daily returning to Jesus to set his mind on the things of God rather than the things of the flesh. So practically, repentance is not just for the wayward prodigal living in gross rebellion; it’s for the most devout followers of Jesus who battle with the prodigal still loitering inside of our hearts, tempting us to run away with him.

2. Make plans that build people.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he made a plan to rebuild the wall around the city, then he got to work. Just 52 days later, he finished the wall. It was a remarkable accomplishment. However, Nehemiah’s ultimate goal was not to rebuild a wall, but to rebuild a people. With the wall complete and the city secure, the exiles could return.

God’s redeeming work is still to restore a people to himself for his glory. Any plans we make for any other reason become idols of our heart. Our health, relationships, finances, hobbies and our career are God’s provision for us to display the gospel as we invest in other people. God has not called us to make something of our lives. He has called us to die to ourselves and to live to make much of Jesus and the new life he gives to everyone who will trust in him.

3. Make room for unknown opportunities.

It’s wise to set goals and make plans, but it’s wiser still to place every plan under the subjection of God. The Bible says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). The unmet goals from last year may be the result of a slothful lack of discipline and focus, but some of our so-called failures may be the result of us listening to God and obeying him for something much better than our best made plans.

We pray and plan for the New Year, but we recognize that only God is sovereign. As we seek him first, we make ourselves available to him and adjust our lives along the way. This isn’t a rationale for poor planning, undisciplined living or excuse making. Instead, it’s a humble awareness that our inflexible allegiance to our plan could lead us away from God rather than toward him.

4. Make obedience an action.

Plans are for paper, but listening to and obeying God moves us to act. After the whiteboard dream sessions for New Year planning are over, January 1 asks this question, “Now what are you going to do?” We soon discover that it’s easier to make plans than to act on them. The snooze button wins our attention or the Facebook status distracts us for just long enough to detour us from even the simplest of tasks.

Knowing God’s will, agreeing with God’s will and even celebrating God’s will are not the same things as doing God’s will. We must learn to think deeply on the things of God and to prayerfully seek Jesus first, but the Kingdom advances through those who take the time and make the effort to act.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). Whether the work is majestic or mundane, celebrated or ridiculed, noticed or obscure, we do it with all of our heart. We manage our calendar, eliminate distractions, build relationships that encourage us to fulfill our calling, and then we keep our heart tender toward Jesus. Only he can produce lasting fruit through us. (John 15:5)

Can one day on the calendar really make a difference? When we join the Ancient of Days in his eternal work to redeem sinners and restore the world for the glory of God, every day makes a difference.

By / Jul 12

One of my favorite book genres is the memoir. Because of its combination of good storytelling and sharp analysis of one’s life and experiences, the memoir, it’s the kind of book I find difficult to put down. 

But one aspect of this book genre always seems to catch me off-guard: death. Inevitably, the memoirist, in recounting the whole of their life up to that point, will write about their childhood and the pivotal role that their parents or some other adult figure played in their development. And, undoubtedly, the author is forced to narrate that person’s process of aging and, often, their death. Despite my love for the genre, I can never escape the sadness that comes with this narrative. Death is the most unnatural thing in the world.

But here we are, living persistently under the shadow of this last enemy, waiting for it to strike. What are we to do? How are we to proceed? What kind of lives should our experience of mortality compel us to live? As counterintuitive as it may seem, death, by God’s grace, can be instructive for a life well-lived. Here are three ways to use for good what Satan meant for evil.

Remember death

Reverend John Ames, the narrator and central character in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, said this in a letter to his young son: “Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.”

The same could be said of life as a whole; it just zips on by. The apostle James describes our lives as a vapor, here for a little while and then gone (James 4:14). The swiftness with which our lives pass is sort of disorienting, isn’t it? We go to bed as a youngster with dreams and grand aspirations before us, and one day wake up with the aches and pains of middle or old age. As the adage goes, “the days are long, and the years are short.” In the quick blink of an eye, life’s end comes uncomfortably near. 

As unnatural and lamentable as death is, Moses, in his prayer in Psalm 90, provides instruction for how to think about the brevity of our lives. He prayed, “Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.” Instead of shielding our eyes from the reality of death, as our culture is so keen on doing, Moses instructs us to stare death right in the face and “number our days.” Why? For the sake of “developing wisdom in our hearts.” 

For the Christian, “numbering our days” begets wisdom. As Solomon said, “Happy is a man who finds wisdom . . . She (wisdom) is a tree of life to those who embrace her, and those who hold on to her are happy” (Prov. 3:13,18).

Enjoy life

Looking ahead to our impending death also has a way of rooting us in the present and persuading us to enjoy the life we have been given. The fictional Reverend Ames has more to teach us: “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Life is a wonderful thing, a gracious gift of God. Though death is unnatural, it is real, and its inevitability reorients us to the preciousness of our present life and the characters written into its script. How might we better enjoy the embrace of a spouse, or the laughter of a child, or the colors of a sunset if we recognize the fleeting nature of these moments?

Even in a sobering text like the book of Ecclesiastes, wherein life’s apparent futility seems like the book’s thesis, the Teacher repeatedly directs his reader to enjoy life: “eat your bread with pleasure, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart . . . Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your fleeting life” (Eccl.9:7,9). Or, in the words of Reverend Ames again, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

Remember death, not to the point of despair, but to widen your eyes to the gifts of God’s grace before you, and to their enjoyment. 

Practice resurrection

For the Christian, remembering death is ultimately a reminder that despite the tragedy of it, death is a defeated foe. More than that, it will one day be rendered inoperable once it is “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). One day death will die.

Death’s plunge into the fiery lake, for Christians, means “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” as the Apostle’s Creed states. The death of death means that life with God is eternally ongoing. So, to use Wendell Berry’s words, remembering death for the Christian is to “practice resurrection.”

Practicing resurrection means “storing up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). It is to “proclaim Christ’s death” in the Lord’s Supper “until he comes again” and dines with us around his table (1 Cor. 11:26). Our baptism proclaims our hope — we were buried beneath the waters of death, only to be raised with Christ in the newness of resurrection life. Practicing resurrection means living the already/not yet ethic of the kingdom of God.

In an article titled “You Only Live Forever,” Russell Moore states, “Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.” Therefore, practicing resurrection means living life today in view of the everlasting life to come, on the other side of death.

He went first

Life in this death-ridden “time between the times” is not easy to reckon with. In our most honest moments, most of us would confess that death remains a frightening reality. It is troubling to imagine the breath of life leaving our bodies. And all this talk about “practicing resurrection” would be a pitiful exercise if it were not for one thing: the resurrected one, Jesus Christ.

My former pastor liked to say that “the only thing unique about Jesus’ resurrection is that he went first.” His point was not to minimize Jesus’ miraculous return from the tomb of death but to highlight the fact that Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). If Jesus has not been raised, then all this talk about remembering death is in vain, and we are to be most pitied. But because Jesus has been raised, we can sing in the face of death, saying “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (1 Cor. 15:55)?  And, moreover, we can approach the day of our death in faith, using it as a means of developing wisdom, as a reminder to enjoy God’s grace each day, and as an impetus to practice resurrection, to see this life as an internship for the life everlasting. 

Death remains our enemy, this much is certain. But what Satan meant for evil, in his whisperings to Eve and in Christ’s agonized cries from the cross, God has turned for our good. The crucified and resurrected one has crushed the head of the serpent, and because “he went first,” our resurrection will soon follow. Death has been defeated, and that’s worth remembering in a way that transforms our lives today.