I’m one of those people that love New Year’s resolutions. There’s something about a fresh start, like a real life do-over or something, that makes anything feel possible. It feels like the gradual increase in caloric consumption between Thanksgiving and Christmas won’t count against me. Like the whirlwind of family visitation, holiday festivities, and gift-buying won’t leave me too exhausted to regain balance. Like all the areas of discontent in my life can be channeled into specific action steps that will transform my life experience from this point forward.
Something about a new beginning recharges my battery, helps me shake my past failure, and motivates me to work harder at the things I decide matter most. Starting over in January (or February) feels like a fresh chance to apply what I learned through trial and error, as well as through joy and success in the previous year. This usually involves promising myself that this year I’ll eat healthier, exercise more, figure out our budget, be a more intentional mom and more loving wife, and generally become more disciplined in every area. The problem is, my renewed optimism often leads to an inflated perception of what is actually possible. No matter how realistic I try to be about my goals for the year, there is always more that I want and need to change in my life than I have the capacity to accomplish.
And so at some point, months, weeks, or even days after I resolve to improve myself, I surrender to the reality that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I give up hope for a different future because of my inability to achieve what I set out to do. Ah, the sting of discouragement. It’s almost like the failure to meet my goals is more detrimental than not even trying to improve in the first place. Isn’t it better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all? Yet each time my best efforts fail to bring about desired change, I feel more discouraged, less hopeful, more resigned to self-deprecation in that area.
All that to say, this year I found myself resisting my usually joyful tradition of creating resolutions. This time around, I didn’t want to make any more empty promises that I couldn’t fulfill. I didn’t want to put extra pressure on myself to do “one more thing.” Because all striving for self-improvement has done until now is leave me feeling exhausted. Beyond empty resolutions, I want this year to be different somehow—not just hoping it will be different, but experiencing real, lasting change.
Truthfully, my need for change is deeper than just the things I do—it’s my attitudes, thoughts, and hidden life that come out in behaviors that are much easier to try and fix than what lies beneath. If I’m honest, I don’t need just changed behavior, I need a transformed heart. I long for a new beginning, a fresh start in so many areas, yet I’m painfully aware that my best efforts consistently fall woefully short:
My inability to deal with stress reveals itself when I raid the pantry for anything sweet that will bring temporary relief. I can cut out sugar to limit stress eating for a while, but anxiety always returns to test and eventually break my resolve. I need a deeper peace.
My lack of patience leads to words of frustration spoken harshly to my daughter at bedtime. I try to remember to be the grown up who is bigger, kinder, wiser, and stronger—but then she gets out of bed just one more time and I become the parent I don’t want to be. I need greater compassion.
My limited time and perspective make it impossible to be the friend I want to be to all the people I want to love. I fail to pursue, miss opportunities to encourage, and cause hurt feelings by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I need real forgiveness.
My controlling agenda and selfishness with how I want to use my time comes out in anger and tears when my toddler wakes up early from a nap we both needed. My best attempt to spend a moment of quiet in prayer turns to frustration and mental expletives in a heartbeat—what a quick decent into ugliness. I need redeeming grace.
My self-centered view of marriage as a means to meet my emotional needs leads to resentment toward my husband when his needs conflict with mine. We both crave honest vulnerability and connection, yet all too often he experiences bitterness and disengagement from the wife who promised to put his needs above her own. I need authentic love.
The list goes on and on. I need a new beginning not just every 365 days, but every day. Throughout the day. No matter how many times I resolve to live right, I come up short—and even if I manage slight improvement, I’m still not fully the woman I was created to be. And I feel it.
My struggle with perfectionism tempts me to try harder, dig deeper, discipline myself more to be my best self. The truth is, no matter how hard I work, we all fall short of God’s perfect, glorious standard.[i] I’m not just being hard on myself here—we were made to dwell with Perfection. The frustrating thing about living outside of Eden is that imperfection comes with being human, and it keeps us separate from the Life we were made for. We either seek satisfaction in places that fulfill us incompletely or numb ourselves to the disappointment that life is not what we hoped. These moments remind me that I’m missing something—I’m not the complete version of who I was created to be, and I’m unable to effectively, permanently change myself. I need Divine rescue from the endless cycle of striving for self-improvement.
Maybe what I need this year isn’t to spend more energy striving to change the things I do; instead, I want to stop “doing” and let Grace transform the person I am. I want this year to be the year when I really learn what it means to receive God’s acceptance, surrender to his rescue from self-made perfection, and live in the beauty of a new beginning.
Peace instead of anxiety.
Compassion instead of impatience.
Forgiveness instead of failure.
Grace instead of control.
Love instead of resentment.
I don’t have to live in the hopelessness of my moments of ugliness, and I don’t have to depend on my own grit and determination to change myself. I don’t have to be perfect, because I know Someone who already is—and his perfection rubs off on anyone willing to come close.
Hope is believing that change is possible—even if I’m not there yet. So this year, instead of working harder, I’m choosing to be more thankful for gifts of grace all around me. I’m on the lookout for ways that God is already showing up for me, through me, and all around me. Because when we spend our energy noticing the gifts of Love, our eyes and mind and heart focus on what’s true: God sees us and wants us, just as we are. And thankfulness leads to transformation.
I’ve started keeping what my husband calls my “Joy Journal,” literally writing down the sweet moments and morsels of joy that I notice each day, no matter how big or small. It wasn’t my idea—I took it from a beautiful book that a friend recommended over a year ago called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. There is something about keeping an actual written record that makes thankfulness more than just a passing thought—it’s like training my mind to make gratitude an automatic default.
The more I look, the more I’m starting to see Grace everywhere:
my fresh cup of coffee brewed just before I wake;
relief at a doctor’s visit;
the friend willing to watch my kids while they’re sick;
an unexpected date night;
family wrestling matches;
a moment of sunshine to break up the fog;
those little arms wrapped tight around my neck…
There are always more nuggets of joy than I have time to write down. And the most beautiful thing? The list of gifts is always longer than my list of failures. Always.
The real relief for me this year is in believing that I don’t have to wait until January 1st to have a new beginning. Today is a fresh start. This moment. As I choose to receive the gift of surrender, trading striving for thanksgiving, I find freedom to live fully in this beautiful moment. Imperfect but alive.
[i] Romans 3:23, New Living Translation