The New Year is upon us, prompting many of us to assess our current places in life. Sometimes we are pleased with what we see. Often we are not. For many, the New Year provides a unique moment when we allow the problems that we have been ignoring to come to the fore. We have known that we are not healthy enough but have largely ignored this fact. Now, with the sense of new beginnings, we seek to face it head on. Or we know that we have not paid enough attention to our spiritual lives. For months this knowledge has tickled at the back of our consciousnesses but has remained largely unaddressed. But now in the moment of newness, we seek to blaze a new trail of spirituality that does justice to the faith we profess. These commitments are called New Year’s resolutions, and they have the potential of bettering our lives.
At the same time, New Year’s resolutions prove difficult. The discipline required to overcome habit is elusive, and many of our resolutions fall by the wayside. Thus, New Years becomes not only a moment of great potential for change, but also an opportunity for guilt. Knowing our less-than-stellar track records, many of us simply pass over the newness of New Years in order to spare ourselves the same cycle of commitment and failure that we have endured in the past. There is a realism in this choice, but there is also a sense of defeat. Or we make our resolutions half-expecting to abandon them in short order. This, after all, is how it always works.
Into the midst of this frustration, I don’t have much advice on how to do a better job of sticking to resolutions. I expect that we can watch any number of the morning news shows to glean such pointers. Instead, I offer a thought for possible reflection: As we focus so much on the problem areas of our lives and our past failures, it is easy to forget that we are loved. One of my favorite stories from Jesus is the parable of the prodigal son. In it, we see a wayward son who has dishonored his father and squandered his inheritance. In a low moment, he chooses to throw himself on his father’s mercy in hopes of being given a lower place in his father’s household. Whereas he was once a son, the young man now hopes to simply be taken on as a hired hand. As he focuses on his shortcomings and failures, those problem areas of his life, he doesn’t expect much. Even being accepted to the point of becoming a hired servant is a gamble.
But the father is surprising. Instead of waiting with a stern demeanor for his son to come crawling home in shame, he sees his son in the distance, and he begins to run. Running is not befitting for a man in this culture during this time. It is unseemly. Yet the father throws decorum aside and rushes to meet his son. Instead of finding a stern and cold reception, the son is met with compassion and is swept up in the father’s embrace. He will not be a hired hand. No, he will be restored as a full son to the household, and the father throws a party to celebrate his return.
As we begin a New Year that is fraught with potential for both success and failure, perhaps the place to begin is here in the Father’s embrace. For we, like the wayward son, have also been met with compassion and grace if we have turned in faith to Jesus Christ. And while the Father does indeed lead us by the Spirit to make changes for our good, his first word to us is not one of disappointment or disapproval. His first word is love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV) In Jesus, we have been caught up into the Father’s embrace, and in the cross, we know the depth of his love. Of course, God’s love for us militates against the destructive and apathetic areas of our lives, just as the love of an earthly parent trembles to see the self-destructive behavior of his or her child. The call to change is an act of love as well.
In the moment of newness that is the New Year, perhaps rest rather than activity should be our starting place. Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, perhaps we should simply rest in the Father’s love. And as we rest, perhaps we should then listen to the words of a loving Father who desires our good, who does indeed call us to change. But let us remember that love is the first word, not shame or guilt. And let us also remember that God does not leave us alone. If he calls us to it, he walks with us through it, no matter how we stumble and fall. The call is to keep walking and relying on grace as we do.
May you rest in the Father’s love this New Year.